Snow on the Mountain
by Chris Roe
Snow on the mountain... how much, and where is it? Those are the two question high country elk and deer hunters need to be asking themselves right now in anticipation – and preparation – for this year’s upcoming hunting season. Believe it or not, few other environmental factors (…namely severe summer drought or wildfire) have the potential to impact your potential for success! By paying attention to this past winter’s snowpack and spring snowstorms now, you can help ensure you’re in the right place, at the right time, come this fall, and have realistic expectations once you get there.
Winter snowpack affects a LOT of things on the mountain, but for us as hunters, it can affect three things that ultimately can impact our hunt – for better or worse:
- Winter body condition and/or survival of the animals;
- When – and if – the animals can get back to traditional calving/fawning areas and summer ranges; and
- How much initial “green up” and forage is available for the animals wishing to spend their late-spring to early fall in the high country.
Over these next three articles, we’ll consider how this past winter affected each of the above.
Winter Body Condition
For many of us, we often think of winters with below average snowpack as “easy” or “light” and those with above average snowpack – especially when coupled with bitter cold temperatures – as “hard.” And while the terms “easy” and “hard” help us qualify the type of weather and conditions the animals must endure at that time, the ease with which they can sustain a "hard" winter is often directly related to the forage conditions during the preceding fall and summer. For example, a “hard” winter after a drought (wherein there was little forage available going into the winter) is much “harder” than a “hard” winter coming off of a fall and summer that had abundant or “above-average” forage production. The fact that there is ample food under deep snow in the bitter cold can often times “soften the blow” of a brutal winter. Likewise, an “easy” winter with little snow might seem “nice” for the animals out there eking out a living from day to day, but an “easy” winter coming off of a preceding drought might be just as bad – or worse – than a “hard” winter with lots of forage. Like a family reunion, it’s all relative...
This photo was taken on July17th, 2011. This basin is one of the areas where the author monitors summering elk, and at this time of year on a “normal” year, it’s a sea of bright green alpine grass and tundra, with between 150 and 300 cows and calves scattered across it. In 2011, elk didn’t return to this basin until early August.
In 2011, we saw above-average snowfall and summer and early fall moisture across many mountain areas, resulting in tremendous amounts of forage available to animals going into this past winter. While the winter of 2010/2011 was record-setting in its precipitation and longevity (which led to a host of issues – some of which we’ll touch on in the next two articles), the winter of 2011/2012 for most of us has been far below average. In fact, at the beginning of May, the estimate of overall percent snowpack – at least here in Colorado – was right around 22% of “normal"! Contrast that with last year when we were sitting anywhere between 200% and 270% above normal, and it helps put into perspective the level of change between last year and this year that we may very well see.
This image was taken on April 25th, 2012. This was taken on the same mountainside as the previous picture, just below timberline as the author recorded one of his Sweet Feeds for Roe Hunting Resources. Note the stark contrast in snowpack – in mid-spring – in comparison to the late-summer snow-pack from 2011.
Winter severity and longevity directly impacts an animal’s ability to maintain – or recover – its body condition throughout the winter into spring. For females, depressed body conditions can impact fawn/calf development, and in especially difficult winters, can actually lead to the female aborting its fawn(s)/calf altogether (something many of us saw in Colorado last spring). For males – and especially those run down from intense rutting activity – winter body condition can be directly related to an individual’s ultimate survival (whether due to succumbing to the winter conditions themselves, or to predators), and future antler development for those that do survive. While I could do an entire series of articles on the ripple effects from those concepts alone, suffice to say, depending on the summer, the body condition an animal has as it comes out of winter can have a huge impact on what we see months later with regard to fawns/calves, female body condition, antler development, etc.
In our case this year, we – again, at least for those of us here in Colorado – had a tremendous forage production year last summer and fall, followed by an “easy” winter. That means the body condition of most animals was high going into the winter, and then stayed high for most animals all winter long. As we come out of this “easy” winter, most deer and elk are still fat and happy, with females carrying healthy and “heavy” fawns/calves, and males primed and ready to produce this year’s new set of antlers. That is…depending on forage quality this spring.
Body condition of animals going into 2012 is high, with most cow elk carrying HEAVY calves. Note the size of the cows in this image taken on May 8th, and the full hips, backs, and shoulders that are still quite “rounded out” with fat.
While this winter has set most animals up to be primed for “maximum production” so-to-speak, it’ll be the forage production of this spring and early summer that will affect the health of the animals throughout the summer and into the fall. In years with average to above-average moisture during winter, high soil moisture leads to a spring green-up that produces abundant, high-quality forage that allows the animals to maintain – or even continue to increase – their body condition right on through into summer. For females, this means lactation can occur at max production without having to tap into personal body reserves. For males, this means daily forage protein intake stays well above the magical 12% to 14% needed for maintenance, with all “extra” protein, minerals, and other nutrients going into antler production.
In years with low, or below-average snowpack, however, soil can dry out fairly quickly – especially if it’s followed by a “dry” spring – which results in a reduced (or at least limited) amount of high quality forage available for animals looking to move out of their winter ranges. Reduced quantities and qualities of spring forage can mean that a female deer or elk will have to use more of her own body reserves to maintain milk production for her fawn(s)/calf. Reduced body condition early in the year can carry on through into summer – especially if the summer stays dry – and can affect the relative “timing” of her cycling into estrous later in the fall. Copy this across many – if not most – of the animals on the mountain, and you can see a ripple effect going from late winter all the way into the fall affecting the timing of the rut (that is, unless we get a “wet” summer, which can make-up for the winter and spring’s shortcomings). For males, all this largely affects antler development, but it can also affect body mass/weight
Many bulls are at peak antler development so far going into 2012. Only time will tell whether or not these bulls will continue maximum growth throughout the summer, or whether or not dry conditions put a damper on their full potential.
Right now, most of our animals are coming out of winter with great body conditions, but our relatively dry mountains could be proverbially “setting them up for failure” unless something turns around. While our latest spring storm here in Colorado dumped 4” to 8” of heavy wet snow (for a total liquid precipitation equivalent between roughly .5” and .75” of moisture) in the central and northern mountain areas, that’s a far cry from what we need in order to get us where we should be right now as far as soil moisture in the mountains is concerned! It is yet to be seen what the rest of May and the beginning of June will look like, but we might very well be looking at the makings of the scenario I just outlined in the paragraph above.
Take a moment over these next few days and evaluate where you plan to hunt this fall. Consider both conditions from this winter as well as current conditions. As we move through this series of articles, the factors you recognize and evaluate now could play an important role in your planning efforts later.
In the next article, we’ll talk about how the concepts covered here lead us into the second area of impact I listed at the beginning: how do winter conditions affect spring migration and how can that affect your hunt in the fall?