Elk and Deer Body Condition on the Winter Range

Late season cow harvests are a good way to monitor body condtions going into the winter

Another factor in Wildlife Habitat to take into account when looking at the winter range quality is just how well are the elk and deer fairing.  How well the elk and deer are wintering, has a direct correlation to the quality of antler growth for the next growing season and the health and survivability of the fawns/calves for the upcoming spring. (more on why fawn/calf recruitment is key when looking at where to plan your future hunts)  Several of the factors that I look at when determining the condition of wintering elk and deer are: Body Fat measurements from Late Season cow harvests; Feild Judging body condition; and the how the animals behave.

I like to use my late season cow hunts mainly to control the population of elk here at the ranch. But I have also started to take notes on the body fat that the harvested cows are carrying.  I measure the amount of fat on the back and rump as well as the amount of fat on or around the kidneys. It is good to see from year to year how the amount of fat on the elk varies.  Even though the fat is a result of the summer/fall range conditions, it gives me a very good idea on how well the local population should winter.  If you have the chance to hunt a late season cow in your hunting area take notes from year to year on the amount of body fat on the elk as they head into winter and see how this correlates to the quality of antler development for the following fall.

I realize that not all of us can look at 20 to 30 harvested cow elk a year and take notes on the body condition as I do, but we can all take a weekend to go on the winter range in our favorite hunting areas and field judge body condition.  When trying to determine the body condition on the winter range it is often easy to spot the animals that are not going to survive, once the ribs are clearly showing these animals will most likely not survive.  Even in mild winters there are always going to be a few individuals that are going to look to be in bad shape, don’t focus too much on the few individual animals that are going to die.  What I like to do is look at the population as a whole.  Look for the angle of the rump.  If the majority of the animals you see still have a good round shape, the population as a whole should be good. But, if the rumps have a distinctive angle, or sloping look, the herd is suffering.  Also, look at the coat conditions of the herd.  When the animals start to stress, the coats loose the oils that keep it shinny and healthy.  If the coats look “bleached out” or rough, this is a sign that the animals are losing their energy reserves and if they survive the winter, they will have a longer recovery in the spring before they can put energy into antler production and will most likely have lower birth rates/lower survivability rates on the fawn/calf crop.

One other area that I view is just how the animals behavior is affected by the stress winter brings. The basic things I look for are:  How alert are they or do they seem sluggish?  How are the animals interacting with one another? How well do they travel? How is the head and ears held?  If the animals on your winter range are alert, you see them chasing each other or having small fights, they are traveling to and from feeding/bedding areas, and when moving heads are high and ears forward and moving. These are all signs that the herd is healthy and doing well.  If the animals seem sluggish, are feeding and bedding in the same spot, are allowing people to get close, heads down and droopy ears, these are signs that the herd is starting to stress from the winter conditions, and are trying to save as much energy as possible.

I hope some of these basics on winter range will help you when planning your hunt next fall. Please remember that even in a mild winter the elk and deer are slowly starving to death until the spring green up. Do not try to approach wintering animals, leave the shed hunting until the spring green up has begun and turn in any poaching.  The winter and winter range is the main limiting factor to our elk and deer populations, so please do not add to their stress levels.

One Response to “Elk and Deer Body Condition on the Winter Range”

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