Wyoming’s dry spell is sticking around.
Despite the rainstorms that greened the landscape over the last several weeks, moderate to extreme drought conditions persist across most of the state and are expected to develop in the handful of remaining areas not yet experiencing drought, Game and Fish Department staff said during a presentation to the agency’s oversight board this week.
Though precipitation varies by region, this year’s statewide average is lower than previous years. But averages alone don’t convey the full picture, said Ian Tator, terrestrial habitat supervisor for the Game and Fish Department. The timing of that precipitation is crucial.
For many of the parts of the state that have experienced average or higher-than-average precipitation, it came earlier in the year than usual, leaving them just as susceptible to drought as drier areas come summer.
“On a statewide basis, there’s nowhere that’s doing fantastic,” Tator told members of the Game and Fish Commission.
The current drought is the worst seen in Wyoming since 2013. Last year was the fifth driest and sixteenth warmest since 1895, and the first half of 2021 has also brought above-average temperatures, below-average precipitation and another year of significant wildfire risk to the state — a trend that is expected to worsen because of climate change.
“We’re coming off of some decent years and hopefully not entering a long period where it gets worse,” Tator said.
Wildlife behaviors change as the state dries up. Animals move closer to roadways, where the plants are still green, becoming more susceptible to collisions and forming crowds that can spread disease and worsen competition. Mountain lions enter urban areas to find food. Black bear conflicts become more common. Invasive species proliferate.
Drought also makes it harder for most species to raise their young. Sage grouse, which face a reduced food supply and heightened vulnerability to predators during dry periods, lost nearly an entire age class during the drought that spanned 2012 and 2013, Tator said.
Those same conditions put extra pressure on farmers and ranchers as surface water and forage supplies shrink, irrigation gets more challenging and feed costs rise. And fisheries become increasingly strained as water levels fall and temperatures rise.
With the northeastern corner of Wyoming in a severe drought, fisheries “have some dire conditions around the state, especially in the southwestern portion,” Dave Zafft, the agency’s fisheries management coordinator, told the commission.
Anglers and some researchers will likely be impacted as fish populations decline this year. But if the drought doesn’t abate, next year could be much worse, Zafft said.