Nature is cruel; we shouldn’t be
Cali O'Hare photos
After hearing from the public at season-setting meetings and town halls held in Pinedale and around the state, Wyoming Game and Fish Department released its draft regulations for the 2023 hunting season Monday. Wildlife managers are considering slashing the available license quotas for big game animals, including pronghorn antelope and mule deer, by up to 75 percent in some hunt areas, implementing 3-point antler restrictions to protect yearling bucks, delaying season openings and eliminating them entirely in others. This is a big deal for what’s referred to as “the most premier” and “prestigious” antelope and mule deer herds “in the entire world” — both renowned for high hunter-success rates and “monster bucks.”
The 2023 hunting season proposals and draft regulations are, as every year, based on public input, annual harvest data, population monitoring data, individual herd population objectives and ongoing habitat evaluations. Recent public input given both in person and virtually plus comments submitted online largely implored wildlife officials to take a conservative approach to the upcoming hunting season, including from longtime guides and outfitters like Boulder’s Terry Pollard, who told Gov. Mark Gordon at the Pinedale Town Hall that he “wouldn’t be against shutting (mule deer hunting seasons) down for a few years,” noting, “Some areas don’t even have any deer.”
Jonah Energy’s vice president Paul Ulrich, a hunter himself, suggested “suspending or significantly curtailing” hunting licenses for area pronghorn and mule deer could be “the right thing to do” for Wyoming’s wildlife populations, prompting the crowd of 100 or so people inside the Pinedale Library’s Lovatt Room on March 30 to erupt in applause.
Fifty percent of adult mule deer between Pinedale and Rock Springs died this winter, along with 90 percent of fawns, according to Game and Fish director Brian Nesvick. The Sublette mule deer herd in particular was already below the objective management of 32,000. The Wyoming Range mule deer herd consisted of some 30,000 animals when the snow started to fly. At least 35 percent of the 128 collared Wyoming Range does are now dead, along with 90 percent of the herd’s 92 collared fawns.
Elk dropped to lower elevations and invaded ranchers’ haystacks, causing damage and risking the spread of disease to cattle this winter. That prompted “emergency feeding” in places like Star Valley. Mule deer and pronghorn, whose digestive tracts lack the necessary bacteria to process hay and alfalfa, according to Game and Fish, were left to starve with no other viable options.
Plenty of Wyoming’s wildlife succumb to the state’s notorious winters each year, but this season Mother Nature has been especially cruel so officials expect above-average mortality in game animals. With record snowfall blanketing the western half of the state since November and persistently cold temperatures, the antelope’s primary food source, sagebrush, remains entombed beneath layers of hard ice and snow still covering the rangeland.
Pinedale recorded 62 days with subzero temperatures this winter, compared to the average 39. Starvation and malnutrition are frequent causes of death when the animals expend all their energy metabolizing what little food they do consume on simply maintaining their body temperature.
What’s rare is that more than 500 pronghorn antelope within the Sublette herd have died of pneumonia since mid-February, succumbing to an outbreak of the bacteria Mycoplasma bovis, the most deadly in Wyoming’s recorded history. Biologists don’t know how or why it began or when it will end, but it is believed to be universally lethal to America’s fastest land mammal.
Although Game and Fish personnel were retrieving the carcasses in mid-February and early March, they’ve since stopped due to the sheer number now littering the landscape. On recent drives down Paradise Road, I counted more dead than live pronghorn.
Five hundred. Game and Fish’s estimate doesn’t include the number of antelope who succumbed to the brutal winter, malnutrition, were struck by vehicles or otherwise fatally injured or died due to other causes.
Of the 83 adult pronghorn in the Sublette herd wearing GPS collars at the beginning of winter, about 50 percent are now dead — adult mortality in the herd is typically around 20 percent.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission is slated to review the proposed regulations and feedback at its April 17-18 meeting in Casper. The commission will not approve mule deer and pronghorn hunting seasons until biologists are certain of what wildlife survives.
“If we don’t have all the information we need when it’s time to set the season, we have the ability to make emergency changes after that (commission) meeting,” Nesvick said.
In the meantime, the surviving wildlife is reckoning with something far less natural than the effects of a prolonged winter in Wyoming.
As reported in this paper, the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office received 11 calls last week related to wildlife, including a cow moose whose leg was broken in half, a deer with broken legs struck by a vehicle, an injured pronghorn partly covered with snow, an injured deer dragging its rear legs, an antelope hit by a semi, a dog gnawing on an injured deer, an injured deer on the highway that needed to be euthanized, a deer that broke its neck while jumping a fence and a visibly sick pronghorn.
Sure, the cycle of life is not complete without death but don’t we, as people, have a responsibility to mitigate unnecessary die-offs and prevent above-normal mortality in our most treasured natural resource?
Sometime between when I left the newsroom Monday evening and when I came back Tuesday morning — and despite the electronic signs advising folks to “be alert of wildlife crossing the next 15 miles” that have been in place for weeks — a driver mowed down at least three pronghorn. They were members of the Sublette herd who spent the last few days grazing on the brown, brittle bits of forage and soaking up the radiant heat along the side of Highway 191 between Pinedale and Boulder where the snow finally receded enough for them to stand on bare dirt.
Between when I left work Tuesday and returned Wednesday morning, two mule deer were struck and killed.
Another Sublette County resident pulled a doe whose fawn “had been ripped out of her” off the bridge heading into Daniel from Big Piney Wednesday morning. Sara Windbigler posted a plea in the Sublette County: For Sale Facebook group imploring the motoring public to slow down and look out for deer, day and night, at the Daniel Junction of Highways 189 and 191.
Earlier this winter, I watched a dump truck with local plates drive straight into the herd when it was clustered on the highway near the Boulder Cemetery, forcing the antelope to sprint back through the belly-deep snow onto the hillside, expending precious energy.
We owe it to the legacy of Wyoming’s wildlife to do better.
The fact that Highway 191 goes straight through the heart of Pinedale, a growing community, means the risk for the town’s pedestrians and the local wildlife will only increase. The town’s Transportation Master Plan forecasts an annual growth rate in Pinedale of 3.6 percent, based on data from WYDOT reflecting a 3.75-percent growth rate since 2002. Traffic congestion is only expected to increase within the municipality in the coming years with the number of vehicles crossing the West Pine Street bridge over Pine Creek likely to rise from 11,400 per day to 25,000 daily by 2045.
What are the implications of that increased traffic flow on the cow moose and her young crossing for a drink from the creek before dawn?
If it’s not roadside signs asking the motoring public to “be alert for animals on the road” and it’s not supplemental feeding — which ironically does more harm than good — and it’s not plowing snow from the landscape to expose sagebrush for grazing, then what is the right answer?
Is it more frequent overpasses? Longer stretches of wildlife fences? Formal protection of more migration routes? More conservation easements? Reduced speed limits and increased patrol? Heightened citations if you’re caught speeding in a designated wildlife zone? Special enforcement days when the herds are near the highways? All of the above and more?
I don’t have those answers, but what I do know is that after this “catastrophic” and “devastating” winter, the least we can do for the animals still fighting to survive is slow down, pay attention and “give them a brake” when we’re driving.