LA BARGE -- On the outskirts of La Barge early Monday, a mule deer doe trotted into the middle of the highway, and a stomp on the brakes saved her from being added to a grim tally.
With nary a look back, she spryly moved to the other side of the asphalt and went on her way, leaving one to wonder just how much luck she has left.
Getting struck by vehicles or succumbing to winter starvation have claimed thousands of her kind across the almost unfathomably vast stretches of lowland between the mountains of the Wyoming Range and Wind River Range.
It's land that was supposed to offer mule deer, elk and antelope respite from winter’s cruelty. Indeed, for countless years it has as vast game herds wintered here.
Not this year.
Snow came early to the low country and just kept coming. It kept piling up and crusting over. It turned oil and gas well service roads into ribbons running between seemingly impossibly high banks of snow.
And the wildlife just kept dying.
Shed Hunters Dot The Landscape
Monday was the first day of shed antler hunting season in the La Barge area. The snow had fully retreated from the range, and at every available pullout rigs were parked.
So many shed hunters showed up that all the good spots had been thoroughly picked over by only a couple of hours after sunrise. From atop a ridge, a few stragglers could be seen combing the brush here and there.
Most were on foot, although one party off in the distance was on horseback.
There was no wind to speak of, but the land here is so expansive — locals call it “the big empty” — sounds more than a couple dozen yards away are swallowed up. So, it seemed oddly peaceful and low-key, despite how fiercely competitive shed antler hunting can get at times.
Went To Sleep And Never Woke Up
The sandy soil was covered in many places with deer droppings. And in the folds of ridges where the brush got thick, every few yards there was a deer carcass.
The Wyoming Range mule deer herd is among the state’s crown jewels. It went into winter with an estimated 30,000 deer. Now, even some of the most optimistic estimates put the herd at about half that.
And the evidence of just how efficient a killer this past winter was is scattered across the rangeland. Many of the carcasses are reaching the advanced stages of decay as temperatures rise.
At least one was still intact enough to tell a morose story. A mule deer buck had fought his way almost all the way through the winter. It was late enough in the season that he had shed his antlers.
But in a thick patch of brush, he finally reached the place where he’d just had enough. He curled up, drifted off to sleep and never woke up.
‘This Place Was Just Swarming’
As the morning wore on and the pickings for antlers became too thin to bother with, Harry Thomas of Rock Springs and his two dogs made their way back to his truck.
He’s been coming to La Barge for years for the opening of shed hunting season. It’s always been less about scoring a huge pile of antlers and more about the experience for him.
“I’ve always enjoyed the camping and the hiking aspect of it,” he said as he took a short break.
He had only a few small antlers to show after the morning’s trek.
“This whole place was just swarming with people” when the shed hunting season officially began at 6 a.m., he said.
And it started two weeks late. It usually opens May 1, but conditions were still so harsh as that date approached this year, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department decided to delay the opening in western Wyoming, except for Teton County.
It might have been so crowded near La Barge on Monday because it was the last opener that nonresidents will get to enjoy. The Wyoming Legislature early this year passed a bill giving residents a weeklong head start on shed antler hunting beginning May 1, 2024.
‘Never Seen Anything Like It’
While the crowds might have irritated him, Thomas said the sheer number of deer carcasses he saw was shocking.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said, echoing what other experienced shed hunters and other outdoors enthusiasts have been saying this spring as the snow retreats and the full scale of the damage become apparent.
“Everywhere the sage brush gets any deeper than about chest-high, there’s deer carcasses,” he said.
Underpasses Are A Good Sign
Road Construction delays are usually aggravating for Wyoming drivers. However, going north out of La Barge toward Big Piney, backed-up traffic at construction sites is a good sign.
Crews are busy building nine wildlife underpasses along U.S. 189 between La Barge and Big Piney. They’re also putting in long stretches of fence designed to funnel animals toward the underpasses.
The project is slated for completion this fall, and it’s hoped it will cut down on the roadkill carnage. On top of everything else they’ve been hit with, the Wyoming Range mule deer face steep odds of being hit by cars as they cross the highway — sometimes several times each day.
‘Can’t Smell The Sage, Just Death’
The flurry of activity at the underpass construction sites was a boost to the spirits, but things turned somber again not far away alongside Wyoming Highway 351.
Upon opening the vehicle door at a riverside pullout, a visitor is hit with the noisome order of decay.
Zachary Kay of La Barge counted seven antelope carcasses just in the parking area. He turned, pointed at a slope across the highway and quickly counted 14 more.
A trek up that slope revealed that was just a preview. The antelope here were stricken not only with winterkill, but also suffered a deadly pneumonia outbreak, and died in droves.
“It’s sad, all you can smell is death,” Key remarked. “You can’t even smell the fresh sage, just the death.”
Key said when he first spotted the carcasses littering the slope a few weeks ago, “they were blown up like big balloons.”
Now, many are starting to “melt” back into the landscape, like the snow, he said.
It’s a grim reminder of nature’s cycle of life, death, decay and renewal.
Fat And Glowing
The carcasses dotting the landscape along Highway 351 were replaced by mostly empty countryside turning south toward Farson.
But beyond Farson climbing toward South Pass, things started to look remarkably better. Bands of antelope appeared at regular intervals along the roadside. In stark contrast to the pitiful remains seen earlier, there they were — live, robust animals, energetic pronghorn fattened by the fresh greenery that sprang up in the snow’s wake.
Their coats looked thick and healthy, almost glowing when the light hit them just right.
And that seemed perfectly fitting for Wyoming, and for the wildlife and people that call it home.
No matter how horrible things might seem at any given time or in any particular place there’s no sense in lingering there.
Just keep going, there’s always more down the road — tenacity, defiance, survival and hope.
Mark Heinz can be reached at Mark@CowboyStateDaily.com