A water crisis for local wildlife? | ParkRecord.com

A water crisis for local wildlife?

Alan Maguire, The Park Record

The weak winter was difficult for skiing and snowboarding humans, but how about for our wildlife?

Mark Hadley, public information officer at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, says that the DWR really can’t predict this winter’s effects just yet, because it was unprecedented.

"We’ve never had a winter like that here in the state before, where it was that warm and there was such little precipitation," he said. "We had never really experienced anything like this before so it’s kind of hard to say how that might play out as we continue over the next few months."

With respect to the most-talked-about animal in town the past couple weeks, Hadley said that Utah’s bears looked to be in good condition heading into this spring.

"Every winter we go into bear dens, where bears are in hibernation, and we look at the bears just to get a general idea of the health of the animals. And the bears that we looked at this winter were really in good shape. They had a lot of fat on them," he said.

If the bears were not in good shape, they could be expected to wander a bit more in search of food.

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Kent Hersey, also with DWR, said that bears should have plenty of their usual food available right now.

"I would think that there’s plenty of forage — generally they’re eating your shoots and insects this time of year and I would think there would be plenty of that even with a light winter," he said.

"It’s tough to say for sure," he added.

While the dry winter’s effects remain to be seen, the amount of precipitation over the next couple months will be crucial.

"Berries are really important to black bears, acorns are another food that they eat a lot in the summer — and what will really determine if those items are available to them in good numbers this summer, will depend on the moisture that we get kind of from now through the summer" Hadley said. "Even though the winter was dry, if we can get some decent precipitation, those crops can still do really well. And if the bears are able to find a lot of natural food, they tend to wander a little less, and that lessens the chance they’re going to wander into an area where people are," he said.

"For bears, definitely, if there’s a summer drought they’re really impacted, when they can’t find good forage there, good acorns in the fall," Hersey said.

Deer tend to do well after mild winters, he said. Moose are another story.

"Generally, milder winters can actually be harmful to moose in some ways. We’re seeing, especially in the Wasatch there, there’s an animal called winter tick — and if you have a really light winter, ticks can do better. And so the following year, they’ll actually have a lot more ticks out there, which can be really harmful for this [moose] population. We’ve had three pretty light winters in a row, we are seeing winter tick on the Wasatch and we’re thinking that might be a contributor there," he said.

When a moose has a high tick load, the ticks can draw out more nutrients than the moose can keep in its body.

As to birds, Tim Brown, executive director at Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City, zoomed out a bit.

"These birds have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. And so they do have the capacity to deal with changes from year to year, because certainly over a thousand years it hasn’t always been consistent weather. With that said, there’s wildlife, animals, that are opportunistic and take advantage of the warmer weather. And there’s plants that are opportunistic and take advantage of the warmer weather and the light that’s shining brighter and there’s no snow on the ground, so that does have a tendency to perhaps disrupt the pattern, allowing some animals to do better than others. I think people noticed flowers blooming earlier than usual, which then allows bees to access the flowers earlier. There’s seeds and other food sources that have become available earlier. And so I think a lot of birds have taken advantage of that," he said.

"Migration is triggered with two things. One is food being available — that can encourage birds to move on, to get to a food source. But a lot of birds migrate due to daylight. So what triggers them to move on is the longer days, and that’s what motivates them to begin a migration. And that’s the thing that becomes a little disruptive, because those birds are not waiting for food to be available — they’re animals that are migrating over greater distances, so they can’t be as opportunistic, they can’t just decide, ‘oh there’s food available a little bit north and I’ll just keep creeping north.’

Hummingbirds are one of those migratory birds, Brown said.

"These are birds that are going on big journeys and they pack up and they go and hopefully when they get there, the food is available. And that’s where the two-week difference in seed availability or insect availability can make a big difference."

If things stay dry into summer?

"I think in the short term, in this one-year cycle, probably not a huge impact," he said. If drought persists, however, "Birds, and all animals, have this kind of MAD philosophy — move, adapt or die."