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Winter Wildlife

A mule deer buck hops over a fence in a snow-covered field at the base of Casper Mountain in late December. In parts of Wyoming, frigid temperatures and heavy snowfalls have been taking a toll on big game. 

Dozens of antelope wandered off the northeast prairie and into Moorcroft in the last few weeks looking for refuge from harsh weather. About 15 were then hit by cars or died of cold and malnutrition.

Mule deer and antelope near Evanston are faring no better.

As this winter languishes, with storms dropping record snowfall across the state and ushering in frigid temperatures, the state’s wild herds are beginning to struggle, biologists report.

“We’re definitely losing animals,” said Newcastle wildlife biologist Joe Sandrini. “How bad it is yet, it’s hard to say.”

Death from lack of forage or cold isn’t standard in every region. Casper, for example, has been relatively mild – the recent storm notwithstanding. But areas like the northeast and far west have been hit hard.

Newcastle experienced the second-coldest February in over a century. February in Jackson was the second-snowiest month on record – with 55.1 inches – and the winter will likely register as one of the snowiest in recorded history, according to the National Weather Service. Mountain View in southwest Wyoming has already seen almost two feet of snow in March.

The harsh weather is doubling down on the 2016 and 2017 summers, which both registered drought conditions near the Black Hills. Poor food in the summer means skinnier females going into winter, which can mean fewer fawns are born and the ones that are have a tougher time surviving, Sandrini said.

Wildlife in Uinta County are also having a tough time, said Mark Zornes, wildlife coordinator with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in Green River.

“We’re losing some deer and antelope down in the Evanston country. It’s winter down there,” he said. “It’s been trying in parts of the region to melt and open up and trying to be spring, but we keep getting hit with these weekly snow and cold events.”

The Jackson region’s record snowfall hit rather suddenly, leading elk and bison to be stuck in areas they don’t normally winter, said Mark Gocke, a Game and Fish spokesperson in the Jackson region.

For biologists in the western part of the state, this year is reminiscent of the 2016 and 2017 winter when about 35 percent of female deer died in some portions of the Wyoming Range. While wildlife managers hope it won’t be that bad, the final impact won’t be known until late spring or early summer.

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Little can be done for the weak and hungry deer and antelope, wildlife biologists caution.

Unlike elk, deer can’t be fed with supplemental hay. Their stomachs are complex, bacteria-filled systems, and any abrupt change to their normal diet can, at times, even lead to death.

Antelope largely rely on sage brush and typically won’t forage on something like grasses.

But people can still do plenty to lessen the stress winter is causing.

First, said Gocke, is slow down while driving and watch for wildlife on the road. It sounds like the normal cautions, but are even more critical this time of year.

“It’s deep snow country and there’s a lot of moose in town and high snow banks on either side of the road. It’s a tough go for them even though they’re a long-legged animal, and they’re adaptable to deep snow,” Gocke said.

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Instead of trudging through the drifts and piles, they take the path of least resistance and end up on plowed highways.

“People are wanting to get from point A to B, and there is a moose on the road and they don’t feel they have time to wait for it to get off the road, and they’re zooming around it,” he said. “It gets stressed and is running down the road and some are getting hit which isn’t good for anyone involved.”

If you see a moose or any other wildlife in the highway, be patient, he cautions, and wait for it to duck into a driveway or another spot off the road.

People should also pay closer attention to their dogs, cautioned Moorcroft game warden John Davis.

The antelope that wandered into the northeast Wyoming town were weak from lack of food. Any extra movement burned critical calories needed to stay alive.

“I’ve never had them in town like they are,” Davis said. “… it is important not to stress them anymore than they already are.”

And snowy, cold weather isn’t over yet. Even though spring technically begins Wednesday, the long-term outlook for most of the state is an equal chance of above or below normal precipitation, said Chris Jones, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Riverton.

The western half of the state may see above normal precipitation – potentially dumping a bit more snow on top of an already record-setting winter.

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