by Jim Zumbo - Monday, May 15, 2023
To say this past winter in parts of the West was tough would be an understatement. It was horrific. Some old timers claim it was the worst winter they’d ever seen. Wildlife officers say it was epic, unprecedented in their memories. In some Wyoming areas, GPS-collared does suffered a 35 percent loss early on and 90 percent of 92 collared juveniles died. Those figures increased significantly as the long winter wore on. Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) biologist Gary Fralick, who is manager of the legendary Wyoming Range mule deer herd, said that the past winter was the worst he’d ever experienced during his 30-year career, especially on the LaBarge and Cokeville winter ranges. He blamed a unique weather pattern called an “inverted snowpack” as the primary cause. This occurs when there’s a disproportionate amount of snow at lower elevations as compared to higher elevations. In western mountain country, big-game animals survive high-country deep snow by migrating to historic winter ranges where there’s usually less snow and enough forage is available to carry animals through the winter. The 2022-2023 winter was just the reverse as the inverted snow blanketed the ground to the extent where animals couldn’t access enough forage. That, plus months of sub-freezing weather and seemingly never-ending snow created a perfect storm for big game, mostly mule deer and pronghorn antelope. The result was a catastrophic loss of animals measured in the thousands across the Western landscape.
Interestingly, the severe weather targeted only certain parts of the West for reasons that only meteorologists can fathom. For example, I live near Cody in Wyoming’s northwest region. Our winter was mild to the point where there was little big game mortality. Yet it was a different story a few counties away—a very different story.
Wildlife biologists in Wyoming and other affected states have been quick to assess the devastation and modify harvest numbers for the upcoming fall season. The numbers aren’t pretty. Last year, in the hardest hit units, 41,145 pronghorn antelope tags were offered. This year, 30,855 tags will be available, which amounts to a reduction of 10,290 tags. Mule deer tags were chopped as well. Last year, 10,095 limited quota tags were issued compared to 5,685 this season for a decrease of 4,410 tags. That means about 15,000 fewer animals will be available to hunters.
Elk were also affected in Wyoming, but not nearly as much as deer and antelope. Eric Cole, a biologist with the National Elk Refuge near Jackson Hole, measured settled snow depths and found that the snow was more than double the normal average from January through March with a mean depth between 21 inches and 31 inches. He said not only was there a lot of snow but that it stuck around a long time.
According to Cole, “The melt started remarkably late. Typically, the snowpack starts declining on the south end of the refuge around the second week of March, but this year it began around April 8.” Even though elk are fed on the large refuge, which has been the annual winter home for 10,000 elk or more, 13 percent of all the calves had perished by April 11, which is more than triple the average mortality rate.
The dreaded inverted snowpack was largely responsible for most wildlife mortalities in other areas as well. Tony Bergatino, director of the University of Wyoming’s Water Resource Data System, said he’d observed modeled snow depths across the region. Where 2 inches of snow was the norm, he saw up to 16-17 inches. He said those low-elevation depths were unlike anyone could recall ever seeing. Concerning the Elk Refuge, he said in early April it was more than 10 times higher than normal.
Pronghorn antelope likewise suffered huge losses. Thousands of carcasses littered the landscape, and an outbreak of pneumonia added another 500 to the devastating scenarios.
Given the enormity of the winter mortality, many Wyoming hunters indicated they’d take a pass on hunting this year since they were deeply concerned about the welfare of the herds. Jack Barry, a hunter who lives in a hard-hit area, told me, “I’ve hunted mule deer every year since I was old enough to hunt. We count on venison as a major part of our food supply and I love to hunt, but I just can’t justify killing a deer.”
Zachary Key of La Barge, Wyo., another hunter who lives in an area where he saw countless dead deer, took it a step further. He came up with an idea that’s a win-win for wildlife and hunters.
Key manages an oil and gas company where hundreds of deer died. “Hunting is my passion,” he said. “I had to do something, so I proposed an initiative called ‘Let A Deer Walk,’ where concerned hunters could buy or draw a deer tag, put their phone number on it and mail the tags in by August 1 for a prize drawing on August 15. By doing so they’ll take some pressure off deer herds. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department still receives the revenue for the tag, the hunter gets a chance to win prizes that add up to $100,000 and one more deer survives the hunting season.”
