Winter ranges sustain wildlife in Grand County

Lance Maggart
Lance Maggart/
Staff Photo |

Wildlife is a passion for many who call the high country home.

From photographers to sportsmen to people just hoping to catch a glimpse of wild animals, residents and visitors to Grand County often keep one proverbial eye scanning the tree lines and broad meadows that fill this area. The enduring value derived from the wildlife that call our portion of the state home is hard to overestimate; tourists from throughout the nation flock to the Rockies to hunt, film and view majestic creatures such as elk and deer.


Winter, it is not surprising, is particularly hard on these animals. Extremely cold temperatures take their toll as does heavy snowfall, which can completely cover forage plants wildlife eat during colder climes. As winter conditions strain herds of large game animals are pushed into areas where they can better survive, referred to as winter ranges.

To better protect wildlife in their delicate dance for winter survival Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CP&W) closes large portions of state land from Nov. through the spring, and sometimes later, to help preserve winter range habitat and reduce human caused strains on big game herds.

“These animals have a rough life trying to make it through the winter,” said Jeromy Huntington, Colorado Parks & Wildlife’s District Wildlife Manager for the Granby area.

For most of the year elk and deer live at relatively high elevations but as heavy snow begins falling the animals are pushed down into low lying valleys and meadows. Unfortunately many of the areas wildlife find most attractive for survival in winter are areas humans also congregate, either as towns and housing developments or in areas popular for winter recreation.

Each year large swaths of Grand County are closed off to all human activity to protect wintering wildlife. While most of the winter rangeland in Grand County is located near Kremmling several pockets of winter rangeland are east of Windy Gap, with a concentration in the area around Granby Ranch. All of the winter rangeland closed by CP&W is state administered land and the closures do not apply to land administered by the US Forest Service or BLM, though those entities have their own winter closures and restrictions on land they oversee.


Winter alone is hard enough on wildlife but the often-unintentional impacts of humans can also be just as devastating to populations. As elk, deer and pronghorn struggle though the winter they often exist precariously close to death. Survival becomes a sort of mathematical equation where calories burned are subtracted from calories ingested and even minor bursts of energy can have deadly consequences.

Conflicts with dogs can cause wildlife to exert themselves beyond what they can easily replenish with winter forage. Antler shed hunters sometimes encroach on winter ranges as well, pushing game out of their preferred safe zones. “We ask people to go out later in the year and not to go out first thing in the morning,” Huntington said. “If you see a deer don’t approach it, go the other direction.”

Other major human strains on wildlife in winter are feeding and traffic accidents.

“The stretch of road from the bottom of Byers Canyon to Parshall is very bad for hitting wildlife crossing the road,” Huntington said. “On US Highway 34 elk often get hit. A lot of animals get hit on Red Dirt Hill. The Granby flats are bad too.”

Feeding big game, either intentionally or unintentionally is also a struggle for the animals. Elk and deer and often drawn by feed to human developed areas. Sometimes people leave food out for the large herd animals and sometimes the animals are drawn by birdseed. The available food causes the wildlife to cross roads and highways more frequently, increasing their chances of being hit by a car.

“The bigger issue I have had with closures though is people just out recreating,” Huntington said. “We plead with people to avoid wildlife and not approach them. We ask them to try and recreate in areas where we do not have as high a concentration of wildlife.”


According to Huntington good quality winter range habitat has several specific factors. Huntington highlighted available ground cover, for protection in extreme cold temps, the amount of sagebrush, which sticks up above snow to provide food when snow becomes deeper, and a south-facing slope as key components for winter ranges.

“When it is windy they (wildlife) like to get into cover,” said Huntington. “But they also like to feed on the ground where the snow has been blown clear. One concern we have is when we get a hard crust of snow. The deer and elk can’t dig down. It can have an impact on them getting down to food.”

The plants big game animals feed on in winter are dormant during the colder months, meaning the nutritional value the animals derive from the plants is significantly less in winter than in spring and summer, he said.


Significant portions of Grand County serve as winter rangeland for big game herds. “Over in the Granby Ranch area we get smaller pockets of animals,” Huntington said. “Once we get over by Kremmling though we can get upwards of a couple hundred animals.”

CP&W provides detailed maps online that show winter range areas and winter concentration areas.

“Concentration areas are where the wildlife go in the hardest of winters,” said Huntington. “When it is absolutely a necessity. Sometimes even the winter ranges get too much snow.”

The maps can be found by searching for “Colorado Hunting Atlas” online. The interactive maps offer multiple different categories and subcategories allowing folks to break down the map to view winter ranges, winter concentration areas, migration corridors and other factors for multiple different species.


CP&W closes four specific areas in Grand County for winter range habitat. The Red Mountain State Wildlife Area, near Granby on County Road 60, was closed on Nov. 15, 2015 for the season. It is scheduled to reopen to the public on April 15, 2016.

The Silver Creek Conservation Easement, located on Granby Ranch and including the hilltop gazebo area near the ski resort, was closed to the public on Nov. 15 as well. It is also scheduled to remain closed to the public until April 15, 2016.

The Junction Butte State Wildlife Area south of Kremmling was closed on Nov. 20 last year. According to CP&W’s Web site it is scheduled to remain closed until Sept. 3.

The Byers Canyon Shooting Range, located west of Byers Canyon on US Highway 40, was closed on Jan. 1. It will remain closed until approximately April 30.

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