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Groups Work Together To Save Wildlife By Getting Rid Of Barbed Wire

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

An early-morning ruckus at a home on the Shoshone National Forest boundary made Wapiti residents Mike and Margie Johnson aware that their friendly neighborhood deer were in danger.

“At 5:00 in the morning, we got up and we heard this noise,” Margie said. “When we went outside, it was totally dark. And there’s a big tree that was right on the fence line, and two humongous, mule deer boys – racks as big as you can see – were going at it, but they had this wire wrapped around their antlers. And they were trying to get free, and they were fighting.”

Johnson, visibly upset as she recalled the incident, said she and her husband did their best to free the animals with bolt cutters without putting themselves in danger.

“Finally they got loose, one ran away with a little bit of wire wrapped on his antlers still,” she said. “The other one, he tried to get up and he never made it up. And two hours later he passed.”

“And that’s what got us knowing how bad this stuff is,” Johnson said. 

“This stuff” is barbed wire, which forest managers and landowners have used for years to delineate boundaries between private and public lands. 

But the wire, with its sharp barbs, is a danger to many animals that inhabit the forests and open lands in Wyoming, according to Kerry Murphy, wildlife biologist with the Shoshone National Forest.

“Big game animals (get) caught by their hooves in fence wire, or bird strikes, that kind of thing,” Murphy said.

So on a Friday morning in June, more than a dozen people gathered in a parking area at the boundary of the Shoshone National Forest west of Cody to take down stretches of the dangerous barbed wire that can catch wildlife.

The Absaroka Fence Initiative is a partnership of federal agencies, private landowners and local volunteers with a common goal – to enhance wildlife movement and reduce wildlife mortality, while still meeting the needs of livestock producers.

“The objectives are to enhance wildlife movement, most often big game, but also birds like sage grouse,” said Murphy. “(Also) enhance their migratory movements or their movements on winter ranges and reduce mortality of wildlife associated with fence wire.”


The Absaroka Fence Initiative truly is a public-private partnership in the best sense of the term, according to Murphy, in which volunteers, landowners and federal agencies are working to help the wildlife.

“There are many different folks out here from different federal agencies, state agencies, private landowners, ranch caretakers, private citizens – they all come together to form the Absaroka Fence Initiative, and it’s a great bunch of folks working together,” he said.

On this particular workday, the volunteers and staff from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Shoshone National Forest and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management are taking down or replacing five different sections of fence, according to Murphy. 

“On two of them, we’re modifying the fence and replacing barbed wire with smooth wire,” he said. “And on the other sections of fence – and this is all coordinated with the landowners – it’ll be fence wire removal in entirety. And then the Bureau of Land Management folks, they have a skid steer and a wire winder that once the fence wires laying on the ground will stand clear. They’ll hook it up to the winder, and they’ll buzz it in.”

Livestock Producers

Murphy pointed out that the agencies make sure to work with livestock producers to meet their needs as well.

 “We set up these projects and leave fences that are very consistent with livestock production,” he said.

One of the landowners volunteering his time on this Friday morning is Jason Schultz, who with other local landowners has already gathered yards of barbed wire after witnessing animals getting caught up in it.

“In the wintertime, the snow builds up along these fence lines,” Schultz told Cowboy State Daily. “And a lot of the barbed wire is actually loose, and it’s just kind of strewn around where the fence posts are. And what happens is, the animals come down, or go up the mountain, and then they can’t see the fence line, and they get tripped up on it.” 

Johnson pointed out that the work being done today will help wildlife, but won’t affect the humans who rely on the fencing. 

“The fence posts will stay so we know where the forest is, but it’ll be way safer,” said Johnson, who shares a property line with Schultz. “And where they do need to put up fence, they’ve got smooth wire and it goes lower, so that the animals can go over it.” 

Murphy added that the group is always looking for volunteers.

“We’re always interested in having citizen folks come out, and landowners come out and join us on our operation,” he said, encouraging anyone interested to go to the website absarokafenceinitiative.org.

“We have several more fence projects coming up this summer,” Murphy added. “And folks can just join in, contact us on the website.”

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Move Over Grizzlies, Golden Eagles Are Most Dangerous Predator In Bighorn Basin

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

If asked, most Americans might think of the grizzly bear or the wolf as the most dangerous predator of the Bighorn Basin in Wyoming.

Not so, according to a world-renowned scientist, whose focus is on birds of prey.

“We know that we have grizzlies occasionally that come down in the basin now, and wolves and coyotes and everything,” said Dr. Charles Preston, founding curator for the Draper Museum of Natural History at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. “But really, the apex predator in that system is the golden eagle.”

A new documentary that was screened this weekend in Jackson and in Cody spotlights the research that Preston has supervised for the past 18 years. “Golden Eagles: Witnesses to a Changing West” is an hour-long documentary created by Wild Excellence Films, and features dramatic footage of scientists going where very few humans have gone before.

“We have always loved, respected and been inspired by Golden Eagles,” said David Rohm, who with his wife Melissa created the documentary. “As we wrote in the script to the film, ‘It’s a memorable moment, some would say life changing, when you see a golden eagle in the wild for the first time.’”

The film’s central characters are the golden eagles, raptors with wingspans up to 7-feet, which are the apex predator in the sagebrush steppe ecosystem that defines Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin. 

“An apex predator is a predator that has no predators on its own as an adult,” Preston told Cowboy State Daily. “So nothing really preys on the eagles out there. Golden eagles have taken coyotes and other smaller predators, or even larger predators in some cases that they can handle. I mean, they have the ability to even kill an adult pronghorn or deer.” 

The film documents Preston and his team as they rappel down cliffs to eagle nests, place leg bands on the raptors, and record the habits and behaviors of the birds as part of a long-term study.

“I’ve been conducting this monitoring program, this research on golden eagles in the Bighorn Basin, since 2009 formally, and really exploring it before then,” said Preston. “We developed an exhibition that opened in 2018 at the Draper Natural History Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.”

Rohm said he first became aware of Preston’s work when a mutual friend, Leslie Patten, worked at the Draper Museum with Preston. Patten, a local author and conservationist, mentioned Preston’s work with the eagles to the Rohms, who were fascinated by his research.

“(Preston’s) golden eagle work opened our eyes to the challenges facing one of our favorite birds, in one of our favorite places on the planet: the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” said Rohm. “He has made discoveries that are key to the birds’ survival, and we want to help tell the story of his work and the challenges the golden eagles are facing to help further their conservation.” 

Rohm said his admiration for the birds grew during the filming.

“Golden eagles are so intelligent, they can work out complex problems in their environments,” he said. “They’re smart and tough, but at the same time, caring and devoted to their chicks.”

Preston pointed out that the species faces threats from wind turbines, illegal shootings and poisonings, vehicle collisions and electrocution from power lines. And much of the Rohms’ focus in creating the documentary was to raise awareness of the need for conservation of the birds’ habitat. 

Preston was skeptical, however, that a film crew could capture the spirit of these unique birds of prey.

“Even though you see golden eagles around it’s very difficult to get the kind of film that would make a compelling documentary,” said Preston.

But the filmmakers had a vision. The documentary features never-before-seen footage of baby eagles; aerial views of the sage-covered plains; footage of other wildlife such as grizzly bears and sage grouse; and narration by renowned naturalist and author Kenn Kaufman.

“They captured some incredible footage, some that I’d never seen before,” said Preston. “I just pointed, and talked to them about how careful they need to be around the eagle nests, and not to approach too closely. And they were very respectful of that.” 

Filming in the Bighorn Basin came with its challenges, according to Rohm.

“Adjusting to the altitude and heat in the Basin, especially in 2021, and clambering up rocks to get up to where the birds were being banded while carrying pounds and pounds of camera gear was hard, but worth every second,” Rohm said. “One day, it was approaching 105 degrees and our high-end film camera shut down. On another day, there was so much wildfire smoke that it blocked out the sunset.” 

