As the second year of drought prompts ranchers to bemoan their meager winter forage and reduced hay stocks, big game managers are echoing the same sentiments across much of the Equality State.
Adding to the trepidation of severely stunted growth on the shrubs that traditionally sustain deer and antelope through the winter is that these species are woefully short of fat reserves in some of the state.
"With big game entering the winter in less than desirable condition and with scarce winter feed available, most big game will be vulnerable to starvation this year especially if the winter is severe," said John Emmerich, Game and Fish Department wildlife management coordinator in Cody.
In Emmerich's region of the Bighorn Basin, Absaroka front and west slope of the Bighorns, winter range forage or grass production is well below average but probably better than winter range shrubs. Surveys of mountain mahogany in the Bighorn Mountains and sagebrush on the northern foothills of the Owl Creek Mountains revealed production or new growth was less than 10 percent of average.
Emmerich says the region's best winter ranges, which are only rated as 'fair,' are higher elevation elk ranges of Sunlight Basin, Northfork of the Shoshone and Greybull River drainages.
To the south in the upper Wind River Valley, surveys on the uplands of two G&F habitat areas also document forage demise. The well-known Whiskey Basin area has averaged 437 pounds of forage per acre over the last 15 years. This year it only produced 179 pounds per acre. On the north side of the valley, the most meager forage production year ever recorded through 2000 on the Inberg/Roy area was 208 pounds per acre. This year it was only 89 pounds. The 19-year average has been 320 pounds.
"We're in sort of a Catch-22 situation," said Lander Region Wildlife Management Coordinator Joe Nemick. "If it snows a lot early in the winter, animals will suffer because they can't reach what little food is left. And if it doesn't snow, much of the forage production will be low again next summer, and wildlife will suffer on the other end."
Mountains are slower to reflect drought impacts, and Pinedale Wildlife Biologist Doug McWhirter reports, "Most big game coming off the summer ranges of the Bridger-Teton National Forest were in great shape."
Those animals will need that fat because forage and shrub winter range production in the Jackson/Pinedale region is also suffering from drought. Surveys on five elk feedgrounds from Big Piney to Jackson discovered grass production at its lowest level since statistics were first compiled in 1995.
The drop is particularly acute at the Bench Corral Feedground north of Big Piney where the 40 pounds of grass production is 59 percent lower than 2000 and 79 percent lower than 1995. The Patrol Cabin and Horse Creek feedgrounds near Jackson also had drastic drops in grass production.
Shrub or browse growth was nearly nonexistent on the Big Piney deer winter ranges. Mountain mahogany shrubs averaged less than .10 of an inch of twig growth or "leader" production in 2001. Deer productivity is reflecting the 2000 shrub production of only .70 of an inch, down drastically from 3 inches of leader in 1999. Doe:fawn ratios in the well known Wyoming Range Deer Herd have fallen to 61-63 fawns per 100 does this winter from an average of 75-85 from 1997-2000.
The drought has had similar effects on sagebrush. "Research has shown that a lot of our sagebrush is old and decadent with only around 13 percent protein," said Dan Stroud, Pinedale habitat biologist. "This is a concern since we know a pregnant deer generally requires a diet of 13 to 18 percent protein during late gestation and lactation. We'd like to rejuvenate these old sagebrush stands with fire or mechanical means, because the young plants that come back have around 17 percent crude protein.
"If winter conditions are relatively mild, deer losses could remain about average," he added. "However, if we end up with heavy snow accumulations and continued cold temperatures, we could lose a lot of deer as we did in the winter of 1992-93."
Mortality may not only be reserved to animals, as some shrubs may succumb to the stress of two consecutive years of drought and as the woody part of the plant is consumed or "hedged" by browsing big game and cattle.
Mother nature has given deer and antelope a little bit of a break with a mild fall, as big game animals face winter with lower quality forage and browse and less of it.
Declining habitat availability and productivity, not just from drought, but also from urban growth and energy development, is a major reason the G&F is proposing the Wildlife Legacy Trust. The interest from this trust fund would help finance habitat improvements, plus gather needed information on nongame species that could be the target of threatened species petitions.
"Wildlife funding needs to be diversified to meet the upcoming challenges in Wyoming," said Bill Wichers, G&F deputy director of external operations. "Ideally the fund would grow annually, as the pressures on Wyoming'?s wildlife resources grow."
Wichers adds a bill will be introduced in the upcoming legislative session to establish the trust. The exact source of funding for the trust has yet to be determined but could include mineral royalties or general fund appropriations.
"Funding for all wildlife has traditionally been shouldered by hunters and anglers," Wichers said. "The Wildlife Legacy Trust will be a funding source that represents all Wyomingites."
Wichers urges citizens to voice their support of the trust to their state representatives and senators.
Forage and browse report from other parts of Wyoming:
Winter range conditions in Natrona, Converse, Niobrara, Weston and Crook counties are a "mixed bag," reports Darryl Lutz, wildlife management coordinator in Casper.
"Prolonged drought has and is having a profound effect on winter range conditions throughout the South Bighorns, Rattlesnakes, Bates Hole and the northern Laramie Range," he said. "Based on our habitat transects, these winter ranges are dismal at best."
He said production by shrub species key to the survival of mule deer and pronghorn in Bates Hole was only 60 percent of the highest production year in the 1990s, and production of mountain mahogany in the Laramie Range in 2001 was 62 percent of last year's growth.
The Black Hills were buffered from the 2001 drought by a heavy summer rain. The area?s deer were in good to fair condition this hunting season.
Sheridan, Johnson and Campbell counties are also hosting a variety of winter range conditions.
Habitat Biologist Bert Jellison estimates forage on the G&F's habitat areas along the east slope of the Bighorns is 30 to 50 percent of average. Campbell and eastern Johnson counties were the beneficiary of the same summer monsoon-type rains that soaked the Black Hills and are in better condition to support wintering big game.
"These short-lived storms provided some green grass and forbs during a very crucial period for milk production in big game," he said.
Some of the Sheridan region was blessed with a fall green-up. After receiving some October rain and snow, the warm November helped prompt some vegetative growth. "This new plant growth gave ungulates an opportunity to gain fat after weaning young and undergoing the rut," Jellison said.
Although far from lush, the southeast corner of Wyoming is in comparatively good winter range condition compared to the rest of the Equality State.
Overall, harvest checks discovered big game to be in good to very good condition in Goshen, Platte, Laramie, Albany and eastern Carbon counties. But even with better spring moisture than western Wyoming and a heavy July rain, browse and forage conditions are mixed.
"Mountain mahogany and service leader production was poor to almost nonexistent, while mountain big sagebrush and bitterbrush produced reasonably well despite marginal growing conditions," according to Laramie Habitat Biologist Rick Straw.
"I suspect mule deer in most areas of southeast Wyoming will do reasonably well unless we get a severe winter," Straw said.