Even among Wyoming’s countless spectacular vistas, the views near Squaretop Mountain in Sublette County stand out as truly exceptional.
Stan Cannon’s family has owned ranch property there since the 1920s, and it’s a blessing he doesn’t take for granted.
The wide valley near of Squaretop — which soars to an elevation of 11,695 feet in the Wind River Range — is a haven for wildlife.
And among Cannon’s favorite critters are a herd of about 60-70 antelope that have shown up like clockwork every spring. That’s when they usually migrate in from their low country winter range. The does find secluded spots to drop their fawns, usually twins.
“There’s all the room they could ever want to run here,” he said of the expansive grass and sage flats that sit at roughly 8,000 feet in elevation.
But this year, the antelope herd didn’t show up.
Cannon fears that except for one buck he’s seen, they all died during this past brutal winter.
‘There Are No Fawns’
Last year was a banner spring for antelope fawns, Cannon told Cowboy State Daily as he recalled some close encounters he had with newborn antelope.
He had special admiration for one brave little buck.
“He charged right at me, with his umbilical cord still attached,” Cannon said.
A short time later, he found the buck’s twin sister curled up in the grass.
“She didn’t move for the longest time. I was afraid she had died, but it turned out, she was just sleeping,” he said.
After a winter of record-shattering snowfalls in much of Wyoming, followed by steady June rains, the valley is exceptionally lush. There would be more than ample forage for the antelope.
If they were there, which they’re not, Cannon said.
He ventured on to the property in May, and then again this month.
“There are no fawns,” he said. “I’ve seen only one buck antelope all by himself this year. There are no does and no fawns.”
The winter of 2022-23 was one of the worst in recent memory for Wyoming wildlife winterkill.
All across central and southwest Wyoming, as well as northwestern Colorado, antelope and deer herds suffered catastrophic losses.
The vaunted Wyoming Range Mule deer herd might have been swiped down from 30,000 deer to about only 5,000, with nearly all the fawns lost.
Antelope herds also suffered estimated losses of 70% or more, littering places such as the La Barge area with decaying carcasses and bones.
Much of the wildlife death was attributed to “reverse snowpack.”
High-elevation areas, such as the Cannon family property, are known to get deep snow during the winter. That’s why critters like Cannon’s beloved antelope herd move to low-lying areas, such as the Red Desert, for the winter.
This past winter, however, the low country was also slammed with record snowfall, piling up to several feet in some places, and burying forage out of animals’ reach. As temperatures plunged to well below zero, animals starved and froze to death by the thousands.
Was it the Pneumonia?
To make matters even worse, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department reported in January that a rare strain of pneumonia, uniquely deadly to antelope, was killing hundreds of antelope in the Pinedale area.
It's still not clear how far that outbreak spread, or how many antelope it ended up killing.
But Cannon wonders if it didn’t infect, and all but wipe out, the Squaretop Mountain herd.
“I don’t know if it was the winter cold, or the pneumonia that got them, or both,” he said.
Regardless of what caused their demise, Cannon said he wonders when, or if, he’ll ever again get to enjoy watching the antics of newborn fawns in the shadow of Squaretop.
“I don’t see how they’ll ever recover from this,” he said.
Mark Heinz can be reached at email@example.com.