Johnson County boasts some of Wyoming’s most picturesque wildlife habitat, from the heavily forested slopes of the Bighorn Mountains to high-rolling prairies, and booming elk herds are loving it all.
Meanwhile, the county’s legendary gobs of whitetails have been knocked back severely by disease. But they’ll probably recover, whereas mule deer might be in longer-term trouble, a local outdoorsman told Cowboy State Daily.
Elk, Elk Everywhere
“Like just about everywhere else in Wyoming, we have lots of elk. Our elk situation in the Bighorns is … well, we have a ton of elk, maybe too many,” said Luke Todd, owner of The Sports Lure outdoors store in downtown Buffalo.
In addition to thriving in the high country, elk have started to move into the basins and lowlands beyond the mountains, he said.
“There’s always been a few isolated elk herds here and there out in the basin, but now they’re everywhere,” Todd said.
Like many places in Wyoming, Johnson County has intermixed public and private land, so getting access to elk hunting can be a challenge. But it’s not as difficult as it is in some other Wyoming counties, he said.
Some ranchers will grant permission to hunters. Or, if those wanting a crack at wapiti do some homework, there’s juicy parcels of accessible public land that might provide opportunity, Todd said.
“There are places where they (elk herds) have to migrate through public land to get to private land, and that lets people have a chance at them,” he said.
Disease Gives Whitetail The Smackdown
Johnson County also has a reputation as a whitetail hotspot. Whitetails are highly adaptable and prolific breeders. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department usually offers generous numbers of whitetail doe tags to help keep their numbers in check.
But this fall there’s a damper on the whitetail free-for-all. An outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) – or blue tongue disease — hammered whitetails herds.
“There are places where we used to have 300 head of whitetail deer, but now you see maybe a dozen,” Todd said.
However, now that the disease has taken its toll, there’s little doubt that whitetail numbers will come roaring back.
“Whitetails are like coyotes and cockroaches,” Todd said. “If the apocalypse comes, it’s going to be those three species that are left.”
Mule Deer Not Doing Well
Winterkill and chronic wasting disease (CWD) have decimated Johnson County’s mule deer herds, and their long-term outlook also seems grim, Todd said.
“The mule deer around here seem to have been hit particularly hard with the CWD, so we don’t know if they’ll come back,” he said.
There are some small mule deer bucks about, “but we’re really missing our older age class bucks,” Todd said, because disease and the last bitter winter hit those older bucks hard.
Winterkill and blue tongue also knocked the county’s antelope herds down, and Game and Fish cut some hunting tags for them this fall. But like the whitetails, the antelope are expected to bounce back nicely.
Johnson County also is known for skads of wild turkeys. But they tend to inhabit creek bottoms, which are almost entirely on private land, Todd said. That means getting permission to hunt turkeys can be daunting. But for those hunters who can find a spot, the hunting should be excellent.
Turkeys are smart about staying right in Buffalo where they’re safe from hunters, he added.
“They have those little bird brains, but they still figure out where the food is and where they’re safe,” he said.
There are Hungarian partridge and sharp-tailed grouse scattered here and there about the lowlands, but hunters out after them should probably expect lots of hiking and not much shooting, Todd said.
The story is much the same with waterfowl. There are a few resident Canada geese and some “jump shooting” opportunities for ducks on local ponds.
Higher up in the mountains, blue grouse are doing extremely well, so bird hunters might want to focus their efforts there, he said.
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Mark Heinz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.