Skills & Techniques

Respect Wildlife in a Winter Wonderland

Guest - December 27, 2016

Leavenworth,WA: Winter may be the most magical time to encounter wildlife in the backcountry. Many species are in hibernation or torpor, so there are just fewer critters for one to encounter. However, snow allows the trained eye to discern entire stories from tracks left in the snow. The absence of foliage allows one to see farther in the forest, and snow on animal fur adds a beautiful depth and texture.

However, despite many species’ amazing ability to adapt to the changing of the seasons, freezing temperatures compounded by a dearth of forage, create a stressful time for all critters. Fresh snow acts as a beacon for us, the recreating masses, to visit the outdoors. A busy weekend can put a great deal of stress on the wildlife striving to survive the cold months. Here are a few easy ways to Respect Wildlife (Principle #6) while enjoying the the best the winter has to offer.


1. Keep Your Noise Down: Many species save up their fat stores in the warmer months to survive the winter. Disturbances make them stop eating and often go into flight mode. Additionally, traveling through snow requires sixty times more energy than on barren ground. Please be aware of playing music or loud conversations while traveling in the backcountry. If you are snowmobiling, you may consider modifying your route to avoid sensitive habitat areas.

2. Keep Your Dog on a Leash: Dogs love to chase animals. My dog Tahoma does! That’s why it’s extra important keep them on a leash while traveling in the backcountry during the winter months. On a busy weekend, there may be dozens of dogs on a trail. So even if your dog isn’t a “chaser,” the critters don’t know that and will perceive Tahoma as a threat. This may either inspire them to run off, once again burning those fat reserves, or keep wildlife from visiting the area at all, thereby eliminating that magical chance encounter. I often find a dog park or another appropriate spot for my dog to run around before we reach the trail so she can get some of her crazy energy out before I leash her.

3.Still Don’t Feed the Wildlife: Despite the lack of calories available, animals still don’t need your food. Wildlife have achieved their amazing adaptations due to the necessity of the seasons. If we purposely feed the wildlife, we will interrupt those critical adaptations and strategies they are dependent upon for survival. Further, remember that organic matter doesn’t break down at all in the winter months, so it’s increasingly important to Dispose of Waste Properly (Principle #3) and not leave crumbs, crusts, and cores out there. This goes double for dog waste as it will all just accumulate until it melts out in the spring (gross!).

4. Give Them Space: If you encounter wildlife out there on the trail, consider taking an alternate route, or just give them some time to vacate without feeling like they are being chased. Winter is a time of migration for thousands of species of birds. Weighing only a few ounces, these creatures journey thousands of miles. Their energy reserves are minimal, so please try to avoid flushing birds you may encounter.

5. Watch Where You are Going: It is often said that water is the most durable surface to travel on. It stands to reason that as a solid, snow creates an excellent durable surface as well.That being said, snow allows us to travel away from conventional trails, to reaches of the backcountry that we might not otherwise visit. Be aware of the areas you are traveling through. Try to avoid sensitive habitats like marshes and thickets. If traveling through a meadow, stick to the open middle rather than the sheltered edges. With these few simple steps, we can protect animals during their most vulnerable time, and also preserve those “wow” moments and magical encounters with wildlife in the winter woods.

Have fun. Be Safe. Leave No Trace.

Leave No Trace’s Alex Roberts and Emy Gelb are part of the 2016 Subaru/Leave No Trace Traveling Trainer Program that provides free, mobile education to communities across the country. Proud partners of this program include Subaru of America, REI, Fjallraven, ENO, Deuter, Thule, Taxa Outdoors and SmartWool.

Let’s protect and enjoy our natural world together

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