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Wildlife across Western US starve to death amid unprecedented winter

Although this year's unprecedented winter weather has been celebrated for lowering drought in the West, it's also had negative impacts on wildlife.
Posted at 3:39 PM, Apr 14, 2023

As creeks awaken from their freeze and flashes of green show up in the landscape, winter's toll becomes more visible. The scenery is a contrast between new life and the impact extreme weather has had on those who couldn't survive. 

"This year has just been a hard winter where we've had prolonged snow in areas that are typically considered good winter range," said Rachael Gonzales, the public information officer for the northwest region of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. 

Gonzales says large numbers of herd animals — elk, deer, pronghorn — have been dying of starvation this winter in areas where they've always been able to find food. The reason is that there is heavy, packed-down snow, as deep as 30 inches in some places, preventing herbivores from being able to eat. 

"Because the conditions in normal winter range have been so severe, it's pushed wildlife even farther west to what we consider severe winter range, which is unfortunately no better condition for them," she said. 

Emaciated carcasses line highways across rural Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, as animals have been using roads more for mobility and foraging. There's also been an increase in car-animal collisions because of this.

Starvation has hit pregnant female animals especially hard. Gonzales says they have reported an increase in aborted fetuses as well. 

A vehicle makes its way across Wilson Avenue in Rancho Cucamonga, California.

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Utah has left out pellets for deer and Colorado has left out hay for elk, trying to prevent wild animals from taking food from livestock.

While there are no concrete numbers on how many animals have died yet, all three states have concluded that, from the amount of dead tagged animals, the loss is significant. Colorado is recommending hunting licenses be cut by around 45% this year. Wyoming will release a decision on licenses next week. 

"Our goal is to help the animals by relieving a little bit of that stress and hopefully regain those populations," said Gonzales. 

She says now, it is more crucial than ever for these animals that humans pursue recreation responsibly — stay out of closed areas, drive slower through wildlife corridors especially at dawn and keep dogs on leash so they cannot chase animals, who are holding on to every precious calorie.

As nature takes however, it also gives. Gonzales says there has been some good that has come out of this situation — the landscape, long impacted by drought, has gotten a chance to recover and rehydrate, while predators like raptors have benefited from scavenging the extra food. 

"It's Mother Nature and, sometimes, it's not always happy. There's always a silver lining to something," she said. 

The taking isn't over yet, as much of the food remains under crusted-over snow; but even if it's a slow melt, it's still welcomed by the animals who managed to escape winter's rage.