By Steve Hubrecht

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The polar vortex that put a freeze on the Columbia Valley in January didn’t make things any easier for local wildlife. That said, most species here have adapted to deal with very cold conditions on at least a temporary basis, and will have survived the cold snap.

The mercury plunged when the polar vortex arrived in the valley on Thursday, Jan. 11 and stuck around for a full week. Temperatures were below minus 30 degrees Celsius, and below minus 40 with wind chill factor.

The valley’s human residents dealt with the extreme conditions by staying inside as much as possible. The downtown streets were empty of pedestrians. Ditto for the nordic ski trails and skating trails on Lake Windermere and Lake Lillian. Even the ski hills were devoid of people, at least when the cold snap first hit, as the resorts were closed. But staying inside is not an option for wildlife.

“It does have a negative impact on them. Most wildlife have evolved to deal with cold weather, but when it gets to extremes like we had, it is very hard on them,” Kootenay Columbia Conservation Officer Sgt. Greg Kruger told the Pioneer. 

“Ungulates, for instance, expend a lot more energy when it’s cold. So they burn fat reserves. That then means they need to expend even more energy searching for food sources, especially if there’s a lot of snow, digging through it,” he said.

All that said, wildlife do have tricks of their own to minimize the effect of cold spells.

“So ungulate species, to go back to that example, they’ll find relatively sheltered areas that offer at least some reprieve from wind and snow,” said Kruger. “It’s remarkable, actually, how wildlife does seem to know what they should do when it gets very cold.”

Although to humans stuck indoors, the polar vortex seemed to hang over Invermere forever, but the week it spent here is not all that long for wildlife.

“For wildlife that’s not what we’d call a sustained cold,” said Kruger. “In the Columbia Valley it’s been fortunate for the wildlife in that temperatures were milder than normal heading into winter and also milder than normal in early winter. And there wasn’t a lot of sustained snow. That made things easier for wildlife overall before the cold snap came. Now that the snap is over, for most species, they’ll recover from it fairly quickly.”

It isn’t always that way, however. Sometimes winters are harsh for prolonged periods of time. Or for almost the whole season. 

An extreme cold snap of several weeks in the midst of an already-difficult winter can be a fatal tipping point for some animals — especially if accompanied by deep snow that makes food hard to find. 

“Some will perish in cases like that,” outlined Kruger. “If they’ve already got low fat reserves, and are in poor health, the cold could be the factor that pushes them over the edge.”