Sandpoint Magazine Summer 2005 Sandpoint Magazine Summer 2005
Sandpoint Magazine

Sandpoint Magazine Summer 2005


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Winter workings
By Kate Wilson

Chestnut backed chickadee by Karen Dingerson










Winter is a treasured season to most people in these parts. We tend to get used to the wicked winters, or love them in the first place, but what do the critters do when the snow flies? Many native species are plentiful and even prolific in the region, but that doesn’t mean that winter ever becomes a piece of cake, or even a walk in the park. Some straight up fly away, while others migrate to lower snow depths, burrow or hibernate in a den, take over a nest, or just get slow.

Winter is a time of high stress for most of our wildlife, as food resources dwindle to nearly nothing, and cold temperatures make it hard to stay warm and conserve energy. Though you may not see much of them, most of the critters in our region are around, making the best of the winter season, dropping weight and no doubt dreaming of spring shoots and early flowers.
In our bottleneck of land and water, there are countless critters, so let us us begin with the bear and slowly migrate through the antlered ungulates, the winged world, and even wade into the waters of the coveted native trout.
Designated “grizzly bear recovery areas” in the region include the Selkirk Mountain range and the Cabinet-Yaak area. In the Selkirk range, Idaho Department of Fish & Game (IDFG) manages the grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis), an estimated 40 to 50 in number. In the Cabinet-Yaak system there is an estimated 30 to 40 grizzly bears; these bears are managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (MFWP).
The griz population is slowly expanding, both in numbers and range, as it has over the past five years or so, reports Wayne Wakkinen, wildlife biologist with IDFG.  “As a result we’re getting a lot more interactions between people and bears.”

If there are quite a few grizzlies, then there are a lot of black bears in our region, where they are estimated at one bear per square mile of habitat. When bears hibernate, they often lose up to 30 percent of their body weight while denning from fall to spring. During hibernation, the bears do nothing but sleep and care for their young. Grizzlies and black bears breed in the summer, but fertilized eggs don’t begin to develop until the denning season.

In the spring there are increased interactions with humans because bears drop to lower elevations looking for early greens coming up – but people live there now. The same situation occurs in the fall when bears range farther to look for food sources to fatten up for the winter. Rural residents are seldom prepared for a run in with a big bear.

“People like to see birds in their backyard so they feed them – this is a great source of calories for a hungry bear, and it trains him to seek out food sources around people,” says Wakkinen.

The moose (Alces alces), long-legged creatures that they are, have the best ability of any ungulate in the region to negotiate deep snow. While many wildlife species migrate to lower elevations, the moose tend to rise. Moose are usually solitary but may congregate during rut (mating season) or on excellent winter range.
“We find that in December these moose go up in elevation, to the 20- to 30-year old clear cuts,” says Bruce Sterling, wildlife biologist for MFWP. “They’ll find locations that have heavy timber for bedding down next to older clear-cuts – sites they use for food.”

Sterling reports that moose can be found in most of the drainages in the region. Moose are usually associated with riparian habitat and are consistently seen in locales such as the Bull, Vermillion and Thompson rivers. Land acquisitions in these areas by management agencies and partners have greatly enhanced habitat for critters of all kinds.

During winters with heavy snowfall, big game animals will often seek out the easiest places to move around and get from spot to spot.
“Moose (which are not particularly shy) and white-tailed deer (which are abundant and will let hunger override fear of humans) in particular have a knack for winding up in neighborhoods, moving around on plowed roads and munching on succulent vegetation that was watered all summer long,” says IDFG Panhandle Supervisor Chip Corsi.

For this reason, railroad tracks and highways are problematic also – transportation corridors are tough on animals, especially when deep snow conditions increase collision potential. IDFG’s typical approach is to encourage observers to let the animals move along and leave on their own. “On rare occasions, where animals pose an immediate threat to human safety, we will remove that animal,” says Corsi. Agencies try to avoid removing animals not only because of the costs, but also because drugging and relocating animals is dangerous and extremely stressful on the animals.
Sterling says that most animals are looking for two things in the winter: food using a minimal amount of movement and thermal cover to keep warmer during those cold winter nights. Elk (Cervus canadensis) are a good example of this. During the summer, elk eat almost constantly, consuming between 10 pounds and 15 pounds daily, but in the winter, food gets scarce. Cold weather requires much more energy. When the snow is deeper than 18 inches, the elk move down to lower sites; bulls typically winter higher than cows and calves.

“My elk are not long-distance migrants,” says Sterling, “but some elevational migration does occur here.”

With all of the water in the Panhandle, we can’t forget about the critters who like it wet. The beaver (Castor canadensis) is the largest rodent in North America. On land, the beaver looks downright clumsy, but once it hits the water, it becomes sleek and torpedo-like. Their hair provides insulating qualities that keep them warm in the sporadic weather conditions of the West, and they are found throughout the region. Beavers spend the winter eating their cache of woody vegetation stashed near shore.
“One important aspect for beavers is that the pools behind their dams allow them to safely access food caches built during the summer by swimming under the ice in the winter,” says Avista’s Terrestrial Program Leader Nate Hall. “Land acquisitions through the Avista Clark Fork Settlement Agreement are helping to provide for healthy riparian areas where food for them is plentiful.”

Both the westslope cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii lewisi) and the illustrious bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) are found in the Clark Fork and Flathead drainages of western Montana and also in Lake Pend Oreille and some of its tributaries. Both species are designated “species of concern” by Idaho and Montana, and the bull trout is federally listed as threatened. The westslope cutthroat trout has been seriously reduced in its range by two primary factors: hybridization and habitat loss/degradation. The most important thing that anglers can do to help preserve these native species is to know how to correctly identify them.

“Both species, being cold-blooded creatures, slow down significantly in the winter months,” says Corsi. Along with slowing down to conserve energy, both species eat only a fraction of what they do the rest of the year; diet becomes more about opportunity than necessity.

The great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), unlike most of the winged world, stay here all winter and start to nest as early as February, reports Avista’s Hall. Owls spend their winters in nests made by other birds, broken-topped snags, hollow trees and cliff cavities. The South Fork Bull River acquisition in Montana, a cooperative project with MFWP, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Clark Fork Settlement Agreement, provides important habitat for great horned owls. Human access to this area is restricted in the winter to decrease the potential for disturbance to the wintering wildlife utilizing the property.

“The riparian area along the Bull River provides habitat for snowshoe hares and other prey items, while the area that burned in the mid-1990s provides ample snags that can be used for nesting sites,” says Hall.

This winter, while sitting by the fire, enjoying a nice meal, or swinging on the chairlift, take a moment to contemplate the critters. Without the modern-day luxuries of our world, this region would be a very different place to live indeed. Alas, most of us, unlike the great horned owl, the big game or even the heavy sleepers, would have headed south by now if we had to hack it in the wintertime wilderness with nothing but our own wits to guide us.

Winter 2009   

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