Pronghorn, mule deer tags slump, predator tags may bump
WESTERN WYOMING — After a severe winter wreaked havoc on Wyoming’s wildlife, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission slashed hunting tags for pronghorn and tweaked seasons for mule deer, mostly following state biologists’ recommendations.
In essence, commissioners did away with doe and fawn tags for both species in southwestern Wyoming.
In May, the board may also increase quotas for hunting predators in areas where ungulates were hardest hit. But some hunters don’t think the commission’s actions cut it.
“I don’t think they’ve gone far enough,” Bruce Lawson, of Casper, told commissioners Tuesday. “I think we need to go farther. We need to step outside the box. In some of these areas that have been hit the most severe by the winter, we need to close the mule deer season entirely.”
Hunters have called for nixing hunting seasons throughout the winter.
Longtime Wyoming sportsmen said as much at a town hall meeting in Pinedale in March, where Gov. Mark Gordon, Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik, and University of Wyoming ungulate researcher Kevin Monteith laid out just how severe the winter has been for Wyoming’s wildlife. At that point, 90 percent of collared fawns in the Wyoming Range mule deer herd — one of the state’s largest — had died. Doe mortality was hovering around 35 percent.
Since then, the situation has only gotten worse. Deer have continued to starve. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department told WyoFile that over 50 percent of collared does and bucks in the Wyoming Range herd had died.
At one point that herd counted nearly 50,000 animals in its ranks. But, before this winter, its numbers had dwindled to an estimated 28,000 deer. The state wants there to be a minimum of 32,000 animals in the herd, which summers in the mountains east of Star Valley. Some of its members migrate to the Greys River drainage near Alpine.
Pronghorn in the Sublette Herd, which has hovered around 40,000 animals, have also been waylaid by winter weather and a new respiratory virus that’s claimed hundreds of animals’ lives.
Commissioners decided to ax 765 licenses for hunters looking to bag “any antelope” in that herd, and another 1,225 doe and fawn licenses. Some hunters questioned why the department was still planning to offer “any antelope” tags, concerned they might lead to unsustainable levels of doe killing.
Does are the reproductive muscle of any ungulate herd and play a critical role in population growth.
“I do not understand why it’s not a buck-only tag,” La Barge hunter Zach Key told commissioners.
But Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials said only 3 percent to 4 percent of hunters who purchase a “type one” tag tend to shoot does rather than bucks. “Type one” tags allow hunters to shoot antelope of any sex.
“From a biological standpoint.” Doug Brimeyer, Game and Fish’s statewide wildlife management coordinator, said further cutting “type one” tags is “not warranted.” Ultimately, commissioners agreed.
But pronghorn were not the stars of Tuesday’s show. Instead, mule deer took center stage.
Commissioners ultimately voted to instate an antler point restriction in the Wyoming Range herd that allows bucks to be hunted only if their antlers have more than three points. Bucks with such prominent antlers are typically over 2 years old. Wildlife managers want to ensure younger bucks that survive the winter have the chance to survive for another year, reproduce and help the herd rebound.
Commissioners also nixed youth hunters’ ability to shoot Wyoming Range does — kids take only about 70 does a year — and cut 50 nonresident tags from the hunt area that includes the Wyoming Range, even though nonresident hunters are only a fraction of the sportsmen in that area. Commissioner Kenneth Roberts advocated for the latter change, though department staff didn’t recommend it.
Brimeyer said Wyoming Range deer seasons are already conservative.
“There’s a biological argument that you could run a buck-only season and not have any issues,” he said. “But we’re also hearing from some public that want something done drastically. So we’re balancing between the two.”
Some hunters didn’t want to see the commission move toward an antler point restriction.
They, and others who supported the season, called on the board to allow hunters to kill more predators like black bears to help herds rebound. Dustin Child, of Trophy Mountain Outfitters, was one of those people and referenced comments Nesvik made in March about how critical fawn recruitment is for population regrowth.
“These bears are targeting these mule deer,” Child said. “They are specifically targeting these fawns.”
He asked commissioners to take emergency action and double quotas on black bears.
Commissioner Rusty Bell later asked to consider increasing large carnivore quotas in areas where there have been significant impacts. The board agreed. Nesvik said staff would bring it a proposal for doing so in May.
But Jessi Johnson, government affairs director for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, questioned whether predator control was the answer. Predators, she said, are some of the “least important parts of the puzzle.”
“Habitat, habitat, habitat is what we need to be looking at,” she said.