Winter in the Northwest: Surviving today and after the snow melts

Using the data collected over the past several months, and anticipated additional losses throughout the spring, biologists are taking conservative approaches with this year's license recommendations.
snow covered landscape
Snow-covered landscape. Photo by Darby Finley/CPW

It has been a tough winter for wildlife in the northwest corner of Colorado. Since the start of the season, the National Weather Service’s Maybell weather station has recorded over 80 inches of snow for the area. Prolonged snow combined with strong gusty winds have made an already hard time of year for wildlife even more difficult. Food has been extremely difficult for big game to find as much of it is covered by deep, hard-packed snow.  This has forced thousands of animals to migrate farther west than they typically do, burning much-needed fat and calories they likely won’t replenish. 

“It’s tough,” said Assistant Area Wildlife Manager Mike Swaro. “There’s no other way to describe it. We typically see some mortality from starvation every winter. That’s just nature, not every animal survives. This year it feels like all we’re seeing is starving or dying animals.”

On a recent trip to Craig, Colorado to document winter conditions and the hard work being done by local staff to reduce elk and livestock conflict, Northwest Region Public Information Officer Rachael Gonzales rode with District Wildlife Manager Jeffrey Goncalves whose area had been hit with back-to-back blizzards. While looking at a bait site west of Maybell, the two noticed a mature bull elk that was unable to get up after several attempts. After watching and evaluating the elk for several minutes, the decision was made to euthanize the bull so it would no longer suffer from starvation.

“It’s tough to see any animal suffer,” said Goncalves. “I care for Colorado’s wildlife, it’s why I entered the wildlife conservation field. My worst days are the days when I have to make the decision to end an animal’s life just to end its suffering. It gets to you, too. The constant calls for sick animals who can’t get up along the roadways or in yards. Knowing when you arrive that the likelihood of you having to euthanize the animal to end its suffering is high.”

“I don’t envy our district wildlife managers who have to make these decisions,” said Rachael Gonzales. “Sometimes they have to make the tough call and euthanize an animal. I know they do it only when there’s no other choice.” 

In addition to mortality from malnutrition, wildlife officials have seen an increase in animals injured or killed from vehicle collisions. With normal migration routes difficult for wildlife to navigate, they have resorted to using roadways as they search for food. Sometimes that food is located on a narrow shoulder along a windy section of road. Wildlife officials are also seeing animals bed down on roadways after a sunny day to get a little warmth and reprieve from the cold. 

pronghorn run down snow covered road
With normal migration routes difficult for wildlife to navigate, they have resorted to using roadways as they search for food. Photo by Rachael Gonzales/CPW

In January, distinct wildlife managers responded to two separate incidents involving pronghorn-vehicle collisions. On January 14, a semi going eastbound from Utah on Highway 40 hit 35 pronghorn on the road, near Dinosaur. A few days later on January 19, another group of 18 pronghorn were hit by a pickup truck on a county road near Craig. In all, local district wildlife managers have responded to four incidents involving vehicle collisions with groups of ten or more pronghorn.

While significant, these conditions aren’t new to the area. The combination of persistent summer drought conditions and above-average snowfall during the winter in recent years has resulted in poor range conditions for wildlife. The silver lining is that this winter has not had near the number of sub- to below-zero weeks. With a snow pack 143% above average, natural springs that have run dry in recent years will more than likely have water once again.

What’s next: After The Snow Melts

Although spring is officially here, winter conditions still continue to hold on. While local staff have started to see some improvements, there’s still significant amounts of snow on the ground. What happens when the snow finally melts, and the green-up begins? The simple answer is, we don’t know. While local wildlife managers and biologists hope to see large numbers of elk and deer migrate back to their summer home range as we have seen in the past, thanks to collar data, we have no way of knowing how many have survived to make the journey back. Those that do make the journey are likely to see some improvement to drought conditions those areas have experienced over the past 10 years thanks to all the recent moisture.

Each year in March, wildlife officials set big game license numbers. This is done using herd management plans, hunter harvest data from the previous year, and classification flights done in the late fall and winter. This winter has been hard for big game in the Bears Ears and White River deer and elk herds, and exceptionally hard for the Great Divide pronghorn herds. 

In an area known for some of the largest elk herds in the nation, severe winter conditions have resulted in high elk calf mortality and above-average cow mortality. For deer, the combination of severe winter conditions and high prevalence of chronic wasting disease has affected the resiliency of this population. Over the past several years, biologists have observed a decrease in population and the sex ratio has fallen below the objective set in the Deer Herd Management Plan. 

