Tough Winter
For Wyoming Big Game
While winter has moderated in January, the stage is set to possibly be inflicted with significant losses of mule deer and antelope across much of the Cowboy State this spring.

"We've been set up for this with last summer's drought. Wild animals entered the winter in very poor shape, and we had one of the coldest Novembers on record," says Jay Lawson, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department's chief game warden. "Conditions right now are highly variable around the state, but spring storms could be absolutely devastating to wildlife."

On top of that, wildlife habitat conditions are horrible across much of Wyoming. Even if good numbers of mule deer and antelope survive the winter, there may not be much to eat well into the spring when things begin to turn green.

"We've had a series of mild winters, and a long stretch of drought, so a lot of the habitat isn't in very good shape anyway," says Harry Harju, G&F's assistant wildlife division chief. "Even with normal moisture this spring, it could take years for shrubs to recover across much of Wyoming."

Average to above-average antelope and deer mortality is expected in the Jackson-Pinedale region, according to regional wildlife supervisor Bernie Holz. "We've had a lot of drought at lower elevations, but things were better up high," Holz says. "From data we collected, we had no shrub growth throughout the region last summer." According to him, most deer and antelope entered the winter in good body condition, but last summer's drought has left crucial winter ranges in poor condition. "We had cold weather in late November and December, but the temperatures have moderated since then. We have some bare ground on winter range, even near Big Piney, and we haven't got a lot of snow on most of our winter ranges," Holz adds.

Snow cover and cold temperatures are the norm in the east half of the Big Horn Basin, says Gary Brown, regional wildlife supervisor in the Cody region. "It's been cold, and it's stayed that way," he says. Very warm temperatures and very little precipitation have encompassed the Cody/Meeteetse area. "We need moisture in the northwest part of the basin. We are well below normal," Brown says. He adds snow levels are much more typical for the season south of Meeteetse.

Early snow has turned to a hard crust in the Sheridan region, says regional wildlife supervisor Gary Shorma. The Powder River country is seeing the most winter and is an area that was heavily impacted by drought last summer. "We saw very little growth on shrubs and grasses last summer in the badlands and foothills," Shorma says. "Deer are coming down into haystacks, and we're finding them dead with full bellies because they can't digest the hay. The Powder River country is one of our big deer and antelope producers," he adds.

Highly variable winter conditions are occurring throughout the Green River region, says Regional Wildlife Supervisor Steve DeCecco. The worst conditions in southwest Wyoming are in the Baggs area where since Nov. 1, he reports there have been 30 inches of snow and only been about five days where the low temperature was above zero. "The moderating weather in January has helped big game in most of the rest of the region," DeCecco says. "But due to the overall poor body condition of deer and antelope, many of our field personnel anticipate growing fawn mortality as winter progresses."

Some areas of the Laramie region are feeling the effects of winter, and others have moderated, says regional wildlife supervisor Gregg Arthur. "The Laramie Range (mountains between Laramie and Douglas) is a lot like the Arctic," Arthur says. "Antelope in those areas are having a tough time. As a result, there are 10 times as many antelope spending their winter on the Wheatland flats."

Arthur says winter has been tough on wild animals around Laramie. An example of this is a herd of 60 antelope trapped in the city of Laramie by Interstate 80 and deep snow. "We've been seeing 35-degree days with little to no melting, and we've got heavily crusted snow," he says. "In areas with snow, it is not warming up enough so the snow can melt."

Drifted snow is the rule around Medicine Bow, and many deer and antelope have left the area and are wintering along the Medicine Bow River and in Bates Hole to the north. In the Saratoga Valley, "We are very snowed up, and we're seeing wildlife damage every day," Arthur says. "With last summer's drought, the grass is gone and we have elk eating hay in ranch yards. We will have mortality."

Winter conditions have been highly variable in the Lander region. "Early storms improved the hunting success, because the animals were already on winter ranges," says regional wildlife supervisor Kent Schmidlin. "These are winter ranges that were in horrible shape entering the fall because of the drought. We had snow fall in October and early November, and it remains," Schmidlin adds. Temperatures have moderated in January, and Schmidlin believes many people "may be feeling a false sense of security" about how the winter will affect wildlife. "The country that is open was burned up last summer, and it's been used. The habitat is in poor shape." Wildlife workers started finding dead deer in urban areas as early as November. "We usually don't see this until January or February," Schmidlin says.

Elk in the Red Desert, Green Mountain and Beaver Rim country are also displaying drought impacts. Many elk checked by game wardens and wildlife biologists last fall were vexed with very low fat-reserves. Some areas of the Casper region are seeing moderating winter conditions. Others, such as the Rattlesnakes, Bates Hole, Lusk and Sundance, are seeing winter's fury. In recent flights over elk area 120 northwest of Casper, for example, poor forage conditions have forced the entire elk herd to move to other areas.

Southeast of Casper, elk in the Laramie Peak area are in extremely poor body condition, says regional wildlife supervisor Scott Talbott. "The habitat is in poor shape, and we're starting to lose antelope and deer fawns near Casper, Douglas and Sundance."

The November/December period was the fourth coldest in Cheyenne since 1895, reports meteorologist Don Day of Cheyenne. Day, whose Day Weather, Inc. provides weather forecasts to radio stations, newspapers and businesses, says Wyoming still has the potential for one more severe cold spell. "It's been as cold as 95 below in Siberia, and that cold air is still in the hemisphere and should influence us in time," Day says.

He predicts colder than normal temperatures with near normal precipitation for the remainder of the winter. At this juncture, he also foresees a wet spring. "February and March could be really interesting," he says of the weather prospects. That could also be very interesting for G&F biologists as they try to assess winter big game mortality while developing recommendations for 2001 hunting seasons.

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