Shooting Coyotes From The Air Could Save Wyoming’s Premier Mule Deer Herd

Game and Fish has approved another $200,000 for aerial gunning of coyotes to help save the Wyoming Range mule deer herd – which is still reeling from the devastating winter of 2022-2023.

MH
Mark Heinz

January 31, 20244 min read

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Predator hunting — particularly aerial gunning for coyotes — is controversial, but it’s necessary to save one of Wyoming’s premier mule deer herds, a deer conservationist said.

“Coyotes are one of the biggest deer fawn-killing machines,” Zach Key of La Barge told Cowboy State Daily. “Does will hide their fawns out in the sagebrush, and if a coyote picks up on them, they’re doomed.”

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission earlier this month approved $200,000 in additional money for aerial gunning of coyotes on deer fawning grounds.

Key said he realizes that shooting coyotes from aircraft might seem distasteful to some. Also, some have argued that over-killing coyotes actually makes them reproduce faster.

However, he thinks the gunning campaign is one of the best things that can help the struggling Wyoming Range Mule Deer herd and get it headed toward longer-term recovery.

Key did his part to save the herd last year through the Let a Deer Walk program, which encouraged hunters to turn in their deer tags for prize drawings.

Terrible Winterkill

The Wyoming Range deer herd is renowned throughout the region as one of the Cowboy State’s crown jewels of wildlife.

At one time, it numbered about 40,000 deer. But the herd faced several struggles over the years, including a hard winter and large die-offs in 2016-2017.

The herd numbered about 29,000 going into last winter.

And then the real devastation hit.

Massive snowfall, particularly in the lowlands, set up so solidly that animals couldn’t move about or dig down to forage. Countless deer froze or starved to death, and it’s thought that nearly all the herd’s fawns born in spring 2022 were lost.

Numbers Could Be Terrible

Game and Fish counts for the Wyoming Range mule deer herd are ongoing, and official numbers aren’t available yet, Key said.

But it’s feared that when the numbers come out, it could be worse than anybody thought.

Going off what locals have seen, there were only hundreds of deer in places that used to have thousands, he said.

“A bunch of sportsmen around here are speculating that the Wyoming Range mule deer herd has dropped down below 10,000,” he said, adding that every fawn born this coming spring will be sorely needed.

The Good News

It’s not all bad news, Key said. The deer that pulled though the horrible winter of 2022-2023 are enjoying a relatively mild winter this year.

And they went into it fat and happy after a wetter-than-usual summer produced abundant forage, with fewer deer left to compete with for the goodies.

It was sad that nearly all of last year’s fawns were lost. However, the surviving does didn’t have to put time and energy into raising fawns this summer and fall, Key said.

That meant they could rest and feast on forage, regaining their strength for this coming spring’s fawns. So, there should be many fawns born to strong, healthy mothers this spring.

“These deer will be extremely successful,” Key said. “There’ll be lots of fawns, lots of twins.”

Shoot Coyotes, Protect Fawns

As Key sees it, the last thing the herd needs at such a critical time is coyotes swooping in to gobble up a new crop of fawns. And that’s why he supports aerial gunning for coyotes this year.

“We need as many fawns as we can possibly get to recover this deer herd. And keeping the predators in check, just keeping them in check, is important,” Key said.

Game and Fish is putting millions of dollars into deer habitat improvement and other long-term measures, and that’s a good thing, he added. But gunning coyotes can make an immediate difference. As do wildlife crossings that save deer from being struck and killed on highways.

The Dry Piney wildlife crossing between La Barge and Big Piney was recently opened along a stretch of highway thought to be Wyoming’s worst for deer roadkill.

“Highway projects, predator control, that sort of stuff is immediately saving the deer herd,” Key said.

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

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter