In cold weather, let wildlife chill

Experts say wild animals don’t need our help when temps drop and snow flies

Elliott Wenzler and Deb Hurley Brobst
dbrobst@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 4/6/21

Most people are curled up inside during snowstorms and the coldest days of winter, but outside, there’s a whole different battle occurring. The birds, deer, elk, moose, sheep and hundreds of other …

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In cold weather, let wildlife chill

Experts say wild animals don’t need our help when temps drop and snow flies

Posted

Most people are curled up inside during snowstorms and the coldest days of winter, but outside, there’s a whole different battle occurring.

The birds, deer, elk, moose, sheep and hundreds of other species are sheltering, using instincts — honed over generations — to survive.

“Nature knows best,” said Christie Greene, an Evergreen environmentalist. “People need to let animals live their lives without interference.”

Wildlife has adapted over the decades to withstand all that Mother Nature throws at it — the heat, the rain, the snow and the cold.

“Basically, wildlife is designed the way it is by nature,” Greene said, noting that animals don’t need help, no matter how well-meaning it is.

“One thing people need to understand is that wildlife is very sensitive,” said Andy Hough, environmental resource coordinator for Douglas County. “They can sense the storm coming.”

Many animals begin increasing their food intake in preparation to endure the storm without much access to food, Hough said. They will also move to a better location, such as an area with lower elevation, or a place with trees, to shelter from the storm.

“Every species is different, and all react somewhat differently,” Hough said. “They have the instincts to do what they need to do.”

Winter can be pretty hard on wildlife, according to Jason Clay, Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman.

“They have to search a little harder for food,” Clay said, “but the moisture overall is a very good thing in the long run. Big storms may have short-term impacts on the wintering animals but great long-term benefits.””

These animals have adapted to situations like the snowfall seen in the area in March, Hough said.

“While that storm seemed intense for us, it is not abnormal for this area,” he said. “These types of storms have been happening since the beginning of time.”

It’s not unusual for residents to see birds and deer using trees to hide away from storms.

“They are using that landscape anyway,” he said. “It’s not unnatural for them to curl up under someone’s trees.”

Bears, which will be awakening from hibernation soon, may end up remaining in their winter dens longer when there are significant spring storms like the one the foothills saw in mid-March.

Greene added that when bears, in particular, get used to eating human food, especially trash, they tend to hibernate for shorter periods.

This is one of the reasons Idaho Springs and Georgetown have enacted rules governing when trash can be put out — requiring trash cans to be bear-proof or not allowing cans to be set out until the morning of trash collection.

Deer, Greene said, don’t eat much food in the winter.

“Their stomachs are pretty quiet during the winter, and then (their stomachs) wake up in the spring when everything greens up.”

Some deer species, she added, gain fat and grow winter coats of hollow fur to provide an insulating layer for warmth. Some birds have a cold-weather response called “countercurrent heat exchange,” which allows them to stay warmer on cold, snowy days than they seem.

Moose, which are seen more frequently lately in Clear Creek County and the Jeffco foothills, have long legs to help them move through deep snow.

Many birds migrate south for the cold months, while those that remain stock up on seeds to survive the winter, Greene said. She is amazed that the chickadee’s brain grows neurons each winter to boost its memory, so it can find the seeds it has squirreled away.

One of the most important things for residents to know is that they shouldn’t attempt to help animals by feeding them, even on the most brutal winter days. CPW has had many problems with residents feeding animals, which can result in death for the animal, disrupted migrations and other issues.

“You can put feeders out for birds, but most other cases are illegal,” Hough said. “Much of what we feed wildlife is not the best thing for them, and it can cause health problems.” 

Feeding can also lead animals to change their habits, which can cause nuisances and dangerous situations.

“These animals are very rugged.” Clay said. “They can survive these tough winters on their own. … They don’t need our help.”

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