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wildlife

Smart Yellowstone Reporter – Unlike Idiot Tourists – Leaves Bison Alone

in News/Tourism/wildlife
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We’ve seen the videos many, many times. Tourists come to Yellowstone and attempt to pet bison.

The result? Oftentimes, not good.

Deion Broxton, from KTVM TV in Bozeman, Montana, did the right thing. He saw a herd of bison coming his way and bailed out.

“Oh my God,” he muttered while carefully observing the approaching herd.

“I ain’t messing with you,” he said moments later, while walking off-camera and to his car.

“Oh, no,” he continued while packing his car with his gear. “Oh no, I ain’t messing with you.”

His actions got him praise from the official Yellowstone Twitter account.

“A perfect example of what to do when approached by wildlife! Rolling on the floor laughing Thanks Deion for putting the #YellowstonePledge into action!” they tweeted.

As for that herd of bison, those were some serious animals. Once he got to a safe location, he shot a quick video of them.

Wyo Moose Population Drops Amid ‘Perfect Storm’ Of Issues

in News/wildlife
Wyoming Moose
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By Nicole Blanchard, Cowboy State Daily

Hundreds of people on Facebook were alarmed recently when a graphic shared widely on social media showed Wyoming’s moose population has been decimated in recent years, dropping from more than 10,000 animals in the mid-1990s to 1,500 by 2017. 

Between 2011 and 2012 alone, the graph showed the population plummeting by more than 4,000 animals. Wyoming Sen. Ogden Driskill shared the image on his Facebook page, pointing toward the rising wolf population as the culprit for the decline, like many others did.

“At what point do the moose become endangered and we start killing wolves to save an endangered species????” Driskill wrote in January.

The graph is not entirely accurate, according to Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials.

“That graph had quite a few errors in it,” said Doug Brimeyer, the department’s deputy chief of wildlife, including the fact it showed a steep 2012 population drop that was actually the result of a change in the way the agency estimated moose numbers.

But the state’s moose population has declined significantly in recent years because of a mix of factors, Brimeyer said.

“I think it’s unfair to put it off on one single cause, because I think moose have faced the perfect storm of issues,” he said.

Currently, the statewide moose population is Wyoming is just under 3,500 animals, Brimeyer said. And the graph shared on social media isn’t all wrong — the population has been trending downward since hitting 10,000 in the mid-1990s.

“Overall, we’ve seen some significant declines over the last 25 years,” Brimeyer said. “Historically, it’s obviously a declining trend.”

Moose challenges

The “perfect storm of issues” that moose are facing is widespread. Officials in Idaho, Utah and Montana have reported similar population declines, a trend that’s raised concern since the early 2000s.

“They’re influenced by a whole variety of issues,” Brimeyer said.

Predation from wolves, grizzly bears and mountain lions plays a role.

“Wolves start showing up in the late ‘90s,” Brimeyer said. “Around the same time, grizzly bears start expanding their range. They’re all a piece of the puzzle. I don’t want to diminish the role that predation played, because it’s pretty significant.”

Brimeyer said wolf hunting seasons are successfully keeping the predators in check in Wyoming, which could prove beneficial to moose.

In addition to predation, moose are threatened by other environmental factors, from massive wildfires that destroy habitat to tiny parasites that can bring mighty moose down from the inside.

Brimeyer said warmer, drier weather in Wyoming in recent years has made it easier for parasites like winter ticks, which attach themselves to moose in the fall, to stay alive and feed on the moose.

“In dry falls, those animals tend to pick up a lot of (winter ticks), which can affect their ability to maintain their nutritional status,” Brimeyer said. “Some of these animals can carry a very high tick load.”

A 2018 study on New Hampshire moose found that animals with high ticks loads died of emaciation and malnutrition linked to the arachnids.

Wyoming moose have also been affected by a carotid artery worm, a parasite transmitted by horseflies that constricts blood flow and can lead to death. The parasite’s target host, deer, are often asymptomatic.

“The moose is the wrong host for this parasite, so they have symptoms where they start walking in circles and eventually die,” Brimeyer said.

Humans aren’t blameless in the decline, either. Brimeyer said the department has seen an uptick in vehicle collisions resulting in moose fatalities.

Saving the moose

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has long been looking for ways to boost struggling moose numbers. Over the last 15 years, Brimeyer said, the agency has consistently decreased moose tag numbers and changed the structure of its hunting season to give the animals a better chance at recovery.

In the 1990s, Game and Fish changed regulations to ban hunters from harvesting cow moose with calves at their side. Around 2000, the agency eliminated cow moose hunts in some units. 

“In the ‘90s, we were harvesting over 1,000 moose,” Brimeyer said. “In 2019, we harvested about 300 moose.”

The efforts could be paying off — although it is difficult to determine because moose are notoriously difficult to count. Despite their huge size, moose are elusive and largely solitary.

“Right now, there’s no feasible census techniques out there,” Brimeyer said, adding that Game and Fish Department is working on trail camera counts, as well as DNA sampling of hair and fecal pellets to try to identify animals.

