Mild Winters

snowshoe hare

This snowshoe hare stands out like a beacon when it changes to white in anticipation of snow that doesn’t come.

As I drove through Island Park last week, I was stunned by the bare hills surrounding Henrys Lake. It was the first week of January and there was very little snow until my eyes climbed to the top of the range. This theme continued as I headed down the Madison River through Ennis and then Norris, Montana. Bare fields and lower slopes were everywhere.

There is no question the winter of 2023-24 has been extra mild so far, almost the exact opposite from last winter. What does a mild winter, one with significantly lower snow than normal, mean for wildlife?

For most animals, winter is a tough time and some adapt seasonally by growing thicker coats, migrating, changing color, storing food, hibernating, and/or requiring less food (for instance, deer and elk, even when fed all they will eat, consume less in winter than in summer).

So, what happens when winter isn’t normal—is that a good thing or a bad thing, or just business as usual?

For some animals, a mild winter means a shorter migration or not migrating at all. About 10 years ago, an elk calf study in Island Park found that several of the calves (and their mothers) marked in the spring did not migrate the following winter which proved to be mild, much like this one.

When wintering big game don’t have to fight deep snow on winter range, survival is higher. Some migrating birds may find all the groceries they need well before reaching their ultimate destination and cut migration short. Waterfowl may find much more open water and better field foraging with less snow. In these cases, less snow may be a blessing.

That is less the case for animals that are adapted for the cold or depend upon it for camouflage, cover, or insulation.

For instance, pikas, those cute little critters of alpine rockslides, really depend upon the snow to keep them warm. With sufficient snowpack, their system of burrows can maintain a steady temperature of around 34 degrees, Fahrenheit. When the snow doesn’t come in sufficient quantity, their world is much colder, meaning that they must eat more of their stored food, potentially running out of supplies before things begin to green up. In addition, if the snow is thin, their little brown bodies are much more noticeable to predators.

Snowshoe rabbits and ermine have the opposite problem. These animals change colors to match the seasons. If the snow doesn’t come on time, they may find themselves as white hotspots on a brown background, easy for predators to see. If warmer winters with less snow become the norm, these two species might be in trouble.

How about bears? Does low snowpack rock their world? According to biologists at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Montana, this mild winter has delayed bear denning in some cases. Bear tracks were noted in Yellowstone National Park on Christmas Day. It is possible that bears are finding that their dens are not as warm and cozy as normal this year without the snowpack to insulate them.

In addition, if the winter snow continues to be light, bears may be up and about much earlier than normal and face a long period of unaccustomed cold before spring comes. Ramifications? Who knows?

Animals are fine-tuned to the winter climate, but are also flexible to a degree. They will usually get through the occasional abnormal winter, whether it is extra rough or super mild. It is the long-term shift toward a drier climate that will really test them and force them to move, adapt or die.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho