This Winter and Our Wildlife Watch

As winter looms many of us begin thinking about watching wildlife around Paradise. Winter is the limiting season for wildlife populations – particularly for deer and elk. Weather conditions directly affect how many deer and elk reach spring strong enough to survive. The big question is, “What sort of winter?”

We have been hearing that we might prepare for yet another La Niña winter of colder and wetter (think “more snow”) conditions. To me, this means more wildlife likely in the valley and in places where they can be easily seen. And it may mean more snow on and along rural roads, with fewer places for four-legged and two-legged critters to avoid traffic. Thus, we may have easier wildlife watching, and need greater caution driving.

Several homeys have already been muttering things like “I just don’t want to deal with another winter like last year…” As Staff Meteorologist for the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association, I am duty bound to follow up.

Perhaps the three most dependable sources for long range seasonal forecasts in Paradise are the Office of the Washington State Climatologist, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (National Weather Service and Climate Prediction Center), and The Farmer’s Almanac. This year, they seem generally on the same page.

The State Climatologist notes that weak La Niña conditions are still present in the tropical Pacific Ocean, with strong odds of continuing through this winter. Sea-surface and below-surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific are below normal, with stronger westerly winds over the equatorial Pacific and unusually stable air over the International Date Line. For us, this set of atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns leads to below average temperatures and above average precipitation statewide through December. That pattern also holds true through winter, as the Climate Prediction Center gives 30 to 50% odds for January and February across our state. The Almanac, with a tradition of 80% accuracy in long-range predictions, is looking for our December to be similar to what the others are seeing, but calling for the rest of our winter temperature and precipitation to vary only slightly below and above averages, respectively.

These are just probabilities, of course, indicating to me that this may be a slightly nastier-than-average winter. Please note, however, that nothing in here says our coming winter will not decide to thoroughly kick our collective fanny.

However our winter shapes up, we need to be mindful of the deer, elk and bighorns we love to watch. Animals will be easier to find as they move onto their limited winter range.  They will move around less, and seem “less wild.” Winter survival is everything to them. Under the best of conditions, the stress of the season is the major controlling factor for their populations. Our job, as we reach out to wildlife and nature connections in our lives, is to not add to the stress.

Through the fall, as they add fat reserves, wild ungulates will develop thicker, longer coats with many hollow, insulating hairs. These heavier coats provide more protective and insulation with “piloerection” (the ability to make the hairs stand up and trap more air). These coats and limited movement make it possible for deer, elk and sheep to slightly lower metabolic rates and caloric requirements. Even with a decent food supply, though, and a balance between energy in and out, an average winter will likely cost a large ungulate 20 percent of its fall weight. Disturbed and spooked, a critter may double its energy burn. Burning 30 percent of fall body weight will generally cause death, even if food becomes available.

The bottom line of all this is that we must observe critters from a distance comfortable to them, not us.  Even if we think we pose no danger, what matters is what the animals perceive. Causing wildlife to stop feeding, or leave a feeding/resting area, will affect their health and well-being.

Each species and individual will have its own “comfort zone.” Watch behavior, and you will identify that zone. If an animal out in the open looks at you, avert your eyes (“staring” is threatening to most wild critters). You might mimic non-threatening activity, such as browsing bushes or imitate some grooming activity. A head‑up, ears‑forward posture, with obvious nervousness, is a sign to sit still, or back off quietly. Final warning signs include skittishness; moving away; hairs on neck and shoulders standing up; snorting or slapping the ground with a foot or paw. Any more will cause flight – and undue stress.

Find wild things all around the valley and down the Yakima Canyon this winter, on most any drive. Joe Watt Canyon is a favorite sledding area, often with a fair number of elk nearby.

By early January, find herds west out of Yakima. The Cleman Mountain Bighorn feeding area is just north of the intersection of Highways 12 and 410. A couple miles south on Highway 12 is the Oak Creek Wildlife Area. Over a couple hours, you may see a hundred or more bighorns and deer, and a thousand or more elk.

Enjoy the wildlife which enriches our lives, and watch the winter roads looming before us. Hitting a deer or elk or person can mess up the whole day for both of you.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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