Drought, tough winters impacting big game herds

LARAMIE — Drought and harsh winters have taken their toll on the health of some big game herds in southeast Wyoming in the last few years, which could translate into tougher hunting conditions as summer turns to fall.

According to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, pronghorn are one species seeing a population decline in some areas, although herd health varies.

Embere Hall, Laramie region wildlife management coordinator, said prolonged winters and poor spring and summer moisture mean that hunters may have a hard time finding trophy-quality bucks.

“Due to low summer precipitation in much of the region, pronghorn likely will be concentrated near wet meadows and other water sources,” she said.

While the Laramie Valley herd looks about the same as it has in recent years, the Iron Mountain, Meadowdale, Hawk Springs and Dwyer herds in the northern and eastern parts of the region have declined alongside a decrease in fawn production. Wildlife managers have reduced some hunt licenses or are opening seasons later.

“We’ve been seeing a decline in fawn survival for pronghorn in much of the Laramie Region,” said spokesperson Robin Kepple.

The Medicine Bow and Elk Mountains herds have experienced above-average winter mortality during the last two years, coupled with poor or fair fawn production. Herds rely on winter range in the Shirley Basin, an area of special concern.

“(It) has seen little or no spring or summer precipitation the past few years, and the forage is in poor condition,” Kepple said.

Kepple said wildlife managers are also expecting to find lower mule deer fawn survival when they do surveys later this year, in part because of drought.

“Dry conditions prevent the growth of adequate forage, which results in poor body conditions for doe pronghorn,” Kepple said. “Lactating does that are not receiving adequate nutrition often cannot produce enough milk, which affects fawn survival.”

For herds in the Goshen Rim and Laramie Mountains, poor fawn production is combined with high prevalence of chronic wasting disease, which means it might be a struggle to find older deer or trophy bucks.

The Sheep Mountain, Platte Valley and Shirley Mountain mule deer herds are stable or slightly increasing, however, and buck ratios are high across the Platte Valley.

“If moderate weather conditions continue into the fall, hunters will most likely locate deer in higher-elevation summer and transition ranges,” Hall said.

Hunters are encouraged to submit samples from harvested animals for CWD testing, especially from the Goshen Rim and Sheep Mountain herds, which are the focus of sampling this year.

Kepple said the Laramie Region was the only region last year to meet its collection goal, and wildlife managers are hoping to continue that success.

“We really need the public’s cooperation on this to meet these quotas and provide these samples, so our scientists can learn more about the disease,” she said.

Elk can deal with drought better than mule deer and pronghorn, but they’ve still had to deal with tough winters in southeast Wyoming over the past few years.

Hall said area elk populations remain above their objective sizes. Because of hunting pressure public land, hunters should prepare to pursue elk in areas far from roads and trails.

“Look for additional access opportunities on hunter management areas and walk-in areas,” she said.

Bighorn sheep and moose hunting opportunities are both expected to be excellent in southeast Wyoming this fall. Hunters lucky enough to land a license typically have success rates higher than 90 percent for both.

There haven’t been any major wildfires in southeast Wyoming this summer. The 2018 Britania Mountain Fire burned more than 32,000 acres west of Wheatland, and land managers are now struggling with a cheatgrass invasion, which is typical of burn areas.

The invasive grass is the first to turn green in the spring as it out-competes native species that benefit wildlife, but then dries out early in the season, increasing fire danger even more.

Game and Fish is working to control the invasion through the aerial application of herbicide, as it has done across other local burn areas, Kepple said.

Hunters and other recreationists should also be aware that the current hot weather can increase the likelihood of bear-human conflicts. Without adequate precipitation, the habitat doesn’t provide enough food for bears, and they start to look elsewhere.

“Black bears are looking for food anywhere they can find it, resulting in an increase in conflicts with humans,” Kepple said.

The U.S. Forest Service recently implemented a rule requiring all visitors to developed sites to use bear-safe practices with food and other attractants, and officials recommend that back-country visitors do the same.