Still, department counts show some potentially good news for moose. Calf ratios are improving in Western Wyoming, where officials counted more than 2,000 specimens in 2018.

“We’re optimistic that Wyoming’s moose populations are beginning to change a bit,” Brimeyer said.

Wolf Pups Killed on Road Became Used to Humans, Officials Say

in News/wildlife
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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

To many in northern and western Wyoming, wolves are now a part of everyday life. Ranchers, wildlife enthusiasts, backcountry hikers and Sunday drivers are conscious of the presence of wolves – even if they can’t be seen.

In November, two wolves in Yellowstone National Park were hit by a vehicle. 

The pair of black wolf pups from the Junction Butte Pack, one of the most visible packs in the Park, were struck on the road between the park’s northeast entrance and Tower Junction. 

According to park officials, the pups had become habituated to humans due to a number of hikers who violated the required 100-yard barrier between people and wolves. Because they had grown accustomed to humans, the pups had several close encounters with visitors – which eventually led to their deaths, as they started spending more time near the highway. Officials said they attempted to haze the wolves away from human hangouts, but were unsuccessful.

Ken Mills is a large carnivore biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department who focuses on the state’s wolf population. He said officials don’t often have to use hazing, because the animals tend to shy away from humans.

“We have tools such as cracker shells shot out of a shotgun or a specific cracker shell gun that explode and make noise, and we use those to haze different species,” he explained. “We do have available what we call ‘turbo fladry,’ which is an electrified single strand wire fence with red flags hanging off it, and those can be effective to keep wolves out of specific areas, say, a calving pasture. We’ve used flashing lights before.

“Any sort of negative interaction with a person would scare a wolf away,” he added.

Yellowstone National Park biologists report that there were at least 80 wolves in nine packs living primarily in the park at the end of December, 2018. 

According to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, that number is included in the total estimate of 286 wolves that reside within the state’s borders – which is down significantly from the 2017 count of 347, and is the fewest recorded since the department took over management of the species in 2012.

A total of 177 wolf mortalities were documented statewide in 2018, according to the Game and Fish Department. Mills said the decline in the population is due to a combination of factors.

“It’s partly hunting and there was some disease operating in the population, because it had been at high density for a number of years,” he said. “So that initial decrease in 2018 was from a combination of disease, from hunting, and from other human-caused mortality.”

In 2018, the Game and Fish Department implemented a wolf hunting season, with an objective of reducing the population to around 160 wolves in the Wolf Trophy Game Management Area. 

According to the 2018 annual report from the department, 90 percent of wolf deaths that year were human-caused, either through hunting, conflict control or predator control measures. The other 10 percent died of natural causes or the cause of death was unknown.

Despite the high mortality rate last year, Game and Fish reported that the wolf population is still significantly higher than the target number set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“(The 2018 count) was near our population objective, which is quite a bit higher than the minimum recovery criteria, what we’re required to maintain following de-listing,” Mills pointed out. 

While hunting allows the Game and Fish Department to control the population, the novelty of wolves being present and visible in northwest Wyoming can itself pose a danger to the animals, as demonstrated in the deaths of the wolf pups this winter.

“Visitors must protect wolves from becoming habituated to people and roads,”  said Doug Smith, Yellowstone’s senior wolf biologist. “Stay at least 100 yards from wolves, never enter a closed area, and notify a park ranger of others who are in violation of these rules.”  

Energy Development Part of Complex Problem in Wyo Mule Deer Decline

in Energy/News/wildlife
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Research indicates energy development played a role in declining mule deer populations, but it’s only one part of a complex problem, a University of Wyoming researcher said.

“When mule deer are present on winter range, we tend to see movement away from energy development,” said Kevin Monteith, a UW assistant professor of natural resource science. “And, when they are near development they tend to be more vigilant and less interested in feeding. I wouldn’t say (energy developments) are the primary factor of declining populations, but with certainty, I can say they are contributing factors.”

In a draft plan for mitigating Chronic Wasting Disease, Wyoming Game and Fish reported the state’s mule deer populations are down about 40 percent since the 1970’s, and for years, researchers across Wyoming have tried to answer the question of why.

Working through the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Monteith’s team researches how large ungulates such as deer, moose and pronghorn interact with their habitat. 

Using data collected since the 1990s, Monteith and fellow researchers were able to determine deer traveling from their winter range to their summer range ate less than usual when traveling near oil and gas well pads. 

“We’ve known for sometime that deer tended to avoid energy development on winter range,” Monteith said. “But on the surface, there wasn’t a great connection between that behavior and the population declines.”

From 2015 to 2017, Monteith gathered data on mule deer in the Upper Green River Basin with the intent of drilling down on the connection between habitat usage, energy development and population flux. 

The study did not yield a definitive connection, but rather expanded on the scientific community’s understanding of mule deer behavioral patterns near well pads. 

“We tend to see (the deer) are not making as complete use of food on land near energy development as they are in other places,” Monteith said. “Food is that ultimate building block. If we lose food on the landscape, we would expect a population decline to occur thereafter.” 

In response to his research, many people pointed out an abundance of deer traveling near developed areas.

“These results are not counter to those observations,” Monteith said. “Our results are not saying the animals we monitored were never next to a well pad. They absolutely were.” 

But after comparing all the places they lived throughout the winter, his team determined the deer didn’t eat as much when near to energy developments.

Gadget science

Much of Monteith’s work is made possible by advances in GPS technology since the turn of the century, said Hall Sawyer, a wildlife biologist who published research papers with Monteith in 2017 and 2019.

“There’s two tools that have certainly revolutionized the way in which we collect animal movement data,” Sawyer said.

The first is GPS tracking collars. 

Sawyer conducts research similar to Monteith’s, but for the private sector through Western Ecosystems Technology (WEST), Inc., based in Laramie.

To help with Monteith’s winter range studies, Sawyer shared data his company collected since the late ’90s.

“GPS collars get better every year,” Sawyer said. “Before GPS, people used VHF collars. You’d have to go out with a big ol’ antenna and listen for an animal.”

The results were varied, and at times, inaccurate, he said.

“Fifteen years ago, we had collars that could collect a couple hundred locations and would last about six months,” Sawyer said. “Nowadays, we have collars that can collect locations every hour, 24 hours a day for several years at a time.”

The second significant advancement is the use of helicopters and net guns to capture animals prior to collaring.

“The challenging part is you have to put those collars on the animals,” Sawyer explained. “Before helicopter-net gunning, the techniques were really labor intensive and not very efficient.” 

With the help of these advancements, wildlife research entered a new era of understanding animal behavior.

“If you’re going to manage any wildlife population you need to understand when and why animals move,” Sawyer explained.

What’s next?


While neither Sawyer’s nor Monteith’s research determined energy development played a primary role in mule deer population declines, it will serve to educate the scientific community and help wildlife managers mitigate potential damage future developments could cause, Monteith said.

“The hope is this sort of research can help wildlife managers make more informed decisions,” he said, explaining managers have to sign off on development permits. “The unknowns and uncertainty can create tension between different groups.”

Speculation can slow or even halt the permit process, causing problems between the permitting authority and the applicant. With an in-depth analysis of cause and effect in hand, Monteith said he hopes his research can benefit everyone involved in the energy development process.

The field work on winter range may be complete, but the research continues, he said. Monteith is currently working to publish another paper related to his findings.

“Now that we understand the effects, the next step is to develop better strategies for habitat management,” he explained. 

Sawyer said the research conducted by WEST, UW and the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit helped developers create a pipeline for liquid waste removal which reduced herd disturbance. And the studies showed directional drilling from a single well pad also mitigated some of the unproductive behaviors exhibited by mule deer near well pads.

“Directional drilling multiple wells from a single pad and liquid gathering systems are really good practices,” Sawyer said. “But while they help minimize disturbances, they do not eliminate them.”

Wind, Winter Storm Force Grand Teton to Delay Mountain Goat Cull

in News/wildlife
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By Nicole Blanchard, Cowboy State Daily

Several days of wind and snow in western Wyoming forced National Park Service officials to delay plans to eradicate non-native mountain goats in Grand Teton National Park, according to park spokeswoman Denise Germann.

The Park Service initially planned to close portions of Grand Teton from Jan. 5 to 12 in order to remove the mountain goats by shooting them from helicopters. Wind earlier in the week created unsafe flying conditions, Germann said on Thursday, while snow from a winter storm later in the week created further issues.

Germann said the removal will be rescheduled, though no dates have yet been determined. An environmental impact study on the removal determined efforts should be completed by early March, when park visitation is low.

Approximately 100 mountain goats dispersed into Grand Teton National Park in recent years. Germann said the animals are descendants of mountain goats released south of the park by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game for hunting purposes in the 1960s and ‘70s.

“We’ve been looking at this for the last few years,” Germann said.

National Park Service officials said the mountain goats carry pathogens that can cause pneumonia, posing a potential threat to a herd of bighorn sheep native to Grand Teton.

“(Disease transmission) has not been documented, but it is a primary concern,” Germann said. “The bighorn sheep have low genetic diversity … because they’re isolated from neighboring herds.”

Germann said using firearms from a helicopter was determined to be the most efficient way to eradicate the mountain goats.

“We’re trying to rapidly reduce their numbers,” she said.

According to the environmental impact study, National Park Service officials believe the entire population of mountain goats can be eradicated in one to five years.

“The National Park Service has a responsibility to arrange for native populations,” Germann said. “When there’s something that jeopardizes that native population, we take action.”

The National Park Service is not the only agency to address the encroaching species. Last year, Wyoming Game and Fish Department opened a new mountain goat hunting season on the west side of the Teton mountain range in an effort to allow hunters to thin the herd. Forty-eight licenses were issued.

Year of the Pig sees Wyoming cut the fat, celebrate equality, go gaga for choo-choo trains

in Agriculture/Business/Energy/Jobs/News/Transparency/wildlife
Year of the Pig
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

In 2019, Wyoming celebrated the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage, welcomed back members of the Black 14 and bemoaned the worsening coal crisis.

Cowboy State Daily was there to cover it all.

Here’s some of our top stories from throughout the year.

