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Harsh Winter Continues: Update From Central Wyoming

February 20, 2008

From Wyoming Game and Fish:

Although recent warmer weather may have brought some welcome relief for big game animals, severe winter conditions still persist that may have considerable impact on herds throughout the Lander Region.

"The combination of snow, extreme cold and lack of forage we have experienced in the last few months has begun to take a toll on big game animals," said Game and Fish wildlife management coordinator Tom Ryder.  "We are now beginning to see animals in some areas forced on to severe winter relief ranges, which indicates even crucial winter ranges are no longer providing adequate forage.  Although we have seen tough winter conditions region-wide, some areas are worse than others."

Some of the most severe winter conditions have occurred in the Rawlins area where many deer, elk and pronghorn winter.  Heavy, crusted snows are making it difficult to reach forage, and this, combined with extreme cold and winds, continue to impact area wildlife.

"Field investigations of big game animals have shown that animals have already started using fat in their bone marrow, and some antelope have reabsorbed fawns," said wildlife biologist Greg Hiatt.  "These are both indications that animals are extremely stressed, especially to be seeing those things so early in the winter."

Biologists and game wardens have been keeping a particularly close eye on elk wintering in the Red Rim area where consumption of lichen caused a severe die-off in 2004.  Field investigations have been conducted to determine if elk have begun to feed on the lichen, but thus far, there has been no evidence of lichen consumption.

"Good grass forage in the area combined with snow cover on areas known to have a high occurrence of the lichen have helped prevent elk from consuming the lichen," said Hiatt.  "Elk are behaving normally and appear to be in decent condition, but we will continue our monitoring efforts as long as elk remain in the area."

Another problem wildlife face in the Rawlins area is drifted snow around roads and railways.  Big game animals, particularly pronghorn, cross drifts on roads and railways in search of food and are unable to get back out in many cases, creating a dangerous situation for both wildlife and operators.  Small groups of pronghorn and elk have been trapped in railways near Rawlins three times this winter, causing several different cases of mortality by collisions with trains. 

Snow drifted against fences can also make these areas impassible for wildlife, causing them to be trapped in areas with little or no food.

"Snow drifts on both roadways and fences are a problem region-wide," said wildlife biologist Stan Harter.  "This is a good winter to take a look at your fences and determine if animals are being trapped."

Winter conditions for big game animals have been less brutal in the Dubois area, but a severe lack of forage going into winter and persistent cold temperatures are affecting big game.

"Our biggest concerns for big game animals in the Dubois area are a lack of forage and the subsequent damage and private feeding of animals," said game warden Cole Thompson.  "In town, we are also seeing harassment of big game animals by domestic dogs.  This can add a lot of stress to already struggling animals." 

Citizens are reminded that allowing domestic dogs to harass wildlife is illegal under Wyoming law.

Human impacts have had effects on big game animals in many towns this winter, including in and around the towns of Lander and Riverton.  Harassment by dogs, feeding and wildlife-unfriendly fences have been major contributors to deer mortality in these areas.

"Feeding wildlife is highly discouraged as it can cause a lot of problems for herds and human safety that could otherwise be avoided," said Ryder.  "Concentrating animals in an area for feeding may encourage predators to move into residential areas.  Wild animals also have specific nutrient requirements, and improper feed can cause sickness or even death."

Ryder reminds the public that it is only February and there are still a few more months of winter ahead.  "We will be bringing season recommendations to the public in early April.  In the meantime, we will continue to monitor wildlife populations and condition.  We are planning several additional aerial surveys in upcoming weeks as well as increasing monitoring for animal body condition.  Winters like this are part of a natural cycle, and we are doing the best we can to keep an eye on the situation as it develops."

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