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Harsh Winter Continues: Wyoming Braces For Winter-Kill

February 12, 2008.

As Hunt The West subscribers know, winter feeding operations are already underway in Washington and Colorado. Idaho is bracing for what appears to be an imminent need to begin feeding operations. And now Wyoming is bracing for winter-kill.

From the Wyoming Game and Fish Department:

This winter's conditions are becoming increasingly severe, with cold temperatures and hard crusty snow making it difficult for big game animals, especially deer and pronghorn, to find food on winter ranges. Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials in the Green River region say this is a critical point in the winter.

"Barring a major improvement in conditions, we are expecting significant levels of winter-related mortality in some areas due to a combination of long-term drought, deep snows and severe cold," said Green River Wildlife Management Coordinator Mark Zornes.

"Temperatures and wind chills over the past week have been extreme in many portions of our region. Some ungulates, especially mule deer and pronghorn, are showing outward signs of poor condition and weather related stress, especially fawns. If crusting of existing snow continues we may see winter losses like those documented during the 1992-1993 winter."

Heavy snows have fallen in southwest Wyoming over the past couple weeks, with strong winds blowing the snow so that few, if any slopes or ridges are blown free.

"Fawns and older adults are starting to look pretty rough," said Ron Lockwood, Kemmerer habitat biologist. "These conditions seem wide-spread across the Leroy, Sage Junction, Kemmerer and Fontenelle winter ranges. We think we can at least expect average to above average fawn mortality. However, if winter conditions continue much longer, we can expect much higher than average winter mortality. This high mortality will result in poor recruitment of yearlings next year."

Lockwood also said the desert country from the Green River west is nearly covered in white.

"Pronghorn have moved out of transitional ranges and are concentrated on crucial winter ranges. Newly installed gates on U.S. Highway 189 south and north of Kemmerer and on the Opal cutoff have helped move animals across highways," Lockwood said. "However, conflicts with woven wire fences in southwest Wyoming are common and winters like this make them worse. In addition, due to increasing gas field traffic, deer mortalities on Highway 189 south and north of Kemmerer and U.S.Highway 30 to Green River have been high. During shift changes at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. I can't imagine a deer crossing safely."

The same harsh winter conditions persist in the Little Snake River Valley and Sierra Madre country near Baggs where Wildlife Biologist Tim Woolley reports that the snow level along Wyoming Highway 789 is about a foot below the top of the right-of-way fence posts.

Green River Wildlife Supervisor Steve DeCecco says that the winter we are experiencing will certainly lead to some significant losses in what we used to call an "average" or "normal" winter.

"In the past, habitat on crucial winter ranges could support big game animals as long as there were still some shrubs available above the snow," DeCecco said. "That has not been the case on most winter ranges in southwest Wyoming in the last several years. Currently, persistent drought conditions among other limiting factors have created poor forage and habitat conditions. At this stage of winter and from what we are seeing in the field, the forecast is not good for the over-winter survival of young animals."

DeCecco reminds everyone that it is only February and there are still a few months of winter to go.

"We will be bringing game seasons proposals to the public in March. In the meantime we are keeping a close eye on what happens the remainder of this winter, the conditions of animals on winter ranges and any indications of above normal mortality," DeCecco said. "Realistically, wildlife has been dealing with whatever nature brings in the way of drought or hard winters for a long time. The forces of nature have shaped our wildlife and are continuing to do so. This winter is certainly testing their ability to survive. Only the fittest will survive. Those fit enough to survive will reproduce and the cycle will begin again as it has for thousands of years."

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