Winter Recreation: The Wildlife Experts

Landscape photo of trees and ground covered in snow
Snowy landscape at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah. Photo by John Zaker/USFWS

Hibernation season. Soup season. Winter. Whatever you might call it, this is the time of year when you might sit on the edge of your seats with skis or snowshoes in hand ready for the first snowfall of the year. Others might live where winter doesn’t really exist (…we’re looking at you, Florida.) Whether it’s snowshoeing, ice fishing, or hiking, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuges and National Fish Hatcheries are special places to enjoy the winter season.

National Wildlife Refuges and National Fish Hatcheries offer many different winter recreational activities, and they are home to many wildlife species well-suited to fun in the cold. If you think you’re an expert at ice fishing, cross-country skiing, or even enjoying the cold weather and comfort food from inside the warmth of your home, the following animals might give you a run for your money.

Snowshoeing

There’s nothing like tying some tennis rackets to the bottom of your shoes and walking on snow. All jokes aside, snowshoeing is a popular activity to explore the vast landscapes at National Wildlife Refuges and National Fish Hatcheries without falling into the depths of snow.

While we have to strap ours on, the white-tailed ptarmigan, caribou, and Canada lynx are among the animals with naturally occurring snowshoes.

White-tailed ptarmigan with all white feathers walking atop snow
herd of caribou running on snowy landscape with mountains in background
Left Photo: White-tailed ptarmigan courtesy of Dan Arndt/Creative Commons | Right Photo: Herd of caribou at Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska by Chelsea Arnold/USFWS
Canada lynx with large paws walking on atop snowy landscape
Canada lynx at Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Photo by Lisa Hupp/USFWS

The white-tailed ptarmigan has feathers on its legs and feet that provide warmth and act as snowshoes allowing it to walk on snow rather than sink in it.

The caribou has four hooved “toes” on each foot. These toes spread out and allow it to walk on deep snow.

Similarly to the caribou, the Canada lynx has incredibly large paws that cover more surface area.

These three species are professionals at snowshoeing!

Cross-country Skiing

Two North American river otters nuzzling noses on ice
North American river otter tracks in the snow
At left, North American river otters at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming. Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS | At right, North American river otter tracks at Seedskadee. Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS

When you think of skiing, you might think of ski lifts and steep slopes. However, cross-country skiing involves using your own body strength to push yourself across serene, snowy landscapes.

The North American river otter also glides across the snow, and this semi-aquatic mammal is quite active during the winter months in search of food. Because it has a long body that doesn’t retain heat well, the otter must eat plenty of food to maintain fat reserves. It will travel between 10 and 18 miles to get a good meal. When traveling on land, the otter will “hop…hop…hop…belly slide” leaving marks similar to cross-country skis.

Maybe you can try sliding on your belly instead of using skis on your next ski outing.

Ice-fishing

Muskrat feeding while on ice at the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming. Photo by Kari Cieszkiewicz/USFWS

Ice-fishing. You know the “drill.” When ice-fishing, you might use an auger to drill a hole into the ice before beginning your frozen fishing frenzy.

During winter, the muskrat has its own auger to drill holes — its teeth. These holes provide both underwater entrances to its lodge and access to food. Even though the muskrat primarily eats plants, it occasionally chows down on fish, shellfish, frogs, and other aquatic organisms.

Disclaimer: We do not recommend using your teeth if you forgot to bring an auger.

Hiking

Adult bighorn sheep standing on rock cliffs with snow
At left, adult bighorn sheep at the National Elk Refuge. Photo by Ann Hough/USFWS | At right, bighorn sheep lamb at the National Elk Refuge. Photo by Gannon Castle/USFWS

It’s early in the morning and the sun is peaking out from behind the curvature of the Earth. You toss on your puffy coat, knit hat, gloves, and hiking boots. You’re ready to hit the trail!

The Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep is also an active hiker during the winter. It migrates to high mountain ranges where its thick winter coat keeps it warm. While you have special boots to keep you from slipping, this sheep has hoof adaptations that provide a strong grip. The outer rim of the hooves is hard and allows the sheep to dig into snow or ice. The inside of the hooves is soft and spongy allowing them to mold to the terrain and provide extra grip.

The Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep is an expert hiker during the winter and handles terrain that would make even the most geared-out human slip and fall.

Eat. Sleep. Snack. Repeat.

Greater sage-grouse standing in snowy sagebrush
Pronghorn laying the snow surrounded by sagebrush
At left, Male greater sage-grouse. Photo courtesy of Dan Dzurisin| At right, pronghorn. Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS

Let’s face it. Not everyone finds it invigorating to spend time outside during winter. Some of us might prefer to spend time cooking up some warm comfort food.

The greater sage-grouse and many more of the 350-plus wildlife species that reside in sagebrush country, including the pronghorn, spend most of the winter season eating. During this time of year, the diet of the greater sage-grouse consists of nearly 100% sagebrush. Like this grouse, many other wildlife species rely on sagebrush as a food source to survive.

Did we just catch you waiting on food to finish cooking while reading this blog?

Warm Vacation

Manatees at Crystal River. Photo by Michel Gilbert © (Used with permission)

If you’re not like Elsa and the cold DOES bother you, then a winter vacation in a warmer place is probably your cup of tea.

The Florida manatee beats the cold by heading to warmer waters in the winter, specifically in Florida springs and power plant discharge basins. The Florida manatee is a subspecies of the West Indian Manatee whose range is as far north as Virginia and as far south as Brazil. This gentle giant spends the winters in warmer waters eating and resting. The DREAM vacation.

Staying Inside

Grizzly bear in snow peaking out from behind pine trees
Two gopher desert tortoises walking through brown grass
At left, grizzly bear at Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Neal Herbert/NPS | At right, gopher tortoises. Photo by Samuel King Jr./U.S. Air Force

If you would rather watch the snow fall while inside the confines of your home, you are not alone. The grizzly bear and gopher tortoise also prefer to stay inside.

For around three to six months, the grizzly bear enters hibernation from the comforts of its den. During hibernation, its heart rate slows, metabolic rate drops, and body temperature lowers. This allows the bear to survive through winter, which involves a shortage of food and very cold temperatures.

The gopher tortoise is also all about the staycation life. This reptile stays in its burrow, which averages 15 feet long and 6.5 feet deep, coming out only to forage nearby or bask in the sun.

Fun Fact: Gopher tortoise burrows provide shelter for over 350 other species — making them a keystone species. A keystone species is a species an ecosystem largely depends on. If a keystone species is removed, it will drastically change the ecosystem.

These two species want you to know that there is no shame in staying inside, curling up in a warm blanket, and experiencing winter by watching it through your window. Self-care, am I right?

GIF: Winnie the Pooh playing in the snow by Disney/GIPHY

Next time you’re out on a winter adventure, channel your inner caribou, manatee, or any of the animals above to enjoy the season to the fullest.

Happy winter recreating!

If you want to learn about more wildlife winter adaptations, check out Best in Snow: How Wildlife Weathers Winter.

Story by Mikaela Oles, a Public Affairs Specialist in Colorado and Katherine Taylor, a Digital Content Specialist in Georgia.

With contributions from Lisa Hupp, a Communications Coordinator in Alaska and Katrina Leibich, a Digital Media Manager in Alaska.

Updates from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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We’re dedicated to the conservation, protection and enhancement of fish, wildlife and plants, and their habitats.

Updates from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.

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