Wyoming Winter Update - Hold My Beer…
By Guy Eastman
With all the CWD madness going on over the past few years, and with some very, very drastic, scorched earth solutions proposed, it looks light good old Mother Nature might have asked us to hold her beer, and we did. At this point it doesn’t look like there will be enough mule deer left in Wyoming to transmit any diseases to each other.
The official results from the winter’s wrath have yet to actually be released however, the information that has been shared is as bad as we thought it would be. The devastation is far and wide, even the elk in some areas struggled to survive.
In the official weather records, we had to go back to the winter of 1949 to find a winter even comparable to this past one. My dad was just a baby that year. I will always remember the photograph my grandfather showed me of him as a school kid sitting on top of a telephone pole eating his lunch north of Jackson Hole, he was wearing snowshoes. That’s how deep the snow was that year and this was one of those years.
The actual snowpack in Wyoming averaged around 165% of normal, but even that number doesn’t begin to describe the winter we had as a whole. It wasn’t just the amount of snow that made it so devastating, it was also the way it came and the duration of the suck that ensued. The snow came early, about the 22nd of October and never stopped, not even for a week in some areas. We usually get a nice spring thaw around the middle of January, not this year. The town of Pinedale clocked a record setting 60 plus days of below zero temperatures, in a row! As the snow piled up, the temperatures dropped beyond record setting in many areas, causing the snow to crust up hard and put the wildlife back on their heels for the final time for many.
It just kept coming, and coming and coming. Never letting up for even a week, which is very unusual. As the winter kept pressing on well into spring, the wildlife continued to tap out at record levels, well into the month of April and even possibly May. With no green up in sight many animals succumbed to death, even as the weather began to improve. The damage was already done, it was the perfect storm.
The mule deer and antelope took the brunt of the death toll on the chin. Wyoming alone has lost 70% to 80% of some herds – beyond catastrophic levels. As a result, the state has slashed many quotas for deer and antelope fall hunts for this year. If you are crazy enough to apply for a tag this year, it will be harder than ever to draw as most quotas have been cut by an average of 25-30%.
To put the loss into perspective, the Game and Fish researchers collared 130 mule deer in December as they arrived onto the winter range. The sample consisted of 65 fawns/yearlings and 65 adults, a mixture of bucks and does, two years plus in age. These deer arrived on the winter range in very solid shape; a sign of things to come I guess.
I talked to Game and Fish personnel in April and the death toll on this sampling was beyond jaw dropping. One hundred percent of the fawns had perished, all of them, every single one. Add to that the fact that 35 of the 65 adult deer had perished and more were continuing to die. As of the first week of April, 100 out of the 135 deer collared had died, 77%. One buck died the very next day and more continued to succumb to starvation as the month went on. The winter was persisting and deer had nowhere to go; and this herd isn’t alone. The elk refuge in Jackson Hole had hundreds of dead elk littered across the landscape, a rarity given the fact they are fed during the winter months. The highway between Casper and Shoshoni was so littered with dead antelope carcasses, that in one section you could nearly walk an entire mile hopping from carcass to carcass, never touching the ground. Shed hunters on the winter range complained of the stench of death in nearly every draw they walked through. The smell of death is smothering the Wyoming landscape as the snows melt, the ground thaws and spring winds blow.
As a result, the Game and Fish Department has made the very proactive move to cut quotas nearly statewide for deer and antelope hunts. Nearly 30% of the tag quotas were removed in many or most hunt areas and regions. The draw will be very stiff this year, if you decide to even apply, which I would highly recommend against doing.
I would suggest buying points this year for Wyoming. I can honestly say that if I were a non-resident hunter I really don’t think there is a single deer or antelope hunt in the entire state I would risk more than five points on right now. Don’t do it, don’t think you can buck the trend, the hunting will be poor at best. Think about it, the state lost nearly 80% of their wildlife and only cut the quotas by 25-30%. Where does that leave you? Not in a good hunting situation.
The worst part, this will take the better part of a decade to bounce back from, if we ever do. The big worry now is that the populations have dropped so low that the predators alone will keep them from ever bouncing back. There may not be enough does to produce enough fawns to exceed the predation curve. This would be disastrous to say the least.
At best, we are looking at four or five years to get back to where we were on October 1st, 2022 which was an already reduced herd count nearly statewide due to the drought we endured the three years prior. Then another three to five years to get back to where we need to be. So, we are looking at a seven to ten-year bounce back. . . at best!
The one possible bright spot, the elk seemed to do okay in most areas of the state. More elk on better habitat will produce big elk numbers over the next few years, without question. Good luck on the elk and steer clear of the deer and antelope draw. Bank your points for better days ahead.