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Wyoming Game and Fish

Wyoming Hit By Drought: Reduction In Antelope License Quotas For 2021 Hunting Season Proposed

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By Mark Davis

Drought is affecting most western U.S. states, including Wyoming. The National Drought Mitigation Center says that’s resulting in multiple responses — from changes in regulations to preparations for an early and long fire season.

In Wyoming, the Game and Fish Department is already reacting to dry conditions, proposing to reduce antelope license quotas for the 2021 hunting season. In many hunt areas, the proposals cut the quota due to “impacts from persistent drought conditions in the state,” the department said in a Friday press release. Tough spring blizzards also compounded the problem.

“The license reductions should be short-term, according to wildlife managers who believe the conservative proposals for each herd will stabilize pronghorn populations and allow them to bounce back,” the department said.

Yet, drought conditions are expected to increase across the West this year, reports the National Drought Mitigation Center. Parts of most western states are currently listed in the most severe category of drought — more than at any time in the past 20 years, the center warns.

“Once again this week, much of the West remained dry. Where precipitation did fall — in the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies — it either missed the drought-inflicted areas or wasn’t enough to overcome shortages,” it said. “The only exception was in north-central Wyoming and southern Montana, where last week’s snowfall lessened precipitation deficits and improved streamflow and soil moisture resulting in a one-category improvement to drought.”

The conditions have prompted states to call in firefighters early, expecting a bad fire season due to the hot, dry conditions. The center portion of Wyoming is considered to be in the worst shape. Park County is listed as “abnormally dry” to “moderate drought,” while the southeast corner of the county is listed as “severe drought.”

Further south, northern and western parts of Colorado are experiencing extreme to exceptional drought. Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico are forecast to be hit the hardest, but almost the entire western half of the nation is listed to be experiencing severe drought. Dry weather combined with gusty winds is expected to persist this month, leading to an elevated fire risk.

The 2020 fire season was devastating to many regions of the West, most notably in Colorado and California. Billions of dollars in property and dozens of lives were lost. Here in Wyoming, the Mullen Fire (38 miles west of Laramie) burned nearly 177,000 acres and the Pilgrim Creek 1 Fire (in the Bridger-Teton National Forest) burned about 500 acres. Earlier in the year, the Lone Star Fire in Yellowstone National Park burned 4,123 acres in an area not far from Old Faithful.

PVHC

According to the National Fire Information Center, 46,535 fires burned more than 8.4 million acres last year. The concern is that fire seasons are growing, said William Matthew Jolly, a research ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station.

“The fire season in parts of the western United States is more than a month longer than it was 35 years ago,” he said in a recent report.

The authors attribute the longer seasons in the western United States to climate changes — including the timing of snowmelt, vapor pressure and the timing of spring rains.

Most basins have lower snow/water equivalents percentages from last year. The Yellowstone Basin is down 26% from 2020 and down 2% from last week. The Shoshone Basin is down 32% from last year and down 9% from last week. Only the Bighorn River Basin showed improvement from last week, increasing by 8%, but still down 17% from last year.

The Cheyenne Basin is currently the driest in the state. While it’s up 25% from last week, from 42% of the median to 67%, it’s down nearly 50% from this time last year. Statewide snowpack/SWE is at 95% of median, said Jim Fahey, Wyoming Natural Resources Conservation Service hydrologist.

“Many basins in Wyoming generally had 5 to 15% increases in snowpack/SWEs from last week,” he said.

Intermittent light snow is expected this week across all mountain ranges in Wyoming.

“The Bighorn Mountains have the best chance for moderate snow amounts early this week,” Fahey said.

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Game & Fish Measure Fish Population, Migration to “Protect One Of Nation’s Greatest Natural Resources”

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By Mark Davis, Powell Tribune

The further west the caravan of state-green trucks traveled Tuesday, the harder the snow fell. After starting the week in temperatures that were 30 to 40 degrees below normal, and facing a long day in the ice-cold river, most would entertain thoughts of waiting for warmer weather.

But there was no turning back for the team of Wyoming Game and Fish Department Cody Region fisheries biologists. By 8:30 a.m., the entire crew was in the fast-moving water in the North Fork of the Shoshone River near Wapiti ready to catch fish. 

As they prepared equipment needed to shock, capture and tag feisty trout, Jason Burckhardt was forced to use hot coffee from his thermos in an attempt to defrost a bottle of important medication used in the process. 

“It’s frozen solid,” he said while pouring the coffee over the small plastic bottle.

Shocking, netting and processing fish without injuring them isn’t easy. In population surveys in reservoirs, like the annual surveys in Deaver Reservoir, the job is challenging enough. When you add swift-moving water, cold weather and a different species to the equation, it makes for a tough day of work.

“We’re trying to use as little electricity as possible so as not to injure the fish in doing it,” Burckhardt said. “So most of the time, they’re still actively swimming when we’re netting them. You’re also in a less stable boat because we’ve got some major whitewater on this section of river.”

The task of tagging 2,000 trout will take about eight full days of work for three to four biologists and a couple seasonal technicians. For the most part they’ve grown used to the pain of cold water mixed with wind on their hands and exposed skin. They’re on a mission, approaching the middle of a four-year project designed to answer a great regional debate: how best to protect one of the the nation’s greatest natural resources.