Coal

Mineral extraction in Wyoming could enter a slump in the next four years, and the coal industry is slated to experience the worst of it, according to a report produced by Gov. Mark Gordon’s Power Wyoming initiative.

Some of the initiative’s scenarios predicted a recovery period in two years, but most, and the most likely, predicted a devastating decrease in both Wyoming’s total employment and population.

For the residents of coal country, those predictions could be life changing.

“The coal jobs have historically been the stable jobs,” said Alison Gee, a Gillette attorney. “Now, we’re shifting to an environment where we have to look to oil and gas to try and provide some of the stability for our families. And as you know, the oil and gas markets just aren’t that way. They’re very volatile because of the world economy.”

Although several hundred miners returned to work at the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr coal mines after Eagle Specialty Materials assumed ownership from the bankrupt former owners, Blackjewel, the reverberations of 600 coal miners being laid off in one fell swoop earlier this year are still being felt statewide.

Corporate income tax

Despite dying in the Senate during the 2019 Legislative Session, a legislative committee is once again studying a proposal to impose an income tax on so-called “big box” stores.

The Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee listened to testimony in September regarding a 7 percent corporate income tax on companies with more than 100 shareholders.

A similar proposal, House Bill No. 220, referred to as the National Retail Fairness Act, was not considered by the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee before a deadline in February.

Both measures were raised as state officials were faced with rapid declines in the state’s mineral tax revenues, historically the biggest contributors to Wyoming coffers.

Irrigation collapse

After an irrigation canal collapsed, leaving more than 100,000 acres of farmland in Goshen County and Nebraska without water for months this summer, officials are looking into ways to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Built by the Bureau of Reclamation more than 100 years ago, the Gering/Fort Laramie Irrigation Canal collapsed in July, causing the governors of Wyoming and Nebraska to declare states of emergency.

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture later said crop losses would be covered by insurance, a previous economic analysis report produced jointly by the Nebraska Extension and University of Wyoming Extension originally estimated the collapse could cost both states about $90 million combined. 

Opening the books

After a years-long legal battle between Wyoming officials and non-profit organizations over state government transparency, Wyoming State Auditor, Kristi Racines released Wyoming’s checkbook  shortly after taking office in January.

The data dump contained approximately 4.9 million line items of expenditures made by state agencies during the last six years, but it does not include several spending categories such as state employee salaries or victims’ benefit payments.

Racines took transparency a step further and launched a website dedicated to providing the public with basic spending data for the state.

Using the data provided through both the checkbook and website, Cowboy State Daily covered a series of state spending stories including the Wyoming Office of Tourism’s sponsorship of rodeo teams, the Wyoming Department of Correction’s purchases of religious items and a look at Wyoming’s own air fleet

Big Boy

The largest steam engine ever built, the Big Boy locomotive, crossed Wyoming for the first time in 60 years, bound for Utah and the 150th anniversary of the completion of the country’s first transcontinental railway.

“A steam locomotive is a living, breathing piece of machinery,” said Bob Krieger, a former steam locomotive engineer who now runs the UP Historical Society in Cheyenne. “You can see its muscles. You can hear it breathe as it pulls a grade. All steam engines do that. The Big Boy is just the biggest.”

Train enthusiasts from all over the world flocked to Wyoming to witness the historic trip.

Capitol renovations

State agencies started moving back into the Wyoming Capitol building this summer as a $300 million renovation project neared its end.

The refurbishment of the 129-year-old Capitol was the centerpiece for the Wyoming Capitol Square Project that also involved updating the Herschler Building to the north and the space between them.

The reopening ceremony coincided with the celebration of Wyoming’s Statehood Day, and the unveiling revealed a Capitol building considered to be much more accessible to the public, with larger rooms, broader passageways and more open space.

“They’ve done a lot of stuff here that opened up the Capitol,” said Joe McCord, the former facilities manager for the Capitol. “The stairs going into the House and Senate are wide open right now. Downstairs, you’ve got the galley that’s wide open. The rooms are bigger. I just love it, what they’ve done. They’ve done a great job.”

Despite being mostly complete, many agencies were still working with temporary furniture towards the end of the year as the state worked out the details of new furniture request for proposal.

Taco John’s

There was a whole lotta Mexican goin’ on at Taco John’s 50th anniversary this year, some of which the company is taking to Minnesota.

While founded in Cheyenne half a century ago, the fast food chain announced in December it was expanding its corporate office to Minneapolis, where there are more than 200 Taco John’s locations within a few hours drive from the city. But for those readers who can’t get enough oles, the franchise is slated to remain headquartered in Wyoming. 

Women’s Suffrage

State legislators kicked off the 2019 Legislative Session by passing a measure setting aside a day to recognize Wyoming as the first state in the nation to give women the right to vote.

The measure declared Dec. 10 as “Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Day,” which marks the day in 1869 when Territorial Gov. John Campbell signed the bill giving women the right to vote in Wyoming.

Marking the occasion with music, the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra commissioned an original work from American composer Stephanie Ann Boyd. 

“Wyoming, of course, put through women’s suffrage about 50 years before everybody else, and so we’re taking the inspiration of that, and the stories of the women that were instrumental in that, and writing a piece about them, but also writing essentially a 25-minute minute love letter to Wyoming,” Boyd said.

On Dec. 10, women and men marched to the Capitol commemorating the newly declared holiday and highlighting instances of inequality that still need to be addressed.

Black 14 

Fifty years after the University of Wyoming expelled 14 members of its football team, known as the Black 14, for wearing black armbands onto the field, race relations are still strained in the Equality State, said Mel Hamilton, one of the Black 14.

“It’s a shame to say, but it’s pretty much the same as when I entered Wyoming in 1965,” Hamilton said, adding, “with one exception — it went underground.”

Adding diversity to the history books and teaching students how minorities contributed to growth of the U.S. as well as informing them how racism was cultivated by ignorance would be a strong step toward improving Wyoming’s future race relations, Hamilton said. 

“They must be allowed to learn what other races have given this country,” he said. “They are ready to lead the way if we — the old vanguard — just get out of the way and let them do it.”

Chronic Wasting Disease 

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department released a draft plan to address a fatal disease running rampant through the state’s wildlife population.

“(Chronic Wasting Disease) has been documented spreading throughout the state, and there are areas where its prevalence is high enough that we think it could be having significant impacts on some of our herds,” said Justin Binfet, one of the plan’s authors and a Game and Fish Department wildlife management coordinator. “The plan is based on recommendations that were developed through an extensive collaborative process.”

Dubbed a “suite of strategies,” the plan suggests managing the disease by installing wildlife feeding bans, potentially targeting mule deer bucks during breeding season, voluntary and mandatory submission of harvested animal samples and working with landowners, cities and counties to eliminate areas with unintentionally high concentrations members of the deer family.

Game and Fish drafts plan to manage Chronic Wasting Disease

in News/wildlife
2563

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

A draft plan put forth by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department could stymie the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) among the state’s deer, elk and moose populations.

“CWD has been documented spreading throughout the state, and there are areas where its prevalence is high enough that we think it could be having significant impacts on some of our herds,” said Justin Binfet, one of the plan’s authors and a Game and Fish Department wildlife management coordinator. “The plan is based on recommendations that were developed through an extensive collaborative process.”

Working with other state agencies, conservation groups and members of the public, Game and Fish created a “suite of strategies” for combatting the disease’s spread, Binfet explained.

Those strategies include wildlife feeding bans, potentially targeting mule deer bucks during breeding season, voluntary and mandatory submission of harvested animal samples and working with landowners, cities and counties to eliminate areas with unintentionally high concentrations of cervids, mammals of the deer family.

Incurable and spreading

CWD is a fatal disease affecting cervids’ central nervous systems and is caused by abnormal proteins called prions.

The disease is currently incurable and animals show no clinical signs of CWD during the early stages of the ailment, the plan stated. First documented in Wyoming about 30 years ago, CWD has spread to 84 percent of the 37 mule deer herds observed by Game and Fish while assembling its CWD plan. While the disease also affects elk, moose and white-tail deer, it is most prominent in Wyoming’s mule deer populations, the plan reported

“Prevalence of this disease in chronically infected Wyoming deer herds has exceeded 40 percent, with one elk herd exhibiting nearly 15 percent prevalence,” said to the plan’s executive summary.

Muley Fanatic Foundation Co-founder Josh Coursey served as a member of the CWD Work Group assembled by Game and Fish to help create the plan.

“This is a very complex issue — there’s no silver bullet,” Coursey said. “It’s devastating to herds, and there’s no scientific data determining whether it’s transferable to humans.”

The Centers for Disease Control reported some studies have shown the disease can be transmitted to squirrel monkeys who were fed the muscle tissue or brain matter of CWD-infected deer and elk.

“If we know this can live in the environment, there’s not a commercial meat processor anywhere that has not been contaminated with CWD,” Coursey said. “There’s no doubt people are eating and have eaten CWD-infected meat.”

Diminished herds

Wyoming’s mule deer population is struggling, and CWD could be playing a major role, Hunting With Heroes Co-founder Colton Sasser said.

Hunting with Heroes takes disabled veterans hunting with licenses donated to the Game and Fish Department and has completed more than 1,000 hunts since 2013, but none of the animals harvested tested positive for CWD, Sasser said.

“A lot of people complain about the decreasing mule deer population in our state and boil it down to lack of predator control and hard winters,” Sasser said. “But I think CWD is a huge part of that.” 

Coursey said several factors are affecting Wyoming’s mule deer populations, but CWD is high on the list.

“There’s no doubt there’s definitely an impact on CWD taking a toll on mule deer,” he said. “But, there isn’t just one issue that is going to solve declining herd counts.”

Options on the table

The Game and Fish Department’s CWD plan has hunters talking, Coursey said, and one of the hottest topics is the plan’s suggestion game managers could propose allowing hunters to harvest mule deer bucks during the rut, or breeding season.

“Late season hunting of mule deer bucks is not a common practice in the Cowboy State,” he said. “That’s when mule deer bucks are at their most vulnerable, and quite frankly, they’re silly.”