Pronghorn are seeing significant impacts this winter and have migrated in large numbers out of the Great Divide Data Analysis Area (DAU) into the Sandwash Basin. Significant mortality is being observed from aerial and on-the-ground observations. With extreme winter conditions persisting through March, pronghorn mortality continues to increase. Poor winter habitat conditions, little to no food sources, and increased vehicle-wildlife collisions have led to higher-than-normal mortality rates. 

CPW biologists wish they could predict what will happen during the spring green-up and summer months; however, there is no way to know if the pronghorn that survived this winter will migrate back to the Great Divide DAU. For many, migrating back to their home range means traveling 70 or more miles already exhausted and on very little fat reserves left after a harsh winter. Choosing to migrate back to the east or stay has become one of life or death for many animals.

“I wish we could see into the future,” said Area Terrestrial Biologist Darby Finley. “Unfortunately, we don’t know what Mother Nature has in store for the next couple months. However, we are fortunate to have radio collars out on deer in the White River herd and elk in the Bear’s Ears herd and will be able to quantify survival in these herds. Pronghorn herds will be more difficult to assess until the snow melts.”

Using the data collected over the past several months, and anticipated additional losses throughout the spring, biologists are taking conservative approaches with this year’s license recommendations. They are recommending significant reductions in the number of licenses for elk and deer in the Bears Ears and White River DAUs, and pronghorn in the Great Divide DAU for the 2023 big game season. 

Colorado Game Management Unit(GMU) mao
Attention Hunters: Biologists are recommending significant reductions in the number of licenses for elk and deer in the Bears Ears and White River DAUs, and pronghorn in the Great Divide DAU for the 2023 big game season. The impacted DAUs included the Game Management Units (GMU) highlighted in yellow on the map above.

“This has been a tough year for licenses setting in the Craig area,” said Area Wildlife Manager Bill de Vergie. “We know this impacts more than just CPW. These decisions also have impacts on hunters and the local economy, that’s what makes these decisions the hardest. My hope is  they understand this isn’t something we wanted to do, it’s something we had to do.”  

Colorado Parks and Wildlife understands many hunters, resident and non-resident, come to this area every year to hunt big game. For some, generations have traveled to this area in the northeast corner to harvest needed protein for their family’s survival. With recommendations to make significant reductions in licenses, in most cases a reduction over 40%, the Northwest Region staff hope providing this information ahead of time will give hunters an opportunity to change their hunt plans and explore new areas across our beautiful state.

It is important to note, at this time these reductions are recommendations. These recommendations will be presented at the Parks and Wildlife Commission meeting in May for final approval by Parks and Wildlife Commissioners. 


Colorado Parks and Wildlife relies primarily on license sales, state park fees, and registration fees to support its operations and mission. For the fiscal year 2021-2022, 69% of wildlife funding came from the purchase of licenses and passes. These include fishing licenses, big and small game licenses, waterfowl hunting licenses and habitat stamps; license application and preference point fees; and State Wildlife Area (SWA) use permits, access permits, and special use permits. 

Learn more about CPW’s funding sources and uses of funds in the Sources & Use of Funds fact sheet.

Written by Rachael Gonzales. Rachael is the public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s northwest region.

14 Responses

  1. And then on top of all the hard ships for big game animals, the state voted to let wolves have a home there as well. Whats wrong with this picture !!

  2. Agree with the previous comment. CPW Leadership needs to take on the liberal thinking wolf loving crowd (including the Governor) and challenge the idea of any more wolves. This is not the time. And as everyone in the DOW should be aware of if you are paying attention, when the wolf introduction plan was voted in by well mean but ignorant voters, (ignorant means uniformed), wolves were already moving in from Wyoming. You are also introducing Canadian Grey Wolves who are much larger and aggressive than those in Wyoming. Please fight this madness.

  3. I agree with prior comments. CPW needed to re-think their policies and stop wetting the finger and sticking it in the air to test the political wind and monetary benefit to themselves. It was supposed to be about resource management. The same thing happened when trapping using leg hold traps was stopped in Colorado. CDOW made it a political issue with their silence and hid behind liberals and academia. “Hands off” is not management. I am fifth generation in this state and I have seen what they have not done to help our wildlife. It took pressure from sportsman’s groups back in the ’60s to force them into changing their tune of selling off all our game mostly to out of state hunters. I can remember CDOW visiting the schools in Colorado back then and telling the students that “When the only bulls you see in an elk herd are spikes, it is the sign of a healthy herd”. It took ranchers threatening to shut down hunting on private land back in the ’80s in order to force them into a points restriction. They wouldn’t listen to input from sportsmen asking them to eradicate game infected with CWD back when it was confined to a relatively small area on the eastern slope. How has that worked out? It has been the same book all along, just different chapters. Thanks to academics, state policies, and blunders we will not see the restoration of our game herds. It has become a bridge too far.

