Drought Stressing Wildlife

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A simple rule: Wildlife needs food, water, shelter and space in a suitable arrangement to survive. Unfortunately, continued drought conditions across the state have put that rule to the test.

Much of Wyoming is facing a third year of severe drought conditions and the fifth year of below average moisture.

South Rock Springs Game Warden Dave Hays says many watering holes have dried up and animals such as antelope and deer are on the move to find water.

"If you have been down on Flaming Gorge Reservoir recently you probably noticed the antelope are congregating in areas that are popular camping spots," said Hays. "The animals are thirsty and people need to give them space as they come down to more populated areas to water. That also means pets need to be kept on a leash or at least in control and not chasing game."

North Rock Springs Game Warden Allen Round says at least three big game animals were hit by cars in Rock Springs last week, because "There are more deer and antelope in town than usual."

Both Hays and Round appeal to people to not camp right on water sources, particularly in the desert. Camping along streams in the mountains isn't as critical.

Antelope and sage grouse hunting will also be impacted.

Green River Wildlife Biologist Tom Christiansen expects the "typical" hunter success in most antelope areas across southwest Wyoming. However, the proportion of "trophy" bucks will probably be lower than average due to continued drought conditions.

"Horn growth is related to body condition and body condition relies on nutritional forage, which is reduced during periods of drought," says Christiansen. "Lower fawn production in many areas has caused license numbers to remain generally conservative."

Preliminary observations strongly suggest another year of very depressed antelope fawn production in much of Wyoming.

Due to continued drought conditions Christiansen expects another year of lower than average sage grouse chick production. "Because chicks typically make up the majority of birds harvested, this means hunting will be tougher than normal for sage-grouse in 2002," he predicts.

Archery hunting seasons for antelope open next month and could also add to the animal's stress.

"There is nothing illegal about setting up an antelope hunting blind near a watering hole," says Hays. "The issue is more of an ethical one and a decision the hunter will make."

To give some perspective on how dry the past three years have been in the Upper Green River Basin, Rick Clayton, a hydraulic engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation, says that the total unregulated inflow over the past three years will likely be about 2.3 million acre-feet (MAF). On average, Flaming Gorge receives 5.1 MAF over a 3-year period.

"For the past three water years, beginning in October 1999, the inflow into Flaming Gorge Reservoir has been about 45 percent of normal," says Clayton. "The driest three consecutive water years that included 1977 (the driest water year on record) had a total unregulated inflow of 3.6 MAF. The past three water years will most definitely be the driest three consecutive years since the closure of Flaming Gorge Dam."