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Opinion: The underdiscussed victims of Utah’s drought

During drought and population growth, we need to take special care of our wildlife and wildlands

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Deer forage near Wakara Way in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 24, 2021.

Deer forage near Wakara Way in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 24, 2021.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When I came to Brigham Young University to study wildlife and wildlands conservation, I held opinions on wildlife and wildfires I now realize weren’t accurate. I found many people, including those who are new to Utah as well as those who have lived here their entire lives, have similar thoughts and sentiments. I hope to fill some knowledge gaps.

Through my studies and as a wildlife specialist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, I’ve learned how we should be properly managing our public lands, wildlife and wildfires. The population of Utah is growing incredibly fast, and we must work together as a community so wildlife has the essential resources required for survival.

How a drought affects wildlife

One of the first things to recognize is how wildlife respond to their habitat conditions and available resources. The displacement of wildlife due to wildfires and drought results in wildlife venturing closer to cities and farms seeking food and water. With our worsening drought conditions, the availability of food, water and shelter wildlife rely on is negatively impacted, thus decreasing reproduction and survival rates of wildlife.

The best predictor of winter survival for deer is how much body fat they have at the end of summer. A healthy ecosystem allows wildlife to continuously eat throughout the summer and put on crucial fat. However, during a drought, there aren’t enough healthy plants to sustain our wildlife. Animals such as big game risk not putting on enough weight, thus compromising their ability to survive winter.

Black bears also rely heavily on vegetation. The lack of plants during a drought can increase the probability of bears moving away or expanding typical home ranges to search for food. In the past, annual home ranges, the area in which an animal lives and moves, have doubled when food was scarce, often resulting in dispersal into lower and generally more populated elevations. As scavengers, it isn’t uncommon for bears to follow their nose right into campsites or backyards in search of food.

Dry conditions increase the risk of wildfires

Fires are a natural part of ecosystems, and some plant communities have co-evolved with fire. Fires in higher-elevation mountain habitats can be beneficial for wildlife by removing the thick tree canopy and promoting new, healthy grasses, forbs and rejuvenated shrubs to grow instead.

However, in some areas, wildfires are occurring at an alarming frequency not seen historically. Wildfires can prevent native plants from recovering and reestablishing if there isn’t enough time between fire events. In those instances, invasive species can quickly outgrow native foliage. Invasive plants tend to establish first, outcompete native plants, then dry quickly — increasing risk of another intense fire. Lower-elevation plant communities haven’t evolved with such extreme fires and can be greatly damaged in these burns. This can further limit plant availability and displace wildlife.

Drought solutions to save wildlife

Fortunately, the DWR implements active management to mitigate effects of drought on wildlife according to species-specific management plans. It’s important to understand that in drought conditions, populations are managed at a volume their habitat can support. This may mean an increase in recommended antlerless hunts (hunts that target the females) with the intent of reducing overall population numbers so animals aren’t overutilizing and damaging habitats long term.

Likewise, predator management plans may be implemented to reduce predation on big game populations when they suffer a drop in numbers during drought years. These actions are an effort to maintain a balance between predators and their prey and allow prey populations to rebound faster when droughts end. Drought conditions do not typically influence predator survival or population numbers, rather we see displacement and increased dispersal. During drought, state wildlife experts work to minimize conflicts with bears and cougars in urban areas.

The Utah outdoors we love are made possible by proactively managing the state’s wildlife and public lands. State wildlife experts and biologists are constantly monitoring and studying wildlife populations to better understand how to improve them. Our goal is to preserve and protect ecosystems that are important for wildlife survival and ensure future generations benefit from seeing wildlife in their proper and natural habitat.

We hope to create a community of understanding so we can all work together to manage public lands properly.

Elicia Cotcher works for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources as a wildlife and predator specialist. She has been involved in various predator research projects in Utah and has a strong passion for wildlife and the outdoors. Cotcher is currently finishing her master’s degree in wildlife and wildlands conservation at Brigham Young University.