The Game and Fish did a robust survey of anglers last year to gather their level of support for daily harvest limits on the bucket-list stretch of the river. Predictably, it came back with mixed results.

“Twenty-eight percent of fishermen believe that our regulations are too liberal and about 10% feel they’re way too conservative,” Sam Hochhalter, Cody Region fisheries supervisor, said while waiting for the rest of the team to arrive near the entrance to the Jim Creek public access area.

It’s a tough spot for the department. No matter what they decide will likely result in complaints, though about 51% of the survey respondents think the bag limit is “about right.” 

“When we’re in these situations where we’re never going to please both sides, we lean heavily on the biology,” Hochhalter said.

While there’s a lot of speculation about the population and migration between the river and the reservoir, there hasn’t been a scientific study. Last year the team started tagging 2,000 rainbows, cutthroats and cutbows (a hybrid of the two species) in an effort to quantify how many fish are in the river, how they move between the river and the reservoir and how they are affected by harvests and seasonal closures. 

As the fish are caught and anglers report their catches to biologists, the department will keep the data, looking for direction based on the study at the end of the multi-year project.

“We’ll get an idea of seasonal distribution and their timing of out migration back into Buffalo Bill,” Hochhalter said.

The study will help settle the debate on how much pressure from fishing harvests is too much. Portions of the North Fork are closed to fishing during the spring spawning season.

“It’s been that way for years,” Hochhalter said.

Currently anglers are allowed to keep three trout from the river, but only one over 18 inches. 

“A lot of them are over 18,” he said.

Further upstream, Yellowstone National Park changed to catch and release to protect native Yellowstone cutthroats in 1978. The Game and Fish has so far refused to do the same. Based on early results from the study, the majority of trout in the North Fork spend most of the year in the Buffalo Bill Reservoir where the limit is four fish.

“Because about two-thirds of the North Fork is closed [to fishing during the spawn], we’re protecting most of the fish population. … Harvest is not a bad thing,” he said. “We can either let fish die of old age and tumble downstream, or we can allow some anglers to harvest them knowing that in trout, anywhere from 20 to 35% of the population dies each year.”

The study hopes to determine the rate of harvest as well as the population during the different seasons. To date, data collected has concentrated only on harvest rates.

“The percent of fish that are caught and harvested tells you nothing at the population level,” Hochhalter said. 

Once the population level exploitations and seasonal movements are known, then limits can be more accurately set to conserve the fishery.

“This tagging project will be the key metric that we will use to evaluate our bag limits,” he said.

Regardless of the decision, Hochhalter is unlikely to escape critics. The debate between those who want to protect the wild fish and those who want to eat more of them is boiling over with passionate opinions. The Game and Fish doesn’t stock the North Fork and it’s one of the few reservoirs where the population naturally reproduces. 

Noted angler and area fly fishing guide Tim Wade said he has already caught and reported fish tagged last year. He and his clients practice catch and release in the river.

“It’s one of the few wild rivers left in the country,” he said, adding, “Wyoming is lucky to have native fish in their natural environment. In order to keep them, people need to respect the resource. If not, there’s not going to be fish to catch.”

While he doesn’t always agree with Game and Fish decisions, Wade is totally on board with attempts to better understand the habitat.

His opinion has always been that if a person wants to catch and eat a fish, they need to do so with respect for wild rivers full of native Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

“I know people think I want these fish to myself,” Wade said. “But what I want and have fought for most of my life is to protect one of the few wild native trout resources left in the country.”

The department will continue to tag fish through spring. But they need anglers’ help.

“We really need anglers to help us out,” Hochhalter said. “The more people that call in and report the capture of a tagged fish, the higher quality data we’ll get from this project.”

There is a toll-free number located on the tags along with a series of numbers identifying each individual fish. The team will head back to the river in June and July to attempt to recapture the fish post-spawn and then start again next year.

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Game & Fish: Zebra Mussels Could Cause Catastrophic Problems for Wyoming

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Although zebra mussels may sound like an exotic seafood dish from a romantic Michelin-rated restaurant, they are actually an invasive shellfish which could wreak havoc on the state of Wyoming.

It’s not because zebra mussels are 500-foot Godzilla-like monsters which breathe fire and stomp on cities, it’s because they can pose threats to waterways across the state.

Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department is warning citizens to be on the lookout for these aquatic terrorists, which have been found in pet stores across the state.

All of this leads to many questions. How can an oyster-like thing cause so much damage? And why would they be in pet stores? 

First, these mussels are dangerous because they remove nutrients from water, clog pipes and waterways, damage boats and out-compete native mussels. 

“Further, in many cases, zebra mussels are impossible to remove,” said Game and Fish Chief of Fisheries Alan Osterland.

As for their presence in pet stores, it’s not like they are being sold like puppies or anything. They’ve been spotted in “marimo balls” or “moss balls,” — which are products sold at many aquarium and pet supply stores. 

A marimo ball is a popular tank decoration made of a green filamentous algae used to oxygenate the water. 

