SUBLETTE COUNTY – As southwest Wyoming’s citizens and wildlife lovers count up mule deer and pronghorn carcasses along roads, fences and haystacks now into April, they began asking state officials why nothing was done to alleviate the shortage of suitable forage.
This winter season is a prolonged, difficult time around Sublette County and its neighbors – similar to the winter 2016-2017 – but worse because of more widespread snowpacks and heavy winds across so much traditional winter habitat so wildlife can no longer forage.
On March 22 at its big-game season-setting meeting, very concerned hunters and watchers from as far as Star Valley had questioned Pinedale’s Wyoming Game and Fish biologists as to why no one was trying to alleviate mule deer and pronghorn starvation.
Official responses were that pronghorn and mule deer can’t survive on the same grass hay as elk, and mule deer have even pickier digestive systems.
Artificial feeding would start too late for the deer to get accustomed to something other than sagebrush. And, several biologists noted, living and dying is part of a natural cycle. Fewer animals competing for forage will benefit herds' health, they said.
Shortly after the March 22 meeting, Gov. Mark Gordon announced a Pinedale Town Hall where he, Game and Fish director Brian Nesvick and mule deer scientist Dr. Kevin Monteith would listen to questions, give answers and perhaps brainstorm solutions at the Pinedale.
However, few if any “practical” solutions came out of the intense two-hour conversation, due in part to the scale and persistence of this winter’s deep snow cover.
The Pinedale Library’s Lovatt Room filled to capacity before 4 p.m. and the state’s available Zoom links were also taken when Gov. Mark Gordon and Game and Fish director Nesvick broke away from visiting with the public to sit up front with Monteith, who has led and reviewed many detailed studies of Wyoming Range mule deer in particular.
They would offer information and answer questions – and perhaps come away with short-term solutions.
“It really is, I think, a hallmark of Sublette County that this is where all of these nexes come together,” Gov. Gordon said. “This is where we have some of the best energy development in the country, we have companies that care about wildlife, we have people that care what goes on in the ecology here, we have people who moved here because they love the wildlife and care about what Wyoming has to offer. And we have a state government that is concerned about leading in all these times of crises.”
Bringing everyone together for a town hall was the best and quickest solution “to talk about what’s on the ground … that makes the most sense.”
The trio convened again for a virtual Rawlins Town Hall meeting.
Nesvick said he and the governor began watching the effects statewide of a very tough winter on wildlife as far east as Baggs and north of Jackson. The Game and Fish’s recent summary for winter mule deer and pronghorn mortalities was very recently honed with a look at the Wyoming Range mule deer herd.
In Sublette County wildlife had not only deep snow but bitter cold to face, Nesvick said.
The county’s 30-year average for days below zero was 39 – with 62 below-zero days so far this winter.
Fifty percent of adult mule deer died between Pinedale and Rock Springs; 30 percent of the adult deer are gone and 90 percent of the fawns have died already, he said. Elk have dropped to lower elevations and invaded private haystacks; Game and Fish began “emergency feeding” hay in places like Star Valley where they once hoped to phase out feeding.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission will not approve mule deer and pronghorn hunting seasons until biologists are certain they have a clear picture of what if any wildlife will survive, Nesvik explained.
“If we don’t have all the information we need when it’s time to set the season, we have the ability to make to make emergency changes after that (commission) meeting.”
Montieth addressed the immediate situation around the Wyoming Range, where some mule deer fawns and adults were collared before they migrated to the winter range. Already, 30 to 40 percent of adult does and 90 percent of fawns were lost to winter, he said.
Buck deer weren’t collared this time but of the dead, all were at least 8 years old, Montieth related.
Two factors are crucial for mule deer – that they end the summer and fall with decent body fat of around 12 percent and that the animals can move freely around their winter ranges.
“This winter is certainly worse than 2016-’17,” he said, during which most fawns and older deer died. What animals are left after snow melts will be those who managed to gain enough fat to see them through.
Tyler Wilson of Boulder asked Gov. Gordon the first question: Why can’t BLM roads be plowed for wildlife “and kick off some hay? Why is Pinedale Game and Fish taking so long to bring it to your attention?”
Nesvick said his biologists looked at other states’ emergency feeding and the outcomes did not show any positive effects on a large scale. Artificial feed would need to start in December for the wildlife guts to digest it for any benefit, he said.
“We could do all that and not make any difference,” Nesvick said.
As for Pinedale biologists? “Our folks have been out on the ground every day wading through dead animals and damages.”
Gov. Gordon said his concerns are that wildlife might transmit diseases such as brucellosis if gathered to be fed.
“It seems intuitive that would be the thing to do,” Monteith said, but deer need to eat sagebrush for their guts’ microorganisms to digest; eating grass hay leads to acidosis and death.
A couple people asked about breaking up or plowing snow so wildlife could reach the forage.
Gov. Gordon said bringing a ‘dozer into the sagebrush would cause more long-term issues than it resolved, for environmental reasons. Nesvik backed him on that. Also, they said, there are hundreds of thousands of acres of winter range, too large a scale to be feasible.
“Maybe the public should be part of that discussion,” the governor said.
Many hunters from the region – including a longtime Boulder outfitter Terry Pollard – asked that mule deer hunting seasons be drastically cut or even suspended.
“I wouldn’t be against shutting them down for a few years,” Pollard told the governor. “Some areas we don’t even have any deer.”
Gerry Garlick of Big Piney said he was “disappointed with Game and Fish’s attitude. … You don’t need a track-hoe to drag the snow.”
He advised Game and Fish “to start coming up with solutions” and have “visible policies in place.”
Nesvick said everything might not be perfect – but Wyoming Game and Fish is a leader in migration corridor policy and greater sage-grouse policies, and the governor released an executive order to protect migration corridors.
Managing and improving habitat on public lands is the key, officials said. A woman asked if Game and Fish works with the BLM and Forest Service. They do, according to Nesvick.
“Their role and responsibility is to manage habitat; our role and responsibility is to manage wildlife,” Nesvick said.
Continuing to work on habitat improvements across the state and especially in southwest Wyoming are the best solutions for wildlife in the long term, each panelist said.
Jasmine Allison of PureWest, formerly Ultra Resources, said the company would help on the Pinedale Anticline any way possible. Paul Ulrich of Jonah Energy spoke for his fossil-hunting family near Kemmerer, saying they would be willing to hold off hunting. Many in the audience said they already had stopped hunting mule deer in Sublette County and the Wyoming Range.
Linda Baker of the Upper Green River Valley Coalition reminded the governor that the last time he came to Pinedale and addressed wildlife in 2020, it was about the Path of the Pronghorn migration corridor, which awaits designation.
Gov. Gordon admitted the pandemic pushed that event to the background and it needed to be brought back to life.
Dan Bailey of Bondurant asked Gov. Gordon if there’s any way to address how private developers consider wildlife migration routes, with his executive order only referring to public lands.
Conservation easements are “the best tool we have now” to accomplish that and Sublette County is enrolling more acreage, Gordon said.
“Conservation easements aren’t going to slow down the guy who wants to make a lot of money,” Bailey said.
“Fair point,” Gordon said.
“As a community, what can we do?” asked Logan Hedges from Star Valley. “We need to start controlling the controllable.”
Pinedale Region supervisor John Lund advocated converting to wildlife-friendly fences and collaborations with private landowners, along with “continuing the habitat work.
Gov. Gordon listed the top issues and requests he heard – “More push on migration corridors. Feeding. Timing and snow breakup. Also what to do for predator control. Zoning – try to find other ways to keep ranchers ranching.”
License, habitat and one no one else mentioned – invasive grass and weed species like cheatgrass. “If I missed something, I want to hear about it.”
Despite current wintry conditions, Nesvick pointed to “some goodness going to come of it in May and in June. It’s going to look glorious … there is some brightness on the horizon.”