The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is used to herding a few stray elk, deer or cougars that have wandered into neighborhoods to check out the scenery, or more than likely grab a bite to eat because the snow is so deep in their own backyard.
But the state agency experienced the unique challenge of embarking on a three-hour operation Thursday to shoo some 60 or so buffet-hungry elk away from crowded roadways on I-80 in Parleys Canyon and nearby Foothill Boulevard.
Agency spokeswoman Faith Jolley said it took time, patience and intense coordination with the Utah Highway Patrol and Salt Lake City Police Department to keep both the animals and motorists safe, but the herds finally moved up and away to a safer locale.
“It is fairly unusual to see that kind of thing, with a group that big all together that far down into the city. So that’s kind of what made yesterday a little difficult is that we are usually used to one or two maybe that will migrate into some of these city areas and we can go tranquilize and relocate them fairly simply. But yesterday was tricky because there were so many, that wasn’t an option.”
Not like herding cats
It was an intricate operation to keep both man and beast safe, especially if you figure a full-grown bull elk stands 5 feet at the shoulder and can weigh 1,100 pounds. The females are nothing to scoff at either, weighing as much as 600 pounds and reaching more than 4 feet at the shoulder.
While Thursday’s operation was deemed a success, the agency has been dealing with numerous other, less publicized sightings this winter that have called for intervention.
“It’s been a wild couple of weeks,” Jolley said. Bobcats have probed for potential food on porches, and as the deer and elk go wandering into the city, they are followed by bigger cats like cougars looking for their next meal. On Friday, a Rose Park resident reported seeing a coyote running down a street in a “freaked out” manner.
Feeding when nature fails
Earlier this month, the division instituted emergency feeding operations at 11 locations in Rich County and at one location in Summit County, the first time since 2017 the agency has had to take this kind of action because of deep snow and declining body fat conditions of the animals.
Specially designed pellets are being distributed in specific areas. The pellets match the unique nutritional needs and digestive system of deer, and wildlife patrols will be monitoring if human interactions are inducing increased stress on the animals, Jolley said.
This winter has presented particularly difficult challenges, the division said.
“In the areas where we’re feeding, the vegetation that deer eat in the winter is completely covered by snow,” said the division’s Northern Region Wildlife Manager Jim Christensen.
Christensen added that the pellets meet the nutritional needs of deer when natural forage becomes temporarily unavailable. The pellets are the only item biologists will feed the deer — alfalfa, grass hay or other products will not be used.
“Deer will eat hay, but if that is their only source of feed during the winter they can have a very difficult time digesting it,” Christensen said. “We often find dead deer with stomachs filled with hay. We appreciate people wanting to help the deer, but we strongly discourage people from feeding hay or other things to deer.”
The stress of winter
Jolley said deer and elk conditions will continue to be monitored across Utah.
Winter is the most difficult time of the year for the animals. Since food is often covered by snow and can be difficult to find, deer have to live largely on fat reserves they built up during the warmer months. If the animals are receiving constant pressure from people and repeatedly having to run or move, they use up those fat reserves and energy they need to make it through the winter, the division said.
“We strongly encourage people — especially those who might be searching for shed antlers this winter — to give the animals plenty of space,” Christensen said.
To help protect the deer, conservation officers in northern Utah are doing extra patrols in areas where deer congregate in the winter. Intentionally harassing wildlife is a Class B misdemeanor in Utah. Those cited face a fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail.
“Our officers can’t be everywhere, so we encourage those who spot people harassing deer or any type of wildlife to contact us,” said the division’s Northern Region Lt. David Beveridge.
People can report wildlife harassment to a conservation officer any of the following ways:
- By calling the UTiP Hotline at 800-662-3337.
- The UTDWR Law Enforcement app.
- By texting 847411 (include UTIPNRO in the text to direct it to officers in the northern part of the state.)
More information on human and wildlife interactions, and how to stay safe, is available at wildawareutah.org.