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Heed Those 'Closed Trail' Signs If You Want To Help Wildlife

<p>Mule deer roam in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.</p>

Mule deer roam in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.

Bluebird skies, warming temperatures, and snow-free terrain might have you itching to hike your favorite trail.

But be prepared to encounter a "closed trail" sign. Several Northwest hiking routes are off-limits to humans this time of year. That's because the region’s migrant mule deer still need a few months to themselves.

“Giving them a little bit of space and a little consideration can be helpful to ensure that we have healthy deer populations,” said David Volsen, a district wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Volsen said late winter is especially important. Females are pregnant. Deer and elk are at their thinnest. Some years they’re squeaking through the last few winter months. They need every last bit of energy they have stored up. And, Volsen said, they don’t need to be running from people.

One area that can typically draw more hikers is the Sage Hills area near Wenatchee, Washington. Since the 1980s, Chelan Public Utility District has owned 960 acres in the Cascade foothills. The area is criss-crossed with hiking trails but it's also prime winter habitat for mule deer.

“People get cabin fever — I understand it. The trails are starting to dry out,” said Von Pope, the utility district's wildlife program manager. “The days are longer, temperatures are coming up, and people are ready to get out. But the reality is for the deer, that is when they’re at their lowest energy reserve and that’s when unnecessary impacts to them can have the greatest effect.”

Pope said his utility district is still seeing a lot of deer hanging around the area. A week ago employees counted 114 deer -- twice the average for this time of year.

The Chelan-Douglas Land Trust helps manage the hiking trail on the PUD’s land. Hanne Beener, the trust’s trails stewardship coordinator, says some of the area’s wide open terrain leaves deer with no place to hide when people are around.

“There’s no trees to separate the wildlife from the humans,” Beener said. “There’s that visual impact that extends a lot farther than it might in another area.”

Beener said there are plenty of hikes that are open while areas protecting mule deer are closed. The closed mule deer areas in Chelan County will reopen April 1.

Every winter Oregon closes off access to wild lands where elk and deer congregate, including the Phillip W. Schneider Wildlife Area near Dayville, and Bridge Creek Wildlife Area near Ukiah. Both will re-open April 14. But uncommonly warm winters like this one make it harder to prevent human disturbances of these animals, said Michelle Dennehy, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Big game are more dispersed, so some of them might not be spending time in traditional winter range areas,” Dennehy said. “The concern is that they could be in areas that are more accessible to people because they’re not in a closed area.”

This year’s above-average temperatures may be increasing the odds of human disturbances of wintering wildlife, but they're also helping many species by "greening up" plants earlier than usual. That means herbivores will have more calorie-rich foods to eat earlier in the season.

“Deer have had a much larger area, and therefore availability of forage, this year than they have in years past,” Volsen said.

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