Game and Fish is asking that anyone who has purchased a marimo ball to closely follow the recommended steps for disposal. 

  1. Remove any pets from the water and tank.
  2. Remove the marimo ball, other plants and any water from the aquarium and put them into a heat-safe pot. Do not dispose of any water down the drain or toilet.
  3. Inspect the marimo ball and tank for zebra mussels and if you find any contact your local Game and Fish regional office or local warden.
  4. Boil the marimo balls, plants and any water it’s been in contact with for at least five minutes
  5. Dispose of the marimo ball and other plants in trash. 
  6. Pour out the boiled water on a semi-permeable surface. That could be a houseplant or outside — like grass or soil — that is not located near standing water or a storm drain.

Do not flush the marimo ball or pour aquarium water down any drains, toilets or into nearby water sources like a local pond or creek, the department said. These actions could spread zebra mussels throughout the water system. 

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Gordon Appoints Kenneth Roberts to Game & Fish Commission

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A state district court clerk from Kemmerer has been appointed to fill the vacancy on the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission left with the removal of former Commissioner Mike Schmid.

Gov. Mark Gordon announced Wednesday that he had appointed Kenneth D. Roberts, a Republican, to finish out Schmid’s unexpired term on the commission representing Uinta, Lincoln, Sublette and Teton counties.

Schmid was removed from the commission by Gordon on Tuesday for what Schmid called his “outspoken thoughts and how I carried them out.”

“My outspoken thoughts and how I carried them out did not sit well with the commission and leadership,” Schmid said. “I wasn’t a good enough team player I was told by a fellow commissioner which evidently made it hard for the commission to carry a consistent message. It was also stated that my role as a commissioner and freedoms as an American were too conflicting.”

Gordon, in a separate statement, said Schmid “exhibited pattern of actions and statements that undermined the decisions and effectiveness” of the commission.

“Mike is a passionate advocate for the outdoors and wildlife,” Gordon said. “He brought all of that to the commission. However, over his term Mike unfortunately exhibited a pattern of actions and statements that undermined the decisions and effectiveness of the board.” 

Schmid was appointed to the Game and Fish Commission in 2017 for a six-year term.

Roberts will finish out the remaining two years of that term.

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Former Game & Fish Commissioner Mike Schmid Says Gordon Removed Him For “Opinions”

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The owner of a drilling company and an outfitting business in LaBarge has been removed from the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, he said Tuesday.

Mike Schmid, in a posting on his Facebook page, said he was removed from the commission by Gov. Mark Gordon because of his opinions.

“My outspoken thoughts and how I carried them out did not sit well with the commission and leadership,” he wrote. “I wasn’t a good enough team player I was told by a fellow commissioner which evidently made it hard for the commission to carry a consistent message. It was also stated that my role as a commissioner and freedoms as an American were too conflicting.”

Schmid, the owner of Solitude Ranch and Outfitters and president and founder of Sos Well Services, did not specify what opinions led to his removal from the commission.

Gordon, in a statement, confirmed he had removed Schmid from the commission and thanked him for his years of service.

“Mike is a passionate advocate for the outdoors and wildlife,” Gordon said. “He brought all of that to the commission. However, over his term Mike unfortunately exhibited a pattern of actions and statements that undermined the decisions and effectiveness of the board.” 

Schmid said he was notified of his removal from the commission by an email from the governor.

“As for Gov. Gordon’s decision, I know he has his hands full with COVID, a huge budget shortfall and so much more, but an email terminating me was a total surprise,” he said.

Given his work on the commission and his company’s contributions to the department and wildlife causes in general, Schmid said he did not expect to be removed without a meeting with the governor.

“My company has donated countless hours of equipment and man hours to benefit the department and our wildlife,” he said. “I was a tireless and dedicated commissioner. I believe I deserved more than an email, possibly a meeting to explain my position, and/or give me a chance to make corrections without compromising my values and beliefs is what I would have expected.”

Schmid was appointed to the commission for a six-year term by former Gov. Matt Mead in 2017. 

As of Tuesday, his profile had been removed from the Game and Fish Department’s website.

In his post, Schmid thanked staff members of the Game and Fish Department for their assistance during his time on the commission.

“It does my heart good knowing the passion and dedication you all have for our wildlife resources,” he wrote. 

Schmid also thanked his constituents.

“For those of you that supported me I apologize for letting my mouth and actions cut y ter, short,” he wrote. “For those that disagreed, I appreciated the opportunity to debate you.”

He also thanked the hunters and anglers who fund the department’s work and urged them to continue to speak their minds.

“In this crazy world of stifling ideas, voices and thoughts no matter how crazy they may be it is now more important than ever to be heard, that is the American way,” he wrote. “I beg you all to get and stay involved. Change only happens when people in power are put in uncomfortable positions, you have the power to put them there.”

Gordon, in his statement, said he welcomes varied opinions on the commission.

“(H)owever, it is critical that the commission functions as effectively as possible,” his statement said. “The decision to remove Mr. Schmid was based solely on the duties and expectations related to a Commissioner’s position on the board and the overall functioning of the Commission.”

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