  4. There is an effort will gradually remove hunting as a form of wildlife management. People need to look at who is on the commission as well. Wake up Colorado!

  5. I was very much against the introduction of wolves in the state to start with. Now as for mentioned the wolves will take a bigger toll on their numbers especially on the calf population come on people. If the elk and deer herds were to be controlled by wolf introduction why not allow a special hunt to target elk or deer management to keep numbers managable. Instead of wolf introduction just saying.

  6. It won’t take long for Hunters to stop hunting this area once the wolves start changing the elk patterns and go hunting elsewhere. Sucks for the local Craig businesses

  7. to defend the CPW, they were very opposed to wolf reintroduction. They advised against it, yet the idiots in Boulder and Denver counties prevailed. Wolves will completely destroy the elk population. we know this because it already has in ID, MT, and WY. And the moose? goodbye. Watch the moose population in North Park plummet in the coming years. I only wish the wolves would go down to the yards of these liberals and eat their fur children/dogs. Perhaps seeing nature at work would change their minds.

  8. I love this. Complain about the wolf intro and vilify as monsters those who out of ignorance voted for it.
    Where were you before the vote? Did any of you create or join a political action committee to inform and influence voters on the urban corridor who know little about hunting or ranching?
    No, you did not. I saw zero organized oppositional/informational efforts beyond hunting publications, which reach a very small bubble of voters.
    I voted no to wolves. But hearing all the finger pointing now from some of you is ironic considering how little you did to stop it from happening.
    I think our wildlife managers are doing the best they can under very difficult conditions. No, they are not perfect. Are you?
    My guess is some of you still gripe about steel shot required for waterfowl hunting, a measure passed 31 years ago. Now yo have a new sour grape. Wolves.
    Keep on keeping on with the blame game, but its on you.

    1. Out of Ignorance! Well there are some that do know and understand the Ranching and Hunting world a little more than many.
      But that has nobearing on the Wolf issue introduces in Colorado. Yes We the People, ranchers hunters and just general public can voice our opinion. But! Does it help? Hell No!
      I have with friends been to many so called public meeting for theseidiots to go over what is on the agenda and what has and will be brought to our attention and opinions ask for.
      Let me say this in most instances the minds and the plan has already been made up.. But! we have to ask for public opinion. Over the last few years more and more are just not speaking up because of the fact, knowing it does n’t do a damn bit of good so why stress over somthing that matters not they will and are going to do as they see fit. Josh, you saif it! you voted it down, yes you voiced your opinion. But! Did it do you any good? Hell no.
      The Big question is? Does any one thin it takes a Rocket Scientist to see and undersatnd what the Wolf Population has done and the Animals they have distroyed in the Rocky Mnt States? I sure would not think so. So these idiots whom voted this Wolf Issue into affect Know, and Knew what these packs of Animals can and will do do the once known herds of Colorado as they have done in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and know much quicker in Colorado where they will be introduces and protected.
      You see when it comes to the votes, not only commision but all the larger populated city dwellers whom make up the populations of these states and in most cases they want everything from a weed, to fish, to our wildlife and all thats on this earth put on the protected list so that we can just sit back and enjoy it. They dont take into consideration on the damage this does to the universe. So to them wolves is just part of the beginning of all the distruction that comes along with these envirnmentle issues or groups everything must be free. Just look at where this world is today.
      So Blam! put the Blame where it should go, not to the Rancher or Hunter or general puplic that is concerened. We just know besides the voicing from us as individulas it Does no Good.
      Take these small cities, Do you think besides there votes that they actualy count? Hell no they are cancelled by a vote in the larger cities and that is just a proven aspect. People are just tired of the BS. Ranchers, Hunters and the General Puplic have a right to voice there opinion in the fashion they choose without some one degrading them because they didnt go and screem at the general public meeting. OF course my opinion only!!!!!

  9. Is there a way to print or a link or whatever to a printable copy of this? I don’t like sitting in front of a computer screen. (I tried printing this and got a jumbled up mess)

  10. Thank Governor Polis .He is the one who appointed all the CPW Commissioners, that have little or no interest in or knowledge of wildlife. Read their bios on the CPW website. In the first meeting about wolf introduction, he pushed it and stated he wanted to see wolves on the ground before the 2023 deadline. James Jay Tutchton, who is a comissioner, is a long time wolf advocate

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