CRAIG, Colo. — Colorado’s harsh winter has left for food for wild animals buried under several feet of snow. It’s especially true in parts of northwestern Colorado.
Wildlife officials are concerned those animal might be having a hard time getting the food they need.
In less than a one-mile stretch in northwest Colorado, dead elk litter the ground.
Sheep farmer Steve Raftopolous said their condition is a toll of starvation and cold.
“It doesn’t matter what type of animal it is, you don’t want to see them in that condition,” he said.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife manager Bill Divergie scours the vast land outside Craig.
“Takes a lot of energy to be able to get through a little bit of snow,” he said.
Diverge watches deer and elk struggle through the deep, compact snow.
“If we don’t get a change, then we will start seeing some of them dying,” he said. “We have one of the more severe winters we’ve had in at least the last 10 to 15 years. We’re concerned we are going to lose more.”
The conditions mean only the strong will make it.
“When it’s deeper than this, you just can’t get to the food,” Divergie said.
What little food is available is buried until the crusted snowpack. Raftopolous said wildlife expend every ounce of energy in search of a meal.
“Over here you have a smorgasbord and over here you have to pick through garbage cans like the homeless might. I mean, think about it,” he said.
Hungry and driven to survive, the animals target the easiest find. In a home video, dozens can be seen eating off the hay Raftopolous has laid out for his livestock.
“Now they come in and they go inside to where the sheep are,” he said.
But up to 500 extra mouths every day adds up because it’s a double-edge sword.
“It’s tough,” Raftopolous said. “This whole area relies a lot on hunting.”
For ranchers like Raftopolous, hunting is a major source of income.
“That is the difference or not between making a profit for the year,” he said.
Watching elk after elk waste away is like watching profits go down the drain. Yet feeding them costs Raftopolous up to $150 a day.
“There isn’t much left to eat so they are staying here,” he said. “That takes a toll on their hay supply.”
A toll Colorado Parks and Wildlife is helping manage.
“Baiting is where we will place out feed, in this case, hay, to attract those animals, whether it be deer or elk, away from another location,” Divergie said.
A baiting program paid for with money from hunting and fishing licenses supplies ranchers with hay.
“We have to help subsidize those ranchers so they have enough to both feed their livestock and keep these elk away from their feed lines,” Divergie said. “We’re going to go right up the draw.”
Every day Raftopolous and his crew take the long tractor ride past the ones who didn’t make it, luring the wildlife far from his livestock feed ground.
“The elk have taken it. They need something to eat,” Raftopolous said. “It does make me feel good to help them out.”
Wild animals wise enough to know survival — at least until the next hunting season — depends on the men and women who hope to hang their antlers on a mount.
“You want to take care of yours because that’s our livelihood,” Raftopolous said.