Bill Sniffin: Almost 200,000 Antelope And Deer Dead From Winter Kill. Can We Foresee Such A Headline?

Columnist Bill Sniffin writes: “What a sad time for those of us who love our wildlife. And that includes about 99 percent of the people who live in Wyoming.”

Bill Sniffin

April 15, 20235 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Wyoming’s wildlife is a great source of wealth for our state. We love our wild animals.

And boy, have they suffered this winter.

I have been fearing that Cowboy State Daily may soon publish a headline: “Almost 200,000 deer and antelope killed.”  Our outdoors reporter Mark Heinz is not ready to write such a number. It is not an official estimate, but a number I’ve speculated.

Wildlife Worth The Watching

Back in my days as a member of the Wyoming Travel Commission board, we partnered with the Game and Fish Commission in an ad campaign called “Wildlife Worth The Watching.”  Some research back in the 1990s showed that one of the main reasons tourists come to Wyoming is to see the wildlife.

When we first moved here over a half century ago, it was stunning to see the huge herds of antelope galloping across the vast fields of sagebrush.

No other state comes close in the lower 48 with the abundance of wildlife that can be seen here in the Cowboy State. We truly have what can be called America’s Serengeti. Much like Africa, we have vast herds of wildlife that travelers can see as they drive our 97,000 square miles of space.

Recent estimates pegged the number of pronghorn antelope in Wyoming to be about 450,000 and deer at about 380,000 (70,000 whitetail and 310,000 mule deer), prior to this die-off. Usually over 40,000 antelope are harvested by hunting. Just under 40,000 deer are killed during hunting seasons in the Cowboy State.

Now the survival of all those animal herds is in peril. I hope my predictions are not accurate. But it sure looks like this winter has just decimated the antelope herds and the herds of mule deer and whitetail deer.

Perhaps my estimate of winterkill is too high. What if the total is only 100,000? ONLY?

Stories emerging from Carbon, Sublette, Natrona, Sweetwater, Lincoln, and Fremont Counties tell horrible tales of piles of antelope carcasses. Seems the early snows that hung around all winter hardened so much that the lightweight animal just did not have the ability to break through to find something to eat. Because their digestive systems are so unique, there was no way to feed the endangered critters. Observers just had to stand by and watch them die.

The bitter cold and persistent winds hastened the demise of our prized animals.

Wyoming’s Pronghorn Antelope is the state’s most beautiful animal. It is so unique. And so fast. Its coloration perfectly matches Wyoming’s scenery. Who doesn’t treasure our herds of these amazing animals.

Gotta Love Those Muleys

However my favorite Wyoming animal is one that is pretty much unique to Wyoming – the mule deer. I can understand why there is a group called Muley Fanatics.

This homely bugger with the huge ears and the small brain, well, is just too darned entertaining not to love. We have had small herds of muleys in the yards of all our homes in Lander all these years. Yeah, they are dumb. Yeah, they are not so colorful, pretty much dull gray like a giant rat --  no big fluffy tail like whitetails or spectacular brown coat like antelope -- but, heck, they are ours.

Not only our antelope, but our mule deer have been decimated this winter.

The Game and Fish Commission is already cancelling many hunting seasons and curtailing a bunch of others. It’s good to see that a whole bunch of Wyoming hunters are voluntarily not seeking hunting licenses this year for many types of game. It is going to take several nice winters to get these herds built back up.

If we end up with more winters like 2022-2023 every so often, it may be nearly impossible to get them built back up to where they have been.

If some hunts are being held, it will be only for deer and antelope bucks. CSD Reporter Heinz reported on this: “Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik during previous “town hall” meetings about the winterkill said that it’s vital to conserve female mule deer and antelope to replenish herds. Because a single buck can breed with multiple does during mating season, losing bucks – either to winterkill or hunters, has far less of a long-term effect on herds.  

Seasons Curtailed Or Cancelled

“Doe and fawn tags for mule deer were rare to begin with, and they would largely be canceled altogether.

“In areas where hunters are allowed to shoot mule deer bucks three-point restrictions would be widely applied. That means hunters could legally kill only bucks that have at least three points on at least one side of their antlers.

“Youth deer hunts have in the past allowed hunters ages 12-17 to shoot mule deer does. Game and Fish is proposing to let them shoot only mule deer bucks, while still being allowed to shoot either buck or doe whitetail deer.”

This seems like a reasonable compromise although I would prefer to see mule deer seasons cancelled in most of west, central Wyoming. They need time to recover.

What a sad time for those of us who love our wildlife. And that includes about 99 percent of the people who live in Wyoming.

Thankfully, warm temperatures have returned and most of the snow has melted. There will be incredible amounts of vegetation this spring and summer. For those animals which somehow survived, there will be plenty of food to restore their good health.

And a healthy wildlife population is very good news for the Cowboy State.

Bill Sniffin can be reached at

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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.