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Wild winter for Wyo’s weary wildlife

Posted: Tuesday, Feb 14th, 2017

SUBLETTE COUNTY – Billy Pape drives many of the county’s roads and highways as an employee of the county Road & Bridge Department but a couple weeks ago, he encountered an unusual sight near Farson – about 200 pronghorn antelope that would not leave the pavement.

Unusual snow depths are bringing more wildlife to the roads, according to Pape, who said it was “weird” that these exhausted animals would not move.

Some were so drained he had to walk right up to them before they stood up and just wandered to the edge of the road.

“There’s much more snow there than normal,” Pape said Monday – about 3 feet at that time. “Those poor antelope were having a really hard time. They wouldn’t get off the road because they would not jump off into the snow.”

Although an occasional animal would try to lunge into the snow, it would quickly turn back. Of the 200 or so animals standing there, 30 or 40 just laid down in the road.

“I actually walked over to a couple of them and nudged them to get through,” Pape said. “They didn’t even run. They were so weak from the wind and the snow and everything going on. It was pretty sad to see. You could tell they didn’t have any energy.”

He said it “overwhelmed” him a little bit since he’d “never seen anything like that.”

Driving the roads, Pape said he is used to seeing certain wildlife in certain places and this year isn’t “normal.”

For example, the “tons of deer “ he usually sees around Big Piney roads and hillside this time of year seem to have moved on.

In Bondurant, a resident watched a solitary young cow elk trying to survive on water cress in a nearby warm spring, saying he could tell she was getting weaker. Although she was caught and taken to the Dell Creek elk feedground several miles away, she died within two days, while lying on a bed of green hay.

Laurie Dowsett, of Farson, said he knows ranchers there aren’t begrudging extra elk, deer or antelope any space on their livestock feedlines with the high snow, which is beginning to ease off with the recent relatively “nice” weather.

This current lull in winter storms might give wildlife a break with snow dropping to let them get to desert winter forage, said John Lund, Wyoming Game and Fish’s (G&F) Pinedale supervisor.

“It’s difficult for everybody to see, including us,” Lund said of this winter’s severity on wildlife.

Most wildlife lovers are expecting to see a high rate of winterkills of deer, antelope and even elk and moose, in some places.

Nature’s course

G&F was prepared for questions about emergency feeding, with other states baiting wildlife away from highways and providing supplemental feed. Idaho set aside $650,000 for supplemental winter feeding.

Unfortunately, the science of big game species and their specific nutritional needs make emergency feeding impractical, listeners were told.

Last Wednesday, Feb. 8, the state G&F held an online “town hall” broadcast live over Facebook and the official website. G&F director Scott Talbott, chief wildlife director Brian Nesvik and assistant wildlife director Doug Brimeyer provided updates on struggling big game populations – mostly west of the Continental Divide – with spokesman Renny McKay facilitating.

Nesvik said the snowpack in Sublette, Teton and surrounding counties ranges from 150 to 200 percent of normal for this time of year. Wildlife moved into agricultural areas around Farson and G&F was trying to “reduce conflicts,” Nesvik said, adding most big game species in that area looked to have crossed Highway 28 to move down the Green River.

Mule deer that didn’t make it away from their summer or fall ranges are most susceptible to become winterkill statistics.

“Certainly we expect fawn survival is going to be much lower than normal,” he said. “Pinedale experienced significant snow and wind (Tuesday, Feb. 7) and for the first time in 31 years, they closed the schools. These are severe conditions.”

Nesvik said big game still have a chance on winter ranges. In bad winters past, big game populations recovered “fairly quick in relative terms – three to four years.”

“We won’t really know until spring about the mule deer winter mortality,” he said. “Then we can assess what those impacts are.”

However, this winter’s losses might mean a recovery time “closer to seven years,” he said.

“It’s important to understand wildlife have evolved in these kind of harsh conditions and are very resilient … to what would seem to us to be untenable conditions.”

Brimeyer explained that through the Wyoming Mule Deer Initiative (WMDI), scientific studies bring more knowledge than ever when it came to deciding to not begin any emergency feeding.

“It’s not a decision we’ve taken lightly,” Brimeyer said, adding deer are very selective foragers with very specific needs.

Rapid changes in forage can change the chemical balance in mule deer’s stomachs, “poisoning” them to die with full stomachs of alfalfa or hay. Last summer’s forage grew bountifully to help them gain fat before going into winter, he added.

However, at a recent Pinedale regional meeting about mule deer, G&F biologists and wardens noted the winter’s effects were already beginning to show a decline in big game body conditions.

Brimeyer said antelope are also very selective and less is known about their complex physiology.

Other problems from supplemental feeding in one area include dogs and predators chasing deer, expending their needed energy stores and changing their behaviors.

He also cited “the most serious issue” is disease outbreaks such as chronic wasting disease and adenovirus, which is documented in the Wyoming Range herd as a hemorrhagic killer. The WMDI collaboration there also affects “how the state moves forward,” Nesvik said.

“Moose are a little bit of a different critter,” Brimeyer said. “They are built for deep snow and winter temperatures.”

“The bottom line is, all of our staff have given serious consideration to supplemental feeding … and from a staff standpoint, we do not support supplemental feeding to deer,” Brimeyer concluded.

Given the extremes faced by wildlife right now, all three reinforced that private citizens should not feed starving wildlife.

Their advice – drive carefully and watch for big game along “travel corridors,” keep pets under control, open gates or drop fences for animal passage, stay away from critical winter ranges and don’t disturb wild animals.

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