Massive Winterkill Is Impacting Wyoming Antelope Hunts

Massive winterkill prompted Wyoming Game and Fish to cut thousands of hunting tags, and some regular hunters say they’ll forego this season to help decimated herds recover.

MH
Mark Heinz

August 18, 20235 min read

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Winterkill and disease cut a ghastly swath through antelope herds in some of Wyoming’s prime hunting areas, which has prompted some hunters to say they’re skipping this season.

Even so, antelope pulled through the winter fairly well in other parts of the Cowboy State. So, there’s still ample hunting opportunity as some antelope archery seasons opened this week, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish department.

Game and Fish recently released its hunting season forecast, including breakdowns by species, as well as areas based around the agency’s eight regional headquarters: Casper, Cody, Green River, Jackson, Lander, Laramie, Pinedale and Sheridan.

‘I Was Going To Shred The Tag’

Zach Key lives in and hunts near La Barge, one of the places hardest hit by big game die-offs. Antelope were clobbered by a combination of winter starvation and a rare pneumonia outbreak, which left thousands of carcasses scattered across the landscape this spring.

During a typical year, Key loves starting his hunting season out by pursuing a big buck from what used to be robust herds of antelope around his hometown. But this isn’t a typical year, and those herds have been reduced to a fraction of their usual numbers.

That means Key is sitting the 2023 antelope hunting season out.

He still put in for an antelope tag, which he didn’t draw. All antelope hunts in Wyoming are by draw only. That means hunters must enter for the tag drawing months in advance. If they don’t draw a tag, their money is refunded.

Even if he had drawn an antelope tag, Key told Cowboy State Daily that he had no intentions of hunting. Instead, he would have regarded the $37 tag as a small boost toward Game and Fish’s budget and wildlife conservation.

“I didn't draw an antelope tag, unfortunately. iIf I would have drawn one, I was going to shred the tag,” he said.

No ‘Pronghorn Street Tacos’ This Year

In the wake of the horrible winter losses, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission earlier this year opted to cut more than 10,000 antelope tags, greatly diminishing hunters’ odds of drawing tags in many hunt areas.

Hunter and wildlife conservationist Josh Coursey, who lives near Kemmerer, told Cowboy State Daily that he understands why antelope hunting was scaled back. Like Key, he and his family opted to bow out of this fall’s pursuit of antelope — or, by their formal name, pronghorn.

Even so, he’s optimistic the herds will bounce back in years to come because the surviving antelope he’s seen appear to be in excellent health, thanks to a wet summer and spring that produced great forage.

“Yes, we passed this year on hunting antelope opportunity,” he said. “Just thought it best knowing their decline in numbers. We have historically only hunted pronghorn near our home in the southern Wyoming Range and just thought a year off was best suited for us.

“That being said, the pronghorn I am seeing look good, so I am optimistic that they'll bounce back in the coming years, and we can get back to savoring the ever-tasty pronghorn street tacos.”

Some Bright Spots

For those hunters who have opted to go after antelope this year, Game and Fish biologists have pointed out that shooting a buck probably won’t hurt their recovery. That’s because a single buck can impregnate numerous does, driving a population bounce-back.

And while the overall picture might be grim in some regions, there are still pockets of aple hunting opportunity, according to Game and Fish’s hunt forecast report.

“The Green River Region encompasses six pronghorn herds. Pronghorn numbers are down across the region due to harsh winter conditions in 2022-23. However, there is variability in these declines,” the report states.

“While slightly suppressed in population numbers, the southern hunt areas of the Sublette herd should still offer quality hunting experiences,” Game and Fish reports. “A similar outlook should be expected for the Uinta-Cedar Mountain and Carter Lease pronghorn herds. While winter conditions were exceptional, segments of these populations were able to find suitable locations to winter along Interstate 80 and Flaming Gorge Reservoir to buffer against losses.”

Expect A Harder Hunt In Legendary Rawlins Zone

The Rawlins area is a legendary antelope hot spot, usually known for big herds and some monster bucks.

But numbers are down severely there this year. Still, tenacious hunters might still be able to find some big bucks there, according to the report.

The Laramie region didn’t suffer nearly the winterkill losses as other areas, according to Game and Fish, and antelope populations also are bouncing back in the Sheridan region.

In one herd near Pinedale, where 75% of the radio-collared antelope does that biologists were tracking this winter died, the Game and Fish commission opted to shut down the season in Hunt Area 85.

But in the Big Horn Basin in the Cody region, “hunting should be similar or better for those who drew pronghorn licenses within the region than last year,” Game and Fish reports.

The 2023 hunting season forecast is available online.

Mark Heinz can be reached at mark@cowboystatedaily.com.

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MH

Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter