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How do wildlife fare in a mild winter?

Mar. 11—When Annemarie Prince was chasing moose for research a few weeks back, she noticed there wasn't a lot of snow.

Prince, a biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said there was snow around, but not enough to make walking a challenge. No post-holing, no need for snowshoes.

"We could get anywhere we wanted to get in just our boots," Prince said.

Easy walking conditions in the woods in February is one of many side effects of a mild winter, a meteorological condition that has its ups and downs for humans.

It also has its ups and downs for wildlife, which is what I wanted to ask Prince about when we spoke earlier this month.

"There are likely winners and losers," she said.

Deer and elk may be among the winners. Food was likely easier for them to find over the past few months than in other years, and they probably burned less energy trying to stay warm.

Losers might include snowshoe hares, which turn white when days get short to help them hide from their predators. The natural camouflage only works when there's snow, however. Otherwise their white coats stand out like a visual dinner bell. This winter's paltry snowpack can't have helped.

Moose may have had a tougher time avoiding winter ticks, which only go into dormancy at certain temperatures. More warm days means more exposure to ticks. Prince and her team are beginning research to track the impacts of the ticks, which attach themselves to moose and can make the animals anemic and lead to their deaths.

Bears might sleep less, which isn't so much a problem for the bears as it is for the people who coexist with them. Prince said black bears have been seen out and about already this year, though they're likely staying close to their dens for now. Still, it might be time for people who live in bear country to begin thinking about ways to reduce the risk of conflict with their ursine neighbors.

Of course, the most noticeable impacts of a low snow year arrive months later, especially when a mild winter turns into a plain old drought. Rivers run low and hot, and vegetation dries out fast and becomes wildfire fuel.

Drought can also spur nasty outbreaks of blue tongue and epizootic hemorrhagic disease in deer, Prince said, as was seen in Eastern Washington in 2021 and 2015. When water is limited, the animals end up congregating wherever they can get a drink. If that happens to be near gnats that carry those diseases, they're in trouble.

A wet spring and summer could help. Rain has its ups and downs, too, but at least it's water.