JACKSON — Eight cow and calf elk bedded at central Jackson’s Mateosky Field for a morning last week and later spent part of their afternoon hooving and nosing for nonexistent grass atop the town’s fast-growing snow heap at the fairgrounds.
All around the valley, moose have seemingly stacked up near trailheads, on plowed or compacted roads and trails, or where humans have built their homes.
Mule deer carcasses have littered highway shoulders for days, as Wyoming Department of Transportation workers have been too busy plowing to get around to their usual roadside cleanup.
February’s historic snowfall has no doubt made life tough for wildlife large and small, but those who know the animals best say they’re doing OK, considering. The first two months of winter were of average severity, and those relatively mild conditions are now giving animals a leg up, and the fat reserves they need, for a fighting chance at survival.
“I don’t think we’re looking at excessive, 2017 levels of mortality,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist Gary Fralick said. “The difference, to me, between 2017 and ’19 is that winter came earlier two years ago. We were experiencing the snow depths that we’re looking at right now in December and January. It was regional, from Jackson all the way to Evanston. It’s way different this year.”
Game and Fish biologist Aly Courtemanch, Fralick’s counterpart for northern Jackson Hole, agreed that the snowpack and its effect on wildlife’s whereabouts are varying wildly. She spent much of last week in the air, conducting “classification” counts for moose, elk and other species that are counted annually. Many animals were in their normal haunts.
“When you go north in the Gros Ventre and Buffalo Valley the snow depth is not like it is down here,” Courtemanch said. “Gros Ventre moose were in their usual places. Some were on the main river, but there were also some up high in the side drainages. Two years ago all the moose were concentrated right in the river.”
It’s a different story in the southern parts of Jackson Hole. East and West Gros Ventre buttes, for example, are usually dotted with the big brown ungulates. Not so this winter.
“When we flew the other day, there were no moose there,” Courtemanch said. “All were concentrated down in the neighborhoods. I think the snow was too deep for them up high.”
As a general rule, larger-bodied elk, moose and bison are best equipped to survive doozy winters, while smaller deer and pronghorn are more prone to mass die-offs. On the National Elk Refuge, biologist Eric Cole has seen no evidence of elk succumbing to the elements at faster-than-usual rates, despite the snowpack being 2 1/2 to 3 times its normal late-February depth on the valley floor.
“Mortality so far doesn’t seem to be any higher than normal,” Cole said. “Anecdotally, there’s no large-scale mortality event occurring.”
Elk on the refuge typically receive eight pounds of alfalfa pellets per head every day, but feeders will up the poundage when conditions are especially cold and snowy because animals’ nutritional needs are higher as conditions worsen. Some days during the recent storm cycles wapiti have been getting up to 10 pounds of feed a head, Cole said.
Despite their daily rations, even fed elk can die by the hundreds during the toughest of times. Some 20 percent of the calves gathered on the refuge succumbed during the winter of 2016-17, partly because they arrived on the federal preserve in rough shape.
“In this case, that might not be true,” Cole said. “Animals were most likely in good condition. We may not see the same effects that we saw two years ago.”
Courtemanch said the jury is still out on how Jackson Hole’s overwintering mule deer will fare. During her aerial survey she didn’t spot any pronghorn, which usually migrate out of the valley.
“Deer that are close to town are having to deal with really deep snow, but at this time we’re not seeing high fawn mortality,” Courtemanch said. “I think a lot of it will depend on how long the winter lasts. If we have deep snow and cold weather through March, it could be a different story.”
Large complexes of winter range used by elk, deer and pronghorn in the Green River Basin are in spotty shape. On the western side of the basin, in the Wyoming Range foothills, there are areas with bare ground, Fralick said. It’s different farther east, nearer the Wind River Range.
There are “severe” conditions on winter ranges throughout the Pinedale Region, Regional Supervisor John Lund said in a statement.
“We will likely see above-average mortality in some areas,” Lund said, “mostly among mule deer and pronghorn fawns if conditions do not improve quickly.”
Even if the animals are not about to keel over, land and wildlife managers are urging residents to give wildlife around Jackson space as the record snow is stacking up. There have been no reports of conflicts so far on the Bridger-Teton National Forest, but forest officials are erecting new signs at trailheads for Cache and Game creeks and elsewhere in coming days to educate people about how to conduct themselves around moose.
“Moose are equipped to handle this kind of stuff, but all animals are going to look to conserve energy, so if the road is plowed, why not go there?” Bridger-Teton staffer Linda Merigliano said. “Please be alert and give them room.”
Game and Fish’s Courtemanch concurred.
“The moose calls we’re getting right now are all moose in neighborhoods hanging out by people’s houses,” she said. “Moose are in people’s driveways and by their front doors, and they don’t want to move.
“We’re trying to remind people that it’s winter, and you should expect that they’re at these lower elevations,” Courtemanch said. “This is their habitat too, so give them space.”