Ladies and gentlemen, we are entering crunch time.
That time of the year when spring and winter play a tug of war, and depending on how it goes, deer and elk could be the losers.
Members of the deer family that go into winter in good shape have the energy reserves and body fat to survive those December and February subzero spells. But a long winter that continues through March and April will start to tip over the smallest and weakest.
And if we humans are not careful, we’ll cause some of the bigger animals to tip over.
Already some of our large game species could use a break. January was nice, with a handful of 50 degree days. But February plunged us back into winter, which after all is the season we’re in.
Now the real test for wildlife begins.
By March and April, many animals will have used up the majority of their nutritional reserves. For deer, especially, winter is a long downhill slide. If spring arrives early or the winter has not been too tough, the females will come through in good shape and produce healthy fawns.
The opposite is not pretty.
Elk are big and tough and will go where there is food. But even elk have limited reserves and when humans get in the act, things can turn ugly.
That’s because March is the month a mature bull elk will lose his antlers.
For a bull elk, that mammoth headgear, weighing as much as 40 pounds, takes a long time to grow, about five months. That means within a week or two of dropping the old antlers those two bumps (pedicles) on top of a bull elk’s head will start to bulge, then grow into antlers.
Antlers are fascinating feats of nature. For members of the deer family antlers are both weapons and status symbols, especially for indicating male supremacy.
For humans, antlers are sources of fascination and trophies. So much so, that the latter drives men and women to occasionally break laws and cast aside common sense to acquire them.
And here’s the problem with that behavior this year: In some mountainous parts of the state there is a lot of snow, several feet of snow and crust. So while a bull’s nutritional tank is running on near empty and they are desperately searching to find whatever grass is available, they are dropping antlers.
The last thing they need is someone chasing them around on foot, horseback or snowmobile, trying to get an antler or two. That bull elk may run away today, but die from exhaustion next week.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ wildlife management areas are closed to people now, many to give elk a rest. But there are other places on public land where folks can easily reach elk winter range.
Maybe March is the month to give wildlife a break. Let them alone. Let them struggle through, perhaps, another month of winter as nature has designed.
There will still be plenty of late April and May days to pick up shed antlers while allowing that bull elk to survive with new headgear for next fall.
Bruce Auchly is the FWP Region 4 information officer.