Friday, February 1, 2008

Wildlife cope well with winter?so far

Aerial survey of valley showed scattered elk and, surprisingly, many mule deer

Express Staff Writer

These three moose, two cows and one young bull, were spotted crossing the frigid Big Wood River near Sun Valley Resort?s River Run Lodge earlier this week. Photo by Willy Cook

An aerial survey of wintering elk, mule deer and other big game species, conducted last week by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, indicates the animals are doing well this winter.

"The numbers look good," said Regan Berkley, regional wildlife biologist with Fish and Game's Magic Valley Regional office. "It certainly didn't send off any alarm bells."

Berkley was one of two biologists who took part in the helicopter surveys. Their primary objective was to estimate the number of elk on the east side of the Wood River Valley and in the Pioneer Mountains.

Berkley cautioned against jumping to conclusions too soon as to how well big game will survive this winter. She noted that the flights took place prior to the major winter storm that dumped large amounts of snow in the valley earlier this week.

Regardless, Berkley said the findings are encouraging. She said that in general, the numbers seem on par with the last count the Fish and Game conducted in the same area in 2004.

Berkley said one surprise that came out of the flights was the number of mule deer that are wintering in the valley. She said deer usually head farther south, outside of the valley, during the winter to escape the deeper snows.

"We saw a lot of deer on our flight as far north as Quigley (Canyon)," she said.

Berkley said wildlife flights help biologists get an accurate count of the number of animals in each group, as well as differentiate the number of cows, bulls and calves. She said the data is used to gauge the status and trends of an area's elk herd.

"We're getting a herd composition," she said.

Information provided by the flights is also used to assess potential changes to hunting permits and seasons.

Berkley said that once the data is brought back to the office, it's run through an elk sightability model used by the agency. The mathematical computer model makes corrections for animals that were likely missed during the survey.

She said the flights showed how expansive the snow cover is this winter.

"There's definitely quite a bit of snow out there," she said.

Berkley said local big game, which include elk, deer and moose, are now entering into one of the toughest times of the winter for them, and people need to be cautious and stay away from these animals so as not to disturb them during this critical time. She said winter is basically a controlled decline for big-game animals.

"Any way they can conserve energy is a good thing," she said.

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