Big Game Season Over But Work Isn't

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With most big game seasons over, Wyoming's wildlife biologists and game wardens are not packing for second honeymoons in Hawaii, booking Caribbean cruises or even hitching up campers and heading for Arizona.

When hunting seasons end, postseason deer and elk classifications begin. Classifications are an often miserable, and sometimes dangerous, method of estimating a herd's fawn-to-female and male-to-female ratios. It's often miserable because it entails spending lots of time in the field in November, December, and January. It's sometimes dangerous because some of this time is spent in helicopters at very low altitudes in unforgiving topography.

But the work must get done. Knowing the age and sex structure of the population is one of the basic pieces of information wildlife managers need to set hunting quotas and seasons. Unfortunately, financial constraints are limiting the Game and Fish Department's ability to collect accurate data.

"Before this year, we flew every herd unit, every year," says Daryl Lutz, Casper Region wildlife biologist coordinator. "Now, because of the declining budget, we only fly herd units every other year. In other areas, we are using ground classifications to at least get a feel for population numbers and characteristics."

Chartering helicopters is expensive, but efficient. The craft get the job done quickly, and more importantly, they allow the G&F to access all occupied habitat within a hunt area, no matter how far from a road or the land ownership. This assures better and more useful data.

Antelope classifications are conducted in August. Because of the flatter, more open terrain, relatively inexpensive fixed-wing aircraft are used in all hunt areas.

Whether counted by air or truck, winter or summer, each herd unit is assigned a quota, the minimum number of animals that must be observed to accurately estimate fawn:doe and buck:doe ratios. Adult bucks, yearling bucks, adult does and fawns are tallied separately. The ratios derived from these numbers allow biologists to track a herd's productivity and estimate the number of animals in the population.

Because of the ongoing drought and continually declining habitat conditions, this year's numbers will likely be bleak. In some areas, permit numbers will remain low. Fewer permits, combined with inflation, means less money will be available to sustain G&F programs, including collecting critical wildlife management data.