The rutting season is also when bucks make contact with numerous other mule deer, increasing the likelihood of contracting and spreading CWD, Coursey explained.

While the plan doesn’t give a Game and Fish game manager express permission to let hunters target mule deer bucks in the late season, Coursey said it does allow the game manager to propose late-season hunting as an option to his region for public feedback.

Still in the early stages of development, the CWD management plan could benefit Wyoming’s wildlife herds for decades to come.

“I think it’s going to take time for these management actions to be employed,” said Hank Edwards, a Game and Fish wildlife lab supervisor. “I don’t see them being employed right away, but they will start to be considered with the upcoming seasons next spring.”

Game and Fish spokesperson Janet Milek said the department will collect public comment on the plan until Jan. 15.

“At this point, a few comments have trickled in but they have not gone through the review process yet,” Milek said.

Residents can submit feedback online or by sending mail to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 3030 Energy Lane, Casper, Wyoming, 82604. Letters should be labeled ATTN: CWD Management Plan.

Tracking Wild

in Agriculture/Cat Urbigkit/Column/News/wildlife
Good deer
Researchers use radio collars to track mule deer migration through the Wind River Mountains. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

There are probably thousands of tracking devices installed on wild animals in Wyoming.

From collars or eartag transmitters placed on big game animals and large carnivores like wolves and bears, to backpack harnesses or neck bands installed on a variety of bird species, and the surgical insertion of devices into fish, the amount of wildlife tracking conducted every year in Wyoming is astounding.

The collar on this migrating mule deer in May 2019 was too loose, rubbing the hair off the animal’s neck and hitting it in the head when the animal grazed.
The collar on this migrating mule deer in May 2019 was too loose, rubbing the hair off the animal’s neck and hitting it in the head when the animal grazed. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)

But the Wyoming Game & Fish Department (WG&F) can’t tell you how many animals are wearing these devices. I know that because I asked: first informally, and when that didn’t yield any information, I was instructed to submit a formal request, which I did. The response noted “there is not an easy way to show how many animals actually have collars on them at this point.” I was told that “it would take quite a few hours to go through each permit report” to see how many animals were actually collared under each permit issued by the department even in a single year, but if I wanted to pursue the matter, the agency would send me a cost estimate for that effort. I declined. 

I had naïvely assumed there must be a central electronic location accessed by wildlife biologists to see the status of monitored animals, but that is not the case. Even the University of Wyoming’s Wildlife Migration Initiative’s Migration Viewer provides simple summaries of ungulate movements. WMI notes in bold type that “the raw location data can only be obtained by contacting the original data owner,” and “This allows us to share ungulate movement data with a broad range of users, while protecting the integrity of the datasets and the proprietary study or project needs of the many researchers that collected and own the data.”

This bison in Yellowstone National Park had its radio collar tangled in its horn.
This bison in Yellowstone National Park had its radio collar tangled in its horn. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)

Some of the tracking devices placed on wild animals in Wyoming are conventional, very-high-frequency (VHF); others provide satellite tracking; and still others make use of the global positioning system (GPS). But all wildlife research in Wyoming that requires live-handling of animals to attach tracking devices begins with obtaining a permit from WG&F. Although wildlife researchers have until January 1 of the year following their permit expiration to file a detailed report with the agency, it’s unfortunate that data-sharing with our state’s wildlife managers is limited to by-then dated information.

When the Teton County Planning and Development office contracted with Biota Research and Consulting, Inc., to identify, describe, and map important habitat features for a range of wildlife species as part of its county comprehensive plan process, Biota worked to develop GIS overlays for all wildlife species in the county. That process required identifying all available datasets in existence, held by both private and public entities conducting wildlife research. Biota ended up developing unique data sharing contracts “in the interest of meeting the various concerns about misuse of data from each of the project contributors.”

“Although some potential collaborators willingly shared their data, other potential collaborators in both the private and public sector clearly articulated their unwillingness to share data, or failed to provide data that they agreed to share,” Biota noted.

What prompted my interest in the issue was the appearance of radio-collared mule deer and pronghorn antelope on our place, and some of those collars were not properly fitted. Since some of the mule deer have an easily-read bright numbered tag attached to the outside of the collar, I assumed our local WG&F biologist would be able to provide information on when the collar was placed, and to what end (the goals of the research project). Alas, that is not the case. The public or private entity conducting the research retains the real-time specifics, while WG&F has more a general knowledge of what research projects are taking place, and can access the annual reports from those research projects.

Research on the impacts of natural gas development on the Pinedale Anticline resulted in the collaring of this pronghorn antelope which was getting rubbed raw by its loose collar during frigid winter temperatures.
Research on the impacts of natural gas development on the Pinedale Anticline resulted in the collaring of this pronghorn antelope which was getting rubbed raw by its loose collar during frigid winter temperatures. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)

Open sores and hair loss are frequent adverse effects from the use of radio-collars and other telemetry devices, as are animal entanglements in the collars themselves. Ill-fitting collars cause wounds and infections, and too tight a collar can restrict air flow and swallowing. As some researchers have pointed out, “ill-fitting collars and problems associated with them clearly influence research results and have implications for ethics within the wildlife profession.”

