As we ease further into winter, many people across the country hunker down and stay indoors. Not in Idaho. Here, we are blessed with plenty of room for an array of winter activities, including snowshoeing, front and backcountry skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, and more. But it’s important to remember that the snowy wonderlands for recreation aren’t just places we visit, they are the permanent homes to our state’s abundant wildlife, and we have to enjoy them responsibly.
Animals typically head into hibernation or migrate to lower elevation winter ranges as winter settles in, in hopes of surviving the unforgiving season. Adding to this already stressful battle against the elements is Idaho’s booming population, leading to more urban development and outdoor recreation. Increased human presence on the winter landscape often contributes new sources of stress for wildlife during this especially vulnerable period. Natural responses to these additional pressures can range from minor behavior changes to potentially dangerous human-wildlife conflicts. In some cases, health conditions of offspring born the following spring could even be impacted.
Different animals have different winter habitat requirements. Wolverines, for instance, need quiet areas with a deep snowpack to birth and rear young toward the latter part of winter. Lynx also like their privacy, and recent studies about Canada lynx in Colorado show that lynx will modify their behavior to avoid high-use areas. Although this response ensures seclusion from humans, it could limit accessibility to their primary food source, snowshoe hares. On the other hand, deer and elk often have no choice but to cohabitate with humans. Their winter ranges are typically located in lower elevation areas that have also attracted urban development. When faced with continuous human disturbance, animals are forced to change their way of life and expend their precious stored energy.
When examining winter wildlife behavior and needs, it is abundantly clear that humans hold a lot of power. We can help wildlife immensely by simply being mindful of these possible impacts while recreating.
To help recreationists be responsible, government and wildlife agencies often impose conditional closures or restrictions in popular areas. For example, there are seasonal restrictions in place now in the Wood River Valley to help wildlife. Along with following rules already in place, we can also help ensure wildlife do not experience unnecessary stress caused by winter recreation by following these tips:
- Observe all seasonal travel restrictions and winter travel plan regulations.
- Seek information on the presence of wintering wildlife in areas you intend to visit.
- Observe leash laws to prevent prey species, such as elk and deer, from feeling threatened and/or stressed by domestic dogs that resemble wild predators.
- Change course of travel should wildlife be observed during recreational activities.
- Advocate for appropriate considerations of winter wildlife impacts during public lands planning processes.
- Practice Leave No Trace principles.
Wildlife is part of what makes the Gem State a beautiful, wild, awe-inspiring place to live. But we must work to keep it that way.
With more people enjoying winter activities in Idaho, we must balance recreation opportunities while protecting wildlife habitat. If you are passionate about Idaho’s wildlife and would like to stay in the loop of issues they face, sign up here for ICL’s Wildlife Program updates!