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Your furnace can tell you
how elk are wintering

February 17, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder

Shhhh. Listen. What do you hear?

Chances are, you hear your furnace running. And, with low temperatures in the single digits and below over the weekend, your furnace kicked on more often and consumed fuel at a higher rate than any other time this winter.

By paying attention to how often your furnace kicks on, you can monitor the health of your wild elk, deer, moose, bighorn sheep and mountain goats on their winter ranges.

Because, you see, the innards of hoofed wildlife work very much like the furnaces in our homes.

We burn wood, gas, coal or propane.

They burn grass, shrub stems, fir needles and lichen. When times get tough, and as any normal winter drags on, they also burn their own fat and, as a last resort, their muscle.

We pay for our fuel with dollars. And, it can be pretty expensive. If we pay too much for fuel, we may not have enough money left over for food and fun. So, we make choices, especially in tough winters, when the furnace burns a lot of fuel.

They pay for their fuel with . . . fuel! Elk burn energy while plowing and pawing through deep, crusted snow to obtain each bite of food. And, they burn more energy digesting the coarse, woody foods available in winter, compared to the succulent, green stuff that grows abundantly in summer. The high cost of heating fuel can lead our wildlife to ruin. So, they too make serious choices.

Many people save money for winter by working extra hours in summer. They work 14-hour days on construction jobs, or raise a crop of grain, or head for Alaska to work on commercial fishing vessels. Come winter, there may be some income, but their savings from summer dictate their quality of life. The better summer was, the better winter will be.

Elk, deer and their kin also save for winter. They convert soft, green leaves into fat throughout summer. The longer they go into the fall with access to soft, green leaves, the longer elk and deer can go into winter without using up fat reserves.

If you've been listening to your furnace this winter, you know your wildlife is faring quite well. Winter began with astonishing silence (furnace-wise, that is) in October, November and even through December. There wasn't much snow, either, so elk and deer could wander freely between the best feeding sites in their home ranges.

I'd be surprised if more than a few female elk and deer lost an ounce of body fat from October through December, last fall. In fact, it seems possible that some individuals living in posh habitats actually continued to gain weight until Christmas. What a contrast with the winter of 1996-97, when fat-building was abruptly interrupted by crusted snow in October and animals may have been burning fat before Christmas!

This New Year brought an interesting set of conditions for furnace listeners.

There have been periods when your furnace hardly kicked on at all, day or night. There have been other periods when it would run all night, but shut down completely after you opened the drapes during the day. And, there has been snow. All this evidence leads to one important conclusion.


Periods of thawing and freezing snow create layers of crust that make it difficult for elk, deer, and other ungulates to paw for food, or travel to "greener" pastures. Such conditions prevail in January or February of almost every winter.

At such times, animals tend to move around very little, and when they do move, they stick to established trails through the snow to minimize fuel consumption. From this point of the winter until green grass begins growing in spring, there will be very little useful fuel added to elk and deer furnaces.

So, they do some of the same things we would do if the propane delivery truck couldn't get to our houses. They take shelter, and wait for spring.

Deer and elk actually lower their metabolism in mid winter, just as we might turn the thermostat down to conserve limited fuel. (This is part of the reason why it's hard to attract elk to our baited traps right now.) They stay in the timber and out of cold winds that would otherwise rob heat and require more fuel to be burned.

They bed on south-facing slopes in the sunshine on otherwise cold, still days to take advantage of solar radiation. They work as little as possible for the reduced amounts of food they eat each day, and they run only if absolutely necessary.

Because when fuel is limited, every start of the furnace means another loss of precious fat. And, every bit of fat may be needed to combat a late-winter blizzard.

This most recent chill hasn't been of much concern for elk and deer because it hasn't been accompanied by wind. But, remember the February storm a few years back that drove wind-chills to ­40 degrees?

It was the year that so many Flathead cherry trees were killed. It only lasted a few days, but FWP biologists detected a noticeable dip in calf survival in spring surveys after that storm. If Mother Nature pitches another one of these our way before the grass turns green this spring, we'll have reason to worry about calves and fawns, in particular.

So, if you're interested in the health of your big game herds this winter, try paying more attention to your furnace. It will tell you most of what you need to know.

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