Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Beware of babies

Wildlife officials: Leave young animals alone

Express Staff Writer

A baby bear peeks out from a tree in this photo courtesy of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Wildlife officials warn that just because the mother isnít visible doesnít mean she isnít nearby, potentially preparing to defend her young. The solution? Leave young wildlife alone. Courtesy photo by Niels Nokkentved, Idaho Department of Fish and Game

'Tis the season in the Wood River Valley—the season when hikers and bikers may start to see lone fawns or other seemingly abandoned wild infants in the backcountry. While thoughts of "Bambi" may tempt recreationists to rescue the animals, wildlife officials say the best thing to do is to walk away.

"Usually, our help is not help," said Ed Mitchell, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "Nine times out of 10, the creature is better if you leave it alone."

The most prominent of young wildlife may be the ungulates, as deer and elk have a clearly defined reproductive season.

"Everybody gets born at the same time," said Ed Mitchell, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

The technical term for the spate of ungulate births in the spring is "predator swamping," an evolutionary trait that ensures higher survival rates among young deer and elk. Young ungulates are prime fodder for predators such as wolves and mountain lions, but those predators can only eat so much at a time, Mitchell said.

"Some of them get eaten, but if [the births] were scattered out, the percentage of losses would be much greater," he said.

Predator swamping is only one tactic for fawn survival, however. Mitchell said that many times fawns and calves appear to be abandoned because the mother actually uses her absence as protection.

"The kids, when they are born, have very little smell that predators can key into," he said. "[The mothers] spend time away from the baby to keep the predator from keying in on the adult's smell."

But while that protects the young ungulates from wild predators, it doesn't protect them from well-intentioned people, Mitchell said.

"Unfortunately, kindhearted folk come along and say, 'Oh my goodness, a baby deer, and I don't see its mama,'" he said.

Lee Garwood, regional conservation officer for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said that just because a hiker doesn't see the mother doesn't mean it's not there.

"Mom's probably nearby getting agitated," he said.

An agitated deer may not seem like much of a threat, but females of other species can be. Mitchell said mother black bears will often leave their cubs in a tree to protect them from adult male black bears. Unfortunately, this can lead to ugly confrontations between Mom and hiker.


"A lot of times, people see baby bears and don't see the mom right with them," he said. "You're not going to see the mother ... [but] if the mother sees you, she will probably risk her life to take you out, and that's not going to do anyone very much good."

Moose are also a major concern, said Robin Garwood, wildlife biologist for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

"Moose and bears are the most dangerous," she said. "You just want to respect them, give them distance, and keep your dogs away. Dogs can make them grumpy."

It's also the season for fledgling birds, she added. Sage grouse, hawks and kestrels are beginning to hatch, and within a few weeks, they will be trying to fly—some more successfully than others.

"Often, they'll jump out of the nest before they are good flyers," she said. "People may encounter them on the ground and think they are injured."

Lee Garwood said he gets "dozens" of calls every year from concerned citizens who have picked up baby birds.

"The thing may continually jump out of the tree for a day or more," he said. "It doesn't do any good to pick it up and call me. Once it's out of the wild, there's nothing we can do with it."

Robin Garwood said that just because a bird is out of its nest doesn't mean it's abandoned.

"The parents will still feed it," she said. "It will eventually learn to fly."

Outdoor enthusiasts may start to notice infant elk during the next two weeks, as the main time for elk births is during the first two weeks in June. Moose follow shortly after, and while moose might venture close to town, Robin Garwood said, elk generally stay away.

"People probably won't encounter them in town so much," she said. "It's more hiking around the forest."

Sage grouse chicks have mostly already hatched, Mitchell said, but quail won't hatch until the end of June and the early part of July.

A Forest Service report states that black bears, wolves, antelope and eagles are out and about across the SNRA, but again urges wildlife watchers to keep their distance, especially involving young.

Dealing with young wildlife encountered on a camping trip, hike or bike is simple, Lee Garwood said: Take your hike in another direction.

"The thing I hate is when people pick them up, put them in a box and take them home," he said. "It doesn't have any chance at all if it's taken out of the wild."

Katherine Wutz:

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