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Nearly 50% of two historic wildlife herds could succumb to this winter. Wyomingites are frustrated

An antelope stands broadside in the snow and looks at the camera. A dead antelope is at their feet.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
A young antelope stands over a dead antelope south of Pinedale.

On a county road just south of Pinedale, Vahe Alaverdian is counting dead antelope near his home.

“There’s 16 down there,” he said with a deep sigh. “There’s a dead one and a doe sitting next to it. Oh, it's a young fawn – last year's fawn. Look at how skinny the poor thing is.”

Normally there would be hundreds of antelope this time of year grazing sagebrush and spring grass. But instead, there are piles of dead antelope on top of a blanket of snow. Some are still alive – but barely.

“Look at these eagles sitting here for an easy feast,” Alaverdian said. “It’s a banquet.”

This unprecedented wildlife loss in some of the country’s largest antelope and mule deer herds is the result of an incredibly harsh winter in southwest Wyoming. It is expected that as many as 50 percent of the animals will die before summer.

Starvation and disease are deadly

Compared to past years, this winter started earlier and has lasted longer. Also, there was above average snowpack and cold days.

“One of the most glaring examples of how cold it's been, if you look specifically at Pinedale, in a normal year measured at their airport there are about 39 days that are below zero, and this year, there have been 62,” said Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) Director Brian Nesvick.

This was compounded with a rare bacterial pneumonia disease called Mycoplasma Bovis that broke out in the Sublette County antelope herd. So far, WGFD said it has killed 500 antelope, although as the snow melts and more bodies are uncovered that number will likely be higher.

Wyoming is regarded as having the most antelope in the country, and the Sublette herd is the largest in the state at a population of 40,000 before this winter. Radio collar data shows that 50 percent of the collared animals have died this winter, which is indicative of how many might have died in the entire herd, according to the WGFD. That would mean about 20,000 antelope died.

The Wyoming Range mule deer herd, one of the largest in the world at a population of about 30,000, also took a huge hit this winter. Basically all of the fawns – the entire next generation – have died. Radio collar data shows that an estimated 45 percent of adults have died too.

For perspective, in an average winter, only about 20 percent of antelope and mule deer die in these herds.

Frustration from years of herd declines  

The situation is so dire that Wyoming’s Governor Mark Gordon recently held two emergency meetings with residents in Pinedale and Rawlins.

“We want to hear from you – thoughts about things that we should look at things that we should be considering,” Gordon said. “And if you have some thoughts, please feel free to express them.”

And people did. There was palpable frustration in the rooms.

Logan Hedges of Star Valley made the 90-mile drive one way to Pinedale to speak to Gordon and the WGFD.

“I debated coming over to this and to be honest with you, we're all a little frustrated,” Hedges said.

He said this winter is just the tip of the iceberg. The Wyoming Range mule deer herd – one that is highly regarded by hunters, scientists and wildlife enthusiasts around the world – has declined for decades now. In the 90s, the herd was double what it was prior to this winter.

“It's hard for me to look at my kid and explain that to him – a kid that loves to hunt. I would love for him to have the opportunities that I had growing up, and they're just not there,” Hedges said.

The WGFD is concerned. They know the declines are linked to disease and habitat, but they are trying to better understand why with the Mule Deer Monitoring Project they launched late last year.

A Game and Fish employee points out something in a decaying mule deer.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department
A WGFD employee looks at a dead mule deer carcass. Director Nesvick said, "Those are the animals that they invest their lives in… and it doesn't make them go home at the end of the day with a very good feeling in their belly."

“We're as frustrated as a lot of the folks in this room are,” Director Nesvick said to the Pinedale audience. “We haven't found the silver bullet way to make [herd population increase] happen. This [winter] doesn't help – it's out of our control.”

What can we do?

Nearly 200 attendees tuned in on Zoom or in person for the two meetings. Some folks offered up suggestions for what to do for the rest of this winter and for any future winters that are this harsh.

“Plow these roads and kick some hay out and feed him like they did in the old days,” Sublette County resident Tyler Wilson said.

But, Nesvick said deer and antelope cannot digest hay very well. In fact, it could even kill them. Also, plowing the snow could damage sagebrush, which takes years to recover. Nesvik said they actually tried to do that at the National Elk Refuge once and it made the situation worse.

“It melted and froze and created gigantic ice piles that made it even harder for the animals to move around,” Nesvick said.

But mainly, residents called for severely limiting or nixing hunting seasons altogether this year.

“Hunting in Wyoming, it's a privilege for all of us. It's not a right we have, it's a privilege,” Carbon County resident Jim Schell said.

“We love to hunt,” Sublette County resident Paul Ulrich said. “That's what we do all fall. And for Wyoming's wildlife population, if it means us taking a year or two off, it's the right thing to do.”

“I wouldn't be against seeing them shut down for a few years,” Terry Pollard, a Sublette County outfitter. “We don't have any deer. I mean, they're basically gone.”

Nesvick responded saying there will be a lot of cuts, but there will be some hunting still – specifically, bucks.

“We can mess with hunting seasons and have a short-term effect,” he said. “But for the long-term, hunting seasons aren't the answer. We're killing hardly any females and bucks don't have fawns. So it's all about how we make females be productive and have lots of fawns. And the way to do that is habitat and movement.”

Nesvick added that with all the snow this winter, vegetation is going to thrive and will fatten the animals for next winter.

Three antelope lay dead in the snow.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Dead antelope south of Pinedale. A rare bacterial pneumonia disease broke out in the herd a couple of months ago.

Still, some residents pushed back on Nesvick, wanting to know if finances are playing a role in having any hunting this year. That is because 85 percent of WGFD’s revenue comes from recreational tags, like hunting.

“We will not be making any decisions – any decisions – about hunting seasons based on revenue for the department,” Nesvick said. “I want to make that very clear.”

Short-term solutions

WGFD is proposing to make cuts to hunting quotas. Tags for antelope in southwest Wyoming will mostly be cut in half, and no does or fawns will be available. For the Wyoming Range mule deer herd, there will mostly only be tags for antlered bucks with three points or more, and the season will be cut from three weeks to two.

Sublette County resident and hunter Vahe Alaverdian hoped there would not be a hunting season this year. He said he will not be hunting this year, and if anything, he will buy a tag and not use it. For him, seeing the piles of dead antelope every time he leaves his house puts everything in perspective.

“Part of the reason I moved to Wyoming is just the abundance of wildlife which surrounds me and the house and so on,” Alaverdian said. “But looking at this visual, I don't think we're going to recover from this in a year or two.”

The draft hunting proposals will be finalized at the upcoming Wyoming Game and Fish Commission meeting Tuesday, April 18. However, as the snow starts to melt and the agency better understands the devastation of this winter, emergency changes can still be made. This could even include postponing the shed antler hunting season that opens on May 1.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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