Behavioral impacts from the use of radio-collars are often discounted as insignificant, but there has been little research into this issue. Still, some research has revealed that collared moose in Norway keep in groups separate from non-collared moose. Brightly-colored collars on deer have resulted in higher harvest rates by deer hunters able to see these colors from a distance. Water and ice build-up under and around collars has been an issue for young ungulates. Other research has found impacts to a broad range of species, from voles to penguins.

There is no doubt that telemetry is an important tool in the research and management of many wildlife species. It’s my hope that researchers will strive for a better understanding of the potential negative consequences of strapping telemetry devices to wild animals (altering behavioral patterns should be a significant concern). And as science and technology advances, agencies like the WG&F may have to put in place better data-sharing mechanisms for the information harvested from wild animals in Wyoming.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

As feds move to drop Wyoming bear baiting lawsuit, environmental groups say they’ll continue to pursue it

in News/wildlife
2489

By Nicole Blanchard, Cowboy State Daily

Sy Gilliland isn’t even entertaining the idea of how his business would be affected if a lawsuit that aims to end bear baiting in Wyoming is successful.

“The state of Wyoming is going to be shoulder-to-shoulder with the outfitting industry,” said Gilliland, president of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association and owner of SNS Outfitter & Guides. “(The lawsuit) is frivolous. It’s not based upon sound science.”

The lawsuit was filed against the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in June by environmental groups Wilderness Watch, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians. The groups claim that using food to bait black bears for hunting poses a threat to grizzly bears in Wyoming and Idaho, where grizzlies are protected under the Endangered Species Act

Last month, federal officials filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, citing previous agreements allowing the states to regulate bear baiting through their own wildlife management agencies, even if the practice occurs on national forest land. The plaintiffs say that’s not a solid argument.

“The states get to regulate hunting; however, if you want to create a food dump on federal land, you need a permit,” Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, said Monday. “It’s not really a matter of legal debate.”

By early December, the lawsuit remained in U.S. District Court in Idaho.

At the crux of the lawsuit are questions over whether grizzly bears in Wyoming and Idaho still need to be protected. The bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem were deemed “threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1975, and federal agencies have been in and out of court over the last decade as grizzlies have been repeatedly removed and relisted as a threatened species. Most recently, protections were removed in 2017 and reinstated in 2018.

In the lawsuit, the conservation groups claim legal baiting of black bears also entices grizzlies into hunt areas. The groups cite eight instances in the last 24 years where black bear hunters have mistakenly killed grizzlies at bait sites.Rebekah Fitzgerald, communications director for Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said the agency works hard to educate hunters on distinguishing the two species.

Additionally, Fitzgerald said, there are existing regulations in Wyoming regarding where bait can be used. Approved sites are outside of known grizzly bear range.

“If a grizzly is seen at a (bait) site, it will be closed for the season,” Fitzgerald said. “We continue to use black bear baiting because we believe it’s a tool to harvest black bears and do it selectively.”

Fitzgerald declined to comment further, citing the pending litigation.

According to Game and Fish Department research, the grizzly bear population continues to expand outside of the recovery zone in northwest Wyoming that was designated in a species recovery plan in 1993. 

In the lawsuit, baiting opponents claimed the Forest Service may not be able to accurately judge potential threats to grizzlies because it has not conducted a comprehensive environmental assessment of the species since the mid-1990s. The Forest Service maintains nothing has occurred to trigger the National Environmental Policy Act which would require an updated assessment.

“Grizzly bear populations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are tenuous at best,” Molvar, the Western Watersheds leader, told Cowboy State Daily. “Certainly a better understanding of grizzly bear ecology and human/grizzly interaction is beneficial to everyone.”

Outfitter Gilliland can agree on that — sort of. He believes the population could be double the estimated 600 or so bears in Wyoming, second only to Montana’s estimated 800 bears.

“I would really love to see the truth come out about grizzly numbers,” Gilliland said. “The available grizzly habitat in Wyoming is full to the point of overflowing. We’re doing these bears a huge disservice by not managing them.”

Managing grizzlies — and all other wildlife — falls to the states. If the lawsuit against the federal agencies is dismissed, Molvar said he doesn’t feel a similar lawsuit against Wyoming and Idaho’s state agencies would be effective.

“We don’t think the states have the same requirement to protect the wildlife that the feds do,” he said.

And while Gilliland said he believes the suit is a veiled attempt to end all bear hunting in Wyoming, Molvar said Western Watersheds “has no stance, pro or con, on hunting.”

But he said he does feel it would behoove hunters to discontinue baiting on their own.

“I think it’s to the hunting community’s advantage to get rid of practices like bear baiting that are objectionable to the general public,” Molvar said.

Gilliland doesn’t plan to do that anytime soon. He echoed Wyoming Game and Fish’s stance on baiting.

“There’s a misunderstanding that you drop a bucket of jelly donuts (in the woods) and the bears start running in and you pick ‘em off,” Gilliland said. “Black bears are stealthy, and it would be very difficult to manage them by any means other than baiting.”