When he announced his plan, it virtually exploded. “The reaction from hunters was unbelievable,” he said. “I had no idea it would garner so much support, and it happened so quickly.”
Key says this is not an anti-hunting stunt and isn’t meant to discourage hunting. “I tell folks to get outdoors, go deer and elk hunting, get a black bear tag. If a person is on the fence and is unsure about what to do, then they might consider participating in the raffle.”
Key stresses that it should be understood there is no shame if someone chooses to hunt this fall. Hunters should make up their own minds and respect the choices of others. He also believes youngsters should get out and hunt.
At this time the program only applies to mule deer tags. To participate in the drawing and turn a tag into a raffle ticket, hunters can send their tags to Let A Deer Walk, P.O. Box 147, La Barge, WY 83123. Prizes include an ATV, guided hunts for mountain lions, black bears, wolves in Canada, gift cards totaling more than $10,000, a custom truck build, taxidermy mounts and many others.
This is just another example that shows how hunters are true conservationists, proving that their agenda isn’t always directed toward hunting and killing animals, but to contribute to the welfare of wildlife when species are in serious trouble. Pronghorn antelope are not included in the program because their tags are issued in a limited quota draw regulated by the Game and Fish Department in their management objectives.
Other options to help Wyoming herds rebuild their numbers are being discussed. One is coyote control, which, if implemented would be a temporary program. The winter of 2016-17 was as severe in places as this past winter. WGFD spent almost $100,000 to shoot coyotes from aircraft in one particular unit hit especially hard. About 175 coyotes were killed on mule deer fawning grounds. The department might take a “wait and see” position before making a decision to initiate another coyote control program.
Overview of Winterkill and Tag Reductions in Other Western States
Big game herds in Idaho fared much better than elsewhere, though the southeast corner from Island Park to the Utah border—one of the most productive areas for mule deer—was hit particularly hard. According to Idaho Fish and Game Deer Coordinator Toby Boudreau, 94 percent of fawns were lost in Unit 76 and more than 80 percent in other units south of Idaho Falls.
Colorado hunters will have to deal with a 40 percent reduction in elk, deer and antelope tags in the northwest region. Bill deVergie, Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said antelope were hardest hit, indicating he expected fawn losses to be more than 90 percent. He added that winter ranges were in poor condition and weren’t in good shape to begin with because of previous droughts.
Limited quota Colorado elk licenses will be cut by 6,300 tags—4,800 fewer bull tags and 1,500 fewer cow tags. Over-the-counter tags remain unlimited. Deer tags will be reduced by 4,050 licenses—1,900 buck and 1,350 doe tags—as well as 800 either-sex private-land-only licenses. Antelope tags will be significantly reduced.
Most of Utah’s deer losses occurred in the northerly areas with the rest of the state faring well, though there was lower fawn survival in Central Utah. Higher elevations received an enormous amount of snow, with a whopping 800 inches at some ski resorts. According to Dax Mangus, Big Game Coordinator for the Utah Deptartment of Wildlife Resources (UDWR), snow came early, piled high and stayed late. He said deer that wintered in the higher country suffered above-average adult mortality and very high fawn losses. The UDWR recommended a cut of 4,800 buck tags in the highest impacted units in the northern areas.
As if all this isn’t bad enough, chronic wasting disease (CWD) continues to rear its ugly head around the West. But despite the grim news of winterkill and disease, there are still plenty of bright spots. Many areas have been totally unaffected and their big game populations are in good shape.
About the Author
Jim Zumbo is a noted outdoor writer and accomplished Western big-game hunter who also has hunted deer in all 50 states. Backed by two degrees in forestry and wildlife, he has had more than 2,000 articles published in outdoor publications, written 23 hunting books and conducted hunting seminars nationwide, including for NRA Hunter Services. In addition to serving as a full-time writer/editor for Outdoor Life magazine for 30 years, most of them as hunting editor, he was the host of “Jim Zumbo Outdoors” on the Outdoor Channel. A Benefactor Life member of the NRA, Zumbo has won numerous awards for his writing and remains active with conservation groups, including serving three terms on the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s board of directors. His biography, Zumbo: Based on the True Story of Jim Zumbo and His Blog Heard Around the World, by K.J. Houtman, was released in November 2016. He and his wife, Madonna, live outside Cody, Wyo., where he continues to hunt and report on hunting and wildlife conservation issues for the NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum website and other outdoor media outlets.
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