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Wintering Elk

Wintering elk and bison stretch across a hillside on Feb. 11, 2015, at the National Elk Refuge outside Jackson. A string of severe winter storms have taxed elk, moose and mule deer in the Jackson area this year. 

JACKSON — From his office window overlooking an alleyway parking lot behind Lucky’s Market, Hamish Tear watched a struggling, mangy cow moose suffer an excruciatingly slow death.

The animal had eaten every bud it could reach on the aspens within eyeshot of Tear’s window, and then barely moved for five days before dying Monday.

“It was tough to watch,” Tear said. “Somehow, I feel a little bit responsible when we present the barriers that don’t allow them to survive.”

Feeling guilt for any role humanity played in the moose’s plight, Tear said he fought back urges to clip aspen buds and bring them to the alleyway for the animal to eat.

“I thought,” he said, “what harm would it do to just to keep this beast alive until it has enough strength to browse on its own again?”

He didn’t feed the moose, but only because it is illegal in Teton County.

Wildlife managers were initially upbeat about how northwest Wyoming’s elk, mule deer and other big game species would fare the winter after a string of severe storms swept over Jackson Hole in early February.

Animals were in decent shape and had adequate fat reserves because the first two months of winter were relatively mild.

But cold spring temperatures are allowing the still-deep snow to cling to the valley floors. The snow depth at the National Weather Service monitoring plot in Jackson on Thursday was still 18 inches — deeper than all but four other March 28 dates documented during the last century. During the cold mornings the snow surface has been freezing, making moving and eating more difficult for wildlife.

In some places, death rates are climbing.

On the southern end of the Wyoming Range near Kemmerer and Evanston, three in 10 adult doe mule deer and seven in 10 fawn deer being tracked for research have died this winter, according to University of Wyoming biologists. The data is less firm for mule deer in the Sublette Herd, which winters closer to the Wind River Range and includes migrants that summer in Jackson Hole. But biologists and wardens are seeing lots of dead animals.

“The bottom line is we are expecting above average mortality, again, in the Sublette Deer Herd,” said Brandon Scurlock, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s wildlife coordinator for the Pinedale Region.

“It’s unfortunate that we had a severe 2016-17 winter, and then this winter,” he said. “It’s another setback, but at least with deer and pronghorn those populations are plastic and cyclic, and it’s part of the natural cycle. They will come back.”

Among the Sublette deer casualties is “Mo,” a nearly 5-year-old doe that summered in the Gros Ventre. The Wyoming Migration Initiative has been sharing Mo’s story via social media. She died from an unknown cause on her Red Desert winter range, and when researchers went to investigate all that was left was a GPS collar and some hair.

Winter’s grip on the landscape has proven patchy this year, and in other places animals are faring much better.

Further north in the Wyoming Range on wintering grounds near La Barge, some 70 percent of tracked fawn deer have survived, Scurlock said. And every last adult deer that’s wearing a GPS collar has so far endured the winter, he said.

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Game and Fish biologist Gary Fralick, who oversees ungulate herds in southern Jackson Hole, also reported an anecdotally promising outlook for mule deer in his zones.

“The deer I’ve been looking at in Star Valley and even some places in the Snake River Canyon really don’t look too bad,” Fralick said. “They still have the appearance of being in at least fair condition, and many does still have a fawn or two at heel.”

Southern slopes opening, daytime temperatures warming and spring green-up within reach offers hope, he said, that the worst is in the past.

Larger-bodied elk, propped up partly by feedgrounds, seem to have made out well this winter, biologists said.

Moose, in Fralick’s view, are having a “pretty rough go of it,” and are tick-infested and trying to live amid human development.

“I think it has to do largely with the dramatic [mid-winter] changes in snow conditions,” Fralick said. “It pushed them into areas that are stressful to make a living in.”

Game and Fish Warden Kyle Lash took the call to haul away the cow moose that slowly died outside Tear’s office window. He’d been watching her in West Jackson for weeks — it was the same moose that earned 15 minutes of fame for browsing aspen buds near the McDonalds drive through. Inspecting the carcass, he felt very little fat, noticed lots of missing hair from rubbing at ticks, and found that her arteries were oddly clogged up.

“I’d say she died due to physiological stress,” Lash said, “just from the winter.”

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