All that remains are last winter’s leftovers.
Courtesy of one of the driest years in a century, Wyoming’s big game herds will move down to winter ranges with little more forage than what they left in the spring.
“In a lot of areas, we haven’t had any growth, no forage production at all,” said Jason Hunter, Game and Fish’s Lander wildlife supervisor.
“It’s something we’re really concerned about.”
Even if Wyoming sees a mild winter and good spring rain, it could take wildlife several years to bounce back. A harsh winter, with cold temperatures and crusted snow could take an even larger toll. This drought’s impact on wildlife, and to a lesser extent fish, could impact how people hunt and recreate on Wyoming land.
The problem stems from a lack of spring rain, Hunter said. Those critical showers after the snow melts help grow grasses and shrubs for summer and winter.
This year around Atlantic City near the Wind River Range, some grasses that typically grow knee high stood no more than a couple of inches, said Kevin Hermann, a Riverton hunter.
Hunting between Casper and Riverton, he noticed the antelope weren’t as fat as they should be. Some of the mothers were so thin their ribs showed through their hides.
“Next year may be wet and wonderful and they will all have twins and that will bring us back, but that’s two years down the road,” Hermann said. “Do I think there will be a tough hunting season next year? Yeah.”
Antelope could be one of the hardest-hit species. They don’t store as much fat as larger animals such as elk and deer, and they rely more on feeding throughout the winter, Hunter said.
Wildlife biologists kept the same hunting seasons in most areas to help thin herds they knew couldn’t compete for the same meager food sources. Depending on this winter, next season could be a different story, Hunter said.
Around Pinedale, mule deer are showing up and staying near places outfitter Gary Armerine has never seen them before. They’re eating his hay and gathering in his pastures when they’d normally just move through.
“This could prove disastrous,” he said. “I think we’re going to lose deer no matter what kind of winter we have.”
It’s too early to know what that means for next year’s hunting season, biologists say.
Despite poor winter range conditions, Game and Fish will not provide supplemental feed to deer or antelope. They also ask the public not to feed wildlife because it can create a dependency and increase the spread of disease when animals congregate to eat. In the case of mule deer, their digestive systems simply can’t handle new food, said Daryl Lutz, Lander regional wildlife coordinator. Specialized bacteria help them break down woody foods such as sagebrush and bitterbrush. Their stomachs can’t break down hay as well and deer sometimes die with full bellies.
Elk don’t seem as affected by the drought as antelope and deer, said Hunter, the Lander biologist. Their fat stores are higher and they’re better at finding food.
They can also handle supplemental feeding better than mule deer. The National Elk Refuge will bring in alfalfa this winter to offset the drought, said Eric Cole, refuge biologist.
The refuge grew about 19 percent less forage this year than average, but it has weathered worse droughts than this one. In 2003, less than half the normal grass grew and grasshoppers ravaged the fields. Irrigation helped offset the drought this year, bringing water to about 4,500 acres, Cole said.
This summer’s drought didn’t just hurt Wyoming’s wildlife. It also took a toll on Wyoming’s fisheries. Yellowstone National Park officials closed several of the park’s rivers to fishing when temperatures increased to dangerous highs.
As river flows dropped but irritators still needed water, more fish ended up stranded in irrigation canals. Volunteers with the East Yellowstone chapter of Trout Unlimited rescued 6,500 fish this year from about 50 miles of canals, the highest number of fish in a decade, said Dave Sweet, the chapter’s president.
Most of the fish were trout and all would have died once the irrigation water stopped flowing. Instead, volunteers put them back in the rivers where they originated.
Sweet doesn’t worry about the effect of this year’s drought on the overall fish populations. One year isn’t enough to have a large affect. But, if it continues, streams will begin to dry and prevent spawning. This means fewer fish in the rivers and tougher angling.
“Drought is always an issue, but cutthroats and other trout have dealt with them,” Sweet said. “Trout are pretty resilient, as long as you don’t go year after year after year.”