State, national park work to limit mountain goat population

in News/wildlife
Mountain goats
2405

By Cody Beers, Cowboy State Daily

Doug McWhirter wants people to understand several things about Wyoming’s iconic mountain goat populations.

They’re cool. And they don’t belong everywhere.

“Mountain goats are fascinating, cool, and there are places we want to manage for thriving mountain goat populations,” said McWhirter, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s wildlife management coordinator in the Jackson region. “We want thriving mountain goat populations in the Snake River, Palisades and Beartooths areas.”

“We want to manage for hunting and viewing opportunities in these areas. In other places, we want to favor the core-native bighorn sheep herds in our management,” McWhirter continued. “Bottom line, we don’t hate mountain goats.”

Wyoming game managers share a concern with the National Park Service concerning a relatively new, expanding, non-native mountain goat population in Grand Teton National Park. 

The Teton Range is home to a small herd of native bighorn sheep, one of the smallest and most isolated populations in Wyoming.

The Teton Range bighorn sheep population is about 100 strong, while this new non-native mountain goat population has eclipsed 100 animals and is still growing.

The new mountain goat population is believed to have expanded from the Palisades area and into the Teton Range. The first documented reproduction of mountain goats in Grand Teton National Park was recorded in 2008. 

Now there are concerns that the mountain goat population threatens the native Teton Range bighorn sheep herd through increased risk of disease transmission, which the Palisades goats are documented to harbor, and the potential for competition for limited resources.

“The Teton Range herd of native bighorn sheep is of high conservation value to the park, adjacent land and wildlife managers, and visitors,” said Denise Germann, Grand Teton National Park public affairs officer. “Our intent is to remove the non-native population of mountain goats and to maintain and improve viability of the native Teton bighorn sheep herd.”

The Game and Fish Department, assisted by hunters, is doing its part to manage the park’s mountain goat population in 2019. Liberalized hunting seasons were implemented outside of the park, in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest’s Jedediah Smith Wilderness.

“We’re doing what we can to address the situation in goat hunt area 4,” McWhirter said.

In the hunt area, the once-in-a-lifetime draw for mountain goat licenses was set aside. Instead, to help manage the mountain goat population, the department set a quota of 48 licenses for the 2019 season.

McWhirter checked a harvested mountain goat last week from area 4, and it marked the 21st harvested goat of the season. 

“Without exception, the hunters I have encountered have been very supportive,” McWhirter said. “They have appreciated the opportunity  to harvest a mountain goat, and to try to conserve bighorn sheep populations in the Tetons.”

The Teton bighorn sheep herd, “during the times we’ve been monitoring numbers, has never been huge. There’s about 100 to 125 sheep there,” McWhirter said. “They don’t migrate. They live at high populations all year, and they are subject to harsh conditions. These new non-native mountain goats are bringing additional mouths to the landscape, and we believe this peer competition could adversely affect the sheep.

“The bighorn sheep are doing OK in the Tetons,” McWhirter continued. “They’ve always been living on the edge, and besides the non-native goats, there are issues, too, with expanding backcountry winter skiing. The pressures on those sheep are making it tougher for their survival.”

Details aren’t certain yet, but Grand Teton National Park is considering removing the non-native mountain goats from within its boundaries — specifically, between Cascade and Snowshoe canyons — by lethal and non-lethal methods this winter.

“Without swift and active management, the mountain goat population is expected to continue to grow and expand its distribution within the park,” Germann said. “The mountain goat population is at a size where complete removal is achievable in a short time, however, the growth rate of this population suggests that complete removal in the near future may become unattainable after a period of about three years.”

Mountain goat hunting inside the park itself, or what the National Park Service refers to as the “use of skilled volunteers,” is the newest idea for mountain goat removal in the Tetons. 

“Qualified volunteers is a tool that may be used, but we have not developed this program,” Germann said.

Where Grand Teton National Park currently authorizes hunting, park officials refer to the practice as a “reduction program.” 

Rules are generally more restrictive for hunters in Grand Teton National Park, but the hunting is done by hunters licensed by the state Game and Fish Department.

The concept of using “skilled volunteers,” or hunters, is new since the national park issued an environmental assessment on the issue last December. Plans then called for National Park Service staff or contractors to kill goats from the ground with rifles, and from helicopters with shotguns. These early plans called for leaving the carcasses where the animals fell.

In March, the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act passed Congress. Part of the bill addressed wildlife management in national parks.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, stated, “if the (Interior) Secretary determines it is necessary to reduce the size of a wildlife population … the Secretary may use qualified volunteers to assist in carrying out wildlife management on [park] system land.”

Grand Teton National Park officials cited the Dingell act in their “finding of no significant impact” decision, which was signed by Acting Park Service Regional Director Palmer Jenkins in September.”

The desire is to quickly and efficiently remove non-native mountain goats from the park,” Germann said.

“Our big things, in our comments, are that we would like to see all efforts exhausted before ‘agency lethal removal’ is the answer,” McWhirter said. “We really appreciate the Park Service addressing our concerns, and allowing skilled volunteers to participate and help with the conservation of these goats. It’s all about trying to make a bad situation more tolerable.”

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