Game And Fish: Two-Thirds Of Prized Wyoming Mule Deer Herd Killed Last Winter

Last year’s catastrophic winter killed nearly two-thirds of one of Wyoming’s premier mule deer herds, according to a new Game and Fish report released Thursday.

Mark Heinz

March 01, 20245 min read

Wyoming mule deer herd.
Wyoming mule deer herd. (Bureau of Land Management)

The full scope of the terrible toll that the winter of 2022-2023 took on the prized Wyoming Range mule deer has finally been revealed as a new report indicates that nearly two-thirds of the herd perished.

The herd’s numbers plummeted from an estimated 30,000 animals in February 2023, to roughly 11,000 last month, according to a report released Thursday by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

“It is brutal. The loss has been well documented, and this report only confirms the reality of the consequences of last winter. It is a significant blow,” Josh Coursey, president and CEO of the conservation group Muley Fanatics, told Cowboy State Daily on Friday.

Hunter and deer conservationist Zack Key of La Barge told Cowboy State Daily that he can recall just a few years ago counting more than maybe 1,000 deer on the roughly 20-mile drive between La Barge and Big Piney.

“Now, you can count six, eight,” he said.

The latest tally was the result of aerial counts of deer this year and last year, Game and Fish Deputy Chief Warden of Wildlife Doug Brimeyer said in a statement.

“Game and Fish biologists and wardens wouldn’t typically conduct intensive aerial surveys two years in a row due to the high costs and flight time involved,” he said. “However, given the unprecedented winter of 2022-23, regional managers decided it was important to obtain an accurate and full picture of this herd’s population.”

Crown Jewel Of Mule Deer Herds

The Wyoming Range mule deer herd is widely considered one of the crown jewels of Wyoming’s wildlife, and the envy of other Western states. The deer typically spend the summer and fall in the Wyoming Range mountains, and then winter on the vast flats between the Wyoming Range and Wind River mountains.

The herd gained a reputation not only for bountiful numbers of deer, but robust health and superior genetics that produced some whopper trophy bucks.

The most famous among those bucks were Goliath, Popeye and Morty. Though they lived during the 1990s, the mighty trio of trophy mule deer is well-remembered to this day.

Back then, the herd peaked out at nearly 60,000 mule deer, according to Game and Fish records.

Grim Numbers

Habitat loss, hard winters and other setbacks have caused the Wyoming Range herd to ebb and flow over the years.

But the precipitous drop-off over the past year is unprecedented in records going back to 1990. And the 11,000-deer estimate is by far the lowest over that period.

Buck and fawn ratios also were at historical lows, according to Game and Fish.

“Results from the classification survey indicate the fawn ratio for the deer herd was 34 fawns for every 100 does — the lowest on record since the herd was designated in 1982,” according to the report.

The observed buck ratio was 24 bucks for every 100 does, also one of the lowest on record.

Will ‘Take Years To Recover’

Key said that even the 11,000-deer estimate might be generous. He and other local hunters fear the numbers might be even lower.

After the brutal 2022-2023 winter, many opted to pass on deer hunting this past fall.

Key took it a step further, with his “Let a Deer Walk” program. He invited hunters to buy deer tags, but turn them in as entry tickets for a prize drawing. Nearly 1,200 hunters responded.

Key said he probably won’t do “Let a Deer Walk” again this year. He plans on buying a Wyoming deer tag, but probably won’t shoot a mule deer.

Instead, he’s counting on whitetail tags in other states to fill his freezer with deer steaks this fall.

Coursey said limitations on hunting for the Wyoming Range herd might be in order. Tags in some hunt areas were cut last fall.

“It is going to take years for this herd to recover. There has never been a more appropriate time than now to have the conversations about how this herd, its management and its hunting opportunities move forward,” Coursey said.

“While no one digests losing opportunity lightly, the future of this herds' recovery necessitates such. The health of this herd depends on its does and fawns, and I applaud the WGFD (Game and Fish) for removing this opportunity last year. This is going to need to be maintained for this herd to rebound,” he added.

But There’s Good News

The good news is, the Wyoming Range herd seems to already be on the road to recovery, Key said.

This past spring and summer, the deer that did survive the massive winterkill had far less competition for forage. And with plenty of precipitation, there was rich forage everywhere.

So the deer were fat going into this winter, which so far has been mild. That’s increased the odds for a bumper crop of healthy fawns this spring, he said.

Increased coyote control in the area has helped, as has the completion of the Dry Piney Wildlife Underpass, which has spared deer from becoming roadkill, Key said.

So, he’s cautiously hopeful about the herd’s future.

“They’re far from being in the clear,” he said. “I think they need at least one more mild winter.”

Mark Heinz can be reached at

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter