WILDLIFE WATCHING -- The wind-packed or sun-crusted snow blanketing much of the region delivers one of the most difficult conditions for wintering birds and a wildlife.
Crusty snow with mild temperatures is more deadly than powdery snow and frigid cold.
It's time to rein in loose running dogs to give wild critters a break. It's against Washington law to let dogs chase wildlife. If a dog is caught chasing deer, the owner is liable. In extreme cases, officers have been authorized to shoot deer-chasing dogs.
Ground-feeding birds such as pheasants have trouble scratching through the hardpack to reach grains and other foods. Even deer find it hard in some areas to scrape the snow with their hooves to expose food.
I saw coyotes having trouble walking through open fields last weekend as their feet post-holed through the snow every few steps. The crust certainly made it more difficult for them to hunt for mice.
But where the crust was hard enough to hold the coyotes on top, they had a major advantage over any deer in the area.
When conditions allow a predator to stay on top of the snow while the larger prey breaks through, the prey are in trouble.
Deer are concentrated in areas where shade has kept the snow powdery or on slopes or ridges where wind and sun have exposed the ground. That leaves vast expanses of potential foraging areas off-limits, sealed under a barrier of snow.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife received a report last week of loose dogs chasing deer in Spokane County. Wonderful house pets can whip up their chase instincts when they come across stressed wildlife.
In these conditions, a couple of dogs would have a good chance of catching a deer. But just chasing winter-weary wildlife can leave it exhausted and with a greater chance of becoming winterkill, wildlife biologists say.
"In that case, the situation was compounded by a person who was feeding deer and concentrating them in an area," said Madonna Luers. "Our staff doesn't recommend winter feeding for big game. It just creates more problems."
Both Idaho and Washington wildlife agencies are using media this week to ask the public to refrain from feeding wildlife.
In these cold and snowy conditions, feeding is not the best way to help the deer and elk, they say. They will eat foods including grains and fruits but their digestive systems aren't tuned up to process them efficiently in winter.
The best thing most of us can do is keep the dogs inside and leave the critters alone until conditions ease up.
More info here.