By Allie Ghaman. Photo by Yellowstone National Park staff. Cheyenne, Eastern Shoshone, and Shoshone-Bannock ancestral lands.
Winter along the Continental Divide for humans can evoke visions of backcountry fun — skiing, snowshoe adventures, or a snowy hike with dogs trotting alongside — but for wildlife of the Divide, the season is far more fraught with danger.
“For most animals, winter is a time to get through, not the time they’re thriving,” explains Hilary Eisen, policy director at the Winter Wildlands Alliance. “For ungulates and hibernating bears, they’re trying to expend as little energy as possible.”
Winter Wildlands Alliance is a nonprofit organization that seeks to educate the public about the importance of responsible winter recreation and protection of wildlife, as well as working on national-level public lands conservation advocacy, running a K-12 program to teach snow skills, and producing the Backcountry Film Festival. “We absolutely want people to enjoy recreating in the winter, but also to remember we are not the only creatures out there. As people, we have the ability to go wherever we want, and the wildlife can’t choose a different trailhead,” says Eisen. “November to June, it’s tough to be an animal.”
Eisen cites elk, deer, and moose as some of the most commonly impacted animals along the Continental Divide, as well as bighorn sheep and mountain goats. For these animals, which must survive the winter on fat reserves acquired during the previous summer and fall, every calorie spent is an important resource. “Females are pregnant all winter, growing a baby, and they will need to nurse in the spring when the calf or fawn is born, so females are particularly of concern. But males have spent the fall beating the hell out of each other, and need our help, too,” Eisen says.
These animals are not always able to follow their traditional migration routes, due to human development in low elevations. “There’s already a lot of habitat loss. Animals that would migrate from where they spent the summer in higher elevation cooler drier places, elk and deer, are the classic examples. Many winter range areas have been lost due to development, so they’re moving to those places that are left and trying not to move [to conserve energy],” Eisen says.
The trials for these animals are not immediately over at the first signs of springtime, either. “By May or April, the animal is still living off the same fat reserves it had from the fall. In the spring, when you think plants are coming back to life and turning green, the animals can still be in trouble,” Eisen says, noting that a springtime die-off of deer and elk is not uncommon.
Trail users can help these animals by limiting the amount of stress they cause them, thereby helping them conserve calories. By planning trips with these animal populations in mind, and treating the animals with caution if they are encountered in the wild, recreationists can help save their lives.
Before You Go
Before you hit the trail, ensure that your planned trip doesn’t take you through any areas closed for wildlife, which may be seasonal. This information is sometimes posted on your local Fish and Wildlife website, or at trailheads. In the Jackson, Wyoming area, there are several winter closures on National Forest land, for one example, as well as some Montana state lands near the Divide. Areas may also be identified as animal wintering habitats without being officially closed to human travel.
Eisen hopes that this due diligence will become part of a winter backcountry recreationist’s regular checklist. “We think a lot about avalanches as a winter recreation group. Before you go skiing, you’re checking the avalanche forecast. Then you’re making decisions throughout the day, you’re checking the snowpack. I think we need to start doing the same thing for wildlife,” she says.
When Eisen plans her own trips, she also takes into account areas that may be attractive to ungulates, places with low snow, such as areas at lower elevation, windswept ridges or south facing slopes. If her planned route will take her through these areas, she looks for alternate routes to take, in case of an animal encounter.
On the Trail
Even with prior planning, a chance encounter with a herd of ungulates may still occur.
“The best thing to do is just turn around and go somewhere else. Have a Plan B for your day,” Eisen advises.
The most important thing is to avoid scaring the animals, particularly if they might try to escape uphill or through a hazardous area. “Give the animals space, get out around. Be quiet, move slowly, control your dog and have them on a leash,” Eisen says. If you need to skirt around a herd, going to higher ground and out of their way will help. Being on the lookout for fresh tracks or other signs of the herd can also help trail users be aware of animals before an encounter occurs.
Eisen says that animals in winter are performing “risk assessments” to determine if fleeing is worth the energy expenditure. By paying attention and being aware of animals that may be in your vicinity, you can help ensure they aren’t startled.
“It’s having the tools to make the decisions on the fly while you’re out there,” she says.
While many dogs love an offleash romp in fresh snow, keeping them under control and not chasing animals is critical. Eisen’s top advice? Bring a leash.
“So many of us love recreating with our dogs, but their instinct is to chase wildlife. Even if your dog is perfect, carry a leash, have it with you, so if you see an animal, you can leash your dog,” she says.
While Winter Wildlands Alliance seeks to educate recreationists about the importance of responsible backcountry travel, they are avid outdoors enthusiasts and educators, and hope that people will continue to enjoy winter activities — with a little extra planning.
“The goal is to get people to be better educated about why we need to think about animals in the winter and how we can reduce their stress, and how we can be more responsible in our recreation,” Eisen says.
Allie Ghaman is the Communications Manager at CDTC.