Carbon County has a longstanding and well-deserved reputation as one of the best big game hunting destinations not only in Wyoming, but in all the West.
Elk hunting tags for the vaunted Red Desert herd, though hard to draw, are coveted by resident and non-resident hunters. This vast southern Wyoming County also has been known for excellent mule deer hunting, both in terms of opportunity and the size of some of its trophy bucks.
And the pronghorn, or antelope, herds of Carbon County were considered by some to be the best there is.
But for now at least, all of that’s changed. The brutal winter of 2022-2023 hit Carbon County like a sledgehammer, and it experienced some of the worst winterkill in the region.
“We lost probably 75-80% of our antelope in some areas,” Mark Carrico, who owns Bi-Rite Sporting Goods in downtown Rawlins, told Cowboy State Daily on Friday.
“There’s no antelope fawns because all the does aborted their fetuses just so they could get through the winter,” he added.
Variety The Name Of The Game
One thing Carbon County has going for it is the variety of terrain. There are vast portions of the Red Desert and other wide-open low country. That’s always been good for hunting antelope, mule deer and lowland elk.
But there’s also no lack of foothill and mountain country. For instance, a section of the Snowy Range Mountains falls within Carbon County. Hunters tenacious enough to put in some hiking might have some luck with mule deer and elk in the high country, Carrico said.
The country at the base of the Snowy Range, and on up into the forested slopes, has long had a reputation for great mule deer hunting.
Some of that could be good again this year, Carrico said. However, in pockets of the county that weren’t hit so hard by winter, he cautioned that the competition could be tough and hunters might have to put some miles on their boots to get away from the crowds.
“We have one of the few big general hunt areas where people can buy tags over-the-counter and go hunt for deer or elk, but those are probably going to draw a crowd this year because of the winter kill in other areas,” he said.
Whitetail Here And There, And Grouse Too
Whitetail deer can be found along some of the river bottoms in parts of Carbon County, he said.
However, most of that country is privately owned, so those hunters who haven’t already gotten permission to go chase whitetails on private land might have a difficult time getting access this late in the game, Carrico said.
“There’s a few of them (whitetails) around, and their numbers appear to be growing,” he said.
Despite the winter nearly wiping out larger critters, he said Carbon County’s sage grouse seemed to pull through reasonably well. Perhaps that’s because the winter also seemed to kill many coyotes, which tend to raid grouse nests for eggs and hatchlings.
And perhaps because of great moisture over the spring and summer, blue grouse seem to be thriving in the foothills and mountain forests, Carrico said.
“I’ve heard there’s a lot of blue grouse up in the Snowy Range,” he said. “A lot of guys have been telling me that they’re running into blues up there.”
Could Take Years To Recover
For now, Carbon County could best be described as in a wait-and-see mode regarding its treasured big game herds.
With so many adults killed by the winter, and no fawn crop to speak of, it could take a few years for the antelope to start bouncing back, Carrico said.
“I had five antelope die right in my front yard last winter,” he said. “It was sad. You wanted to help them, but there was nothing you could do.”
Even elk, which are usually hardier than deer and elk pulling through winter, suffered badly, he added.
“During one trip to Laramie, we counted 11 dead elk along Interstate 80,” he said.
However, critters have a way of pushing through, Carrico said, and he has hope that Carbon County’s glory days could return.
“Antelope do tend to have a lot of twins. If we have a perfect, maybe five years, they’ll come back,” he said.
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Mark Heinz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.