Bull Elk’s Struggle Against Starvation Brings Wyoming’s Winter Kill Into Focus

The struggle of wildlife during a brutal winter is hard to fathom when considering sheer numbers, but a Wyoming snowplow driver brought it into focus with the story of a single animal’s ordeal.

Mark Heinz

March 21, 20234 min read

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This could be the tale of the “Rocky Balboa” of elk; just when you think he’s had all he can take and is down for the count, he gets back up for another round.

Jason Fry sees a lot in his job as a Wyoming snowplow driver, but what he saw along Interstate 80 near Evanston on Monday was hard to take. 

Off to the side of the westbound lanes just east of Evanston, a bull elk was apparently losing his battle with one of the worst Wyoming winters in recent memory. 

“In that second picture, you can see that he just lays there with his head down and lets the snow fall on him. And you can see, he’s just miserable,” Fry told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday while showing photos he took of the animal.

However, by the next afternoon the big elk seemed to have rallied and seem to have a chance of survival, he said.

“He is up and walking, so maybe he will make it,” Fry said, noting that bull was still grossly underweight.

Knew Something Was Wrong

Fry plows that section of 1-80 for the Wyoming Department of Transportation and said he first saw the bull in the area Friday. 

“He had another bull with him at that time. I don’t know what happened to that other bull,” he said. 

Even then, Fry – who is an avid hunter and knows elk well – could tell the bull wasn’t in the best shape. 

Elk around Evanston have been struggling this year, he said. 

“Most of them look OK, but I’ve seen a few who are in bad shape, like that bull,” he said. 

A brutal winter has brought huge snowfall, Arctic temperatures and ripping winds. And it has driven elk to extremes, Fry said. 

“This year has been terrible,” he said, adding that elk “come as far down as right into Evanston, which is pretty rare.”

Elk also have been gathering in and around Bear River State Park near Evanston, which also is rare behavior.

“At one point we had 100-150 elk in the state park,” he said.

Part Of A Larger Trend

Wild critters across the state are fighting to survive this winter, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Deep snow, crusted over in many places, is making it difficult for animals to paw their way through to forage beneath. 

It could be at least another month before the full scale of the loss can be tallied, but parts of the Cowboy State could be headed for catastrophic winter kill. 

A many as half of the antelope in the Rawlins-Red Desert regions in central and southwest Wyoming could die. And Mule deer are suffering horribly there as well.

Is The Worst Over For That Bull? 

Fry said the elk he spotted Friday stayed on his mind, and he wondered if he’d see the bull again.

“We got the weekend off, which has been almost unheard of this year,” he said in regard to the constant hammering of Wyoming’s highways that has kept snowplow crews scrambling. 

He spotted the bull again at about 1:30 p.m. Monday, this time alone, so Fry took a photo.

“At least his head was up and he was looking around,” Fry said.

But when Fry came by again and snapped another photo at about 4:40 p.m., the bull had its head down and seemed listless and ready to give up. 

“I know his age probably had something to do with it, but this winter certainly hasn’t helped,” he said. 

So, seeing the bull up and moving around again on Tuesday afternoon was heartening. 

“It’s been warmer here, in the 30s,” Fry said. “We’ve had quite a bit of melt-off, so the elk have been able to get to more food. Unfortunately for some of them, it’s just too late.”

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter