As winterkill deaths continue to mount among some of Wyoming's premier big game herds, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is considering deep cuts in hunting tag allocations.
And there's been increasing talk among hunters about just sitting out the fall 2023 hunting seasons - at least for pronghorn (antelope) and mule deer.
"As a sportsperson, I'm somebody who sometimes buys tags and never fills them, so that's an option for hunters to consider this year," Regina Dickson, spokeswoman for the Game and Fish Green River region, told Cowboy State Daily.
Dickson said many hunters she's visited with are considering that - or simply not buying deer and antelope tags at all - while game herds recover from what is likely the deadliest winter in living memory.
Vast swaths of winter range in central and south-central Wyoming have been hit particularly hard. The region boasts some of the Cowboy State's premier antelope and mule deer hunting, coveted by hunters all across the nation.
And in the core of that prime habitat, it's feared that more than half of the antelope and deer might perish before tenacious layers of deep, crusted snow finally melt off.
Deep Cuts Recommended, Key Meeting Looms
The Lander region this week was hit with "another 18 inches of snow and four degrees below zero," Game and Fish regional spokesman Daryl Lutz told Cowboy State Daily.
As a result of the terrible winter, "tag numbers have been severely reduced accordingly in antelope and deer hunt areas," he said, including recommendations to cut up to half of the allocated antelope tags.
Dickson and Game and Fish Pinedale region spokesman Mark Gocke said similar hunting tag cuts are being recommended in their regions.
Even so, nothing's set in stone yet, Lutz said.
"I would say at this point, week-by-week, our personnel on the ground are reassessing the situation," he said.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission has the authority to set hunting season and tag allocations.
The commission is scheduled to meet April 17-18 at the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Building at 2211 King Boulevard in Casper. An open public session is set to begin at 11:30 a.m. on April 17, and people can also attend remotely via Zoom.
The regional Game and Fish offices will present their final recommendations for hunting seasons and tag allocations at that meeting, Lutz said.
It's Not About The Money, G&F Director Says
Even after the commission makes its rulings, there could be more changes.
During recent "town hall" meetings regarding the winterkill, Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik said his agency and Gov. Mark Gordon can make "emergency" adjustments right up until the start of fall hunting seasons.
Nesvik during those meetings also said that the Game and Fish's budget is in good shape. So, any decisions should hinge on what's best for wildlife, and not concerns over how a dip in hunting tag sales could affect the agency's revenue.
Spare The Does, Smaller Bucks
Losses have been heavy among mule deer from the Wyoming Range herd that had been fitted with radio collars, Gocke and Dickson said.
Up to 90% of the collared "juvenile" deer have died this winter, Gocke said.
Meanwhile, roughly half of the collared bucks and 40% of the collared does were dead, Dickson said.
However, they both cautioned that the collared animals were only a small sample group, so their death rates might not accurately reflect the death toll among the entire herd.
Most of the deer hunting in the hardest-hit regions is in general tag areas. That means areas for which hunters can simply purchase tags over-the-counter, without having to apply in advance and draw tags according to a limited quota.
All antelope hunt areas in Wyoming are limited quota, draw tag only.
In general tag deer hunt areas, things can be mitigated by shortening hunting seasons and/or implementing "point restrictions," Gocke said. That means hunters may shoot only bucks that have at least a certain number of points on each side of their antlers.
For instance, with the Sweetwater deer herd on the edge of the Red Desert, there could be a minimum four-point restriction, he said.
There usually are doe antelope tags issued in most hunt areas, but those could be limited, or even cancelled this year, Gocke said. When a herd needs to recover, it's the does that are the most important, because a single buck can breed with multiple females.
Hunting tags for mule deer does are rare, and usually only a few are issued for special "youth hunts," or for youngsters 12-17, he said. It's yet to be determined if those will be issued this year.
Shifting Toward Elk?
Elk are typically the hardiest of winter survivors, but even some of them have been dying this winter, Dickson said. Although, probably not enough to warrant cutting elk hunting tag allocations.
Even with the current winterkill, the Red Desert Elk herd could retain above objective numbers, she said.
Those elk are in a draw-tag, limited quota area that has always been popular with hunters. So, there's speculation that hunters might be shifting toward elk, both in the Red Desert and Wyoming in general, Dickson said.
"With reduced opportunity for deer and antelope, people might shift their attention toward elk, and that could drive down the drawing odds for some of those popular elk tags," she said.
Hunters who opt out of trying to get game tags this year might consider instead donating their money toward wildlife road crossing projects, Dickson added.
There's pressing need for a safe crossing across U.S. Highway 189 between Kemmerer and Evanston, she said, to help keep even more deer from being lost to roadkill.
"That stretch of highway goes right through the winter range used by the Wyoming Range deer herd," she said.
Things Will Get Better
In the greater scheme of things, hunting seasons might have to be tweaked this fall, but it's really the weather that makes or breaks herds, Gocke said.
"If you look at what truly affects a deer herd, it's not the hunting season, it's Mother Nature," he said. "Mother Nature is what dictates how a population fluctuates."
The good news is, the animals that pull through winter will have plenty of fresh, green forage to feast on, and less competition for it. So, herds could start bouncing back with a bumper crop of fawns, Gocke said.
"The animals are going to build body fat and they're going to do very well," he said. "The does are going to get pregnant, they're going to carry to full term and they're going to produce heavier, healthy fawns," he said.