Preston said the golden eagle is an icon of wide open, wild spaces throughout the northern hemisphere, but especially in western North America.

“It’s certainly an icon of the sagebrush steppe system that we find ourselves surrounded by here in the Bighorn basin and in most of Wyoming,” he said.

The Rohms said that through their documentary, they hope to bring attention to a fascinating creature that plays an integral role in the ecosystem of the American west.

“Golden eagles are unfamiliar to many people, and we want to help change that,” said Rohm. “It’s an honor to see these birds up close and to get to witness the research.”

The film will be broadcast on PBS stations in several states this spring, premiering on Wyoming PBS Wednesday, August 24 at 7 p.m., and will be available on the PBS app later in the summer, according to Rohm. 

“The Golden Eagle film is running, or will soon be running, in multiple PBS markets, like Miami, Colorado, Illinois, Seattle, Northern California, the San Franscico Bay area and New Mexico,” Rohm said. “By August the program will be available to PBS stations nationwide.”

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Six Years After Bison Placed In Minivan, Wildlife Officials Plead With Public To Leave Animals Alone

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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

It doesn’t seem that long ago, but it’s been six years since a photo of a bison calf placed in the back of a minivan went viral.

It was placed there because tourists thought it looked cold. After all, the high temperature that day in Yellowstone was only 50 degrees and the low was 39.

A couple of tourists, however, were certain the calf was “freezing and dying.”

So to “rescue” the animal, they loaded it up and took it to a ranger station.

Turns out the bison only needed rescuing from the tourists, as it was euthanized shortly thereafter due to its mother rejecting him because of the rescuers’ interference.

As a result, every year the Wyoming Game and Fish department puts out an annual plea for potential rescuers to leave baby wildlife alone as human “help” rarely is helpful.

Even if the animal looks abandoned, it’s not. 

“The mothers knows where her young are and will almost certainly return to care for them,” said Will Schultz, Game and Fish biologist.

“With all animals, the first few weeks of life are the most critical in determining their survival and interference from humans can most definitely put their lives at risk,” he said.

Don’t Mess With Mom

Even worse than getting away with attempting to help newborn wildlife is getting caught by the mother.

Wyoming artist Andy Robbins knows this. That’s why he put together a graphic coloring book warning tourists to leave animals alone.

“This coloring book isn’t for everyone!” the preface reads. “It depicts scenes of graphic violence, including disembowelment, dismemberment, electrocution, and immolation. Recommended for mature colorists only!”

The Hard Way

The maternal instinct is nothing to play around with. A grizzly learned that the hard way last week when snooping around a baby moose at Glacier National Park.

The momma moose had no patience and took off after the bear near a parking lot at the Many Glacier Hotel.  

So panicked was the bear that he ended up slamming into a hotel window before finally running away.

The bear had it coming, if we’re keeping score, as it was successful in pilfering one of the moose calves earlier in the day. 

Two months earlier, a snowmobiler tried to pet a moose and paid dearly for it.


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Lifetime Hunting Ban Appropriate For Poaching Grizzly, Wyoming Wildlife Official Says

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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

A man who admitted to poaching a grizzly bear outside of Yellowstone National Park was suitably punished when he lost his hunting privileges for the rest of his life, according to an official with a Wyoming wildlife group.

Josh Coursey, co-chairman of Gov. Mark Gordon’s Wyoming Wildlife Task Force, said the punishment handed down for the Idaho man who pleaded guilty to charges connected to the shooting of the grizzly in March 2021 was appropriate. The grizzly was shot more than a dozen times.

“These are criminals,” Coursey told Cowboy State Daily.  “This case was littered with criminal intent from the onset.”

Jared Baum, of Ashton, Idaho, pleaded guilty to the unlawful killing of wildlife in March, 2021. The death of the female grizzly also resulted in the death of her male cub who died in its den after its mother’s death.

Baum’s father, Rex, pleaded guilty to lesser crimes and is prohibited from hunting for a decade, must pay more than $1,000 in fines and serve three days in jail.

According to a report from the Idaho Fish and Game department, Jared told authorities he mistook the grizzly for a black bear. However, the shooting was illegal in any case because it took place outside of bear hunting season. Self-defense was not offered as a motivation.

Further, Baum shot the bear with a handgun.

“Nobody shoots a bear with a handgun unless it’s self-defense, which they never claimed,” Coursey said. “This was a joy-kill.”

Mortality Signal

According to the Idaho Fish and Game Department, the dead grizzly was discovered on April 9, 2021 after a mortality signal emanated from its radio collar.

Investigators discovered the bear’s carcass half submerged in the Little Warm River, about 15 miles from Yellowstone.

A bullet was retrieved from the rib cage of the bear and X-rays later revealed 12 additional bullets lodged in the animal.

“Jared then told officers that he had tracked the bear and thought he had shot it 40 times as it was running downstream towards the Little Warm River,” a report from the Idaho Game and Fish said. “After Jared saw that it was a grizzly, he said he realized he had shot her too many times and she was going to die, so he finished her.”

The report said when Jared realized that the bear was collared, he disposed of the two handguns used to commit the crime in a pond.

Still Dealing With Poaching

Coursey, who also serves as CEO of the Muley Fanatic Foundation, a conservation group that focuses primarily on mule deer, said it’s disturbing to him that in the 21st century, poaching is still an issue.

“Wildlife belongs to the people,” Coursey said. “This is outright theft.”

He said he understands why the issue can get contentious at times when people claim they poach because they need to put food on the table, but added laws are laws and need to be heeded.

“At the end of the day, we have rules and we have law and order and it is required that we follow these rules,” he said “It is for the good of our citizenship as human beings and as Americans.”

Although the penalty fit the crime in this instance, overall, Coursey said laws may need to be enhanced to reduce instances of poaching.

“This is the only crime, that I’m aware of, that is committed with a firearm where it is not a felony,” Coursey said.

“Until we put a deterrent in place that really slams this as unacceptable and unwanted behavior, I think we’ll never really curb the real consequences of what we’re seeing with poaching all over the West and in Wyoming, in particular,” he said.

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Protestors Against Coyote Killing Contest Getting Flipped Off, Told To Move Back to California

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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming Wildlife Protection Group is not being warmly received outside of a popular Rock Springs bar that is endorsing a coyote-killing contest.

The organization is holding a seven-day protest outside of Buddha Bob’s Bar in an attempt to dissuade citizens from participating in the annual hunt.

But it’s not an easy job, said protest organizer Madhu Anderson.

Anderson told Cowboy State Daily that passersby routinely give the middle finger to the protestors and tell them to move back to California.

“They are very rude and not supportive at all,” Anderson said of people she has encountered outside of the bar.

“Most of the people in our group have lived in Rock Springs for many years,” she said. “I don’t know why they are telling us to go back to California.”

Buddha Bob’s is the meeting place for hunters taking place in this weekend’s Red Desert Predator Classic, a qualifying event for a contest known as the “Wyoming Best of the Best.” Teams collect points toward a championship by killing coyotes. Last year’s championship event was held in Rock Springs in November.

Anderson said despite not having a receptive audience, the protest will continue because she believes most people in Wyoming don’t support the idea of animal killing contests.

“We are fighting so hard because we know this wildlife killing contest is wrong,” she said. “I have friends who are hunters and they don’t support this kind of behavior.”

Anderson said many of the protestors have family members who are hunters and they don’t support killing contests either.

“I know we are doing the right thing by speaking up against these wildlife killing contests,” she said.

According to Anderson, wildlife management agencies and lawmakers in a growing number of states—including Arizona, California, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Vermont, and Washington—have banned killing contests in recent years.

The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department said, ”These kinds of competitive coyote hunts are raising concerns on the part of the public and could possibly jeopardize the future of hunting and affect access to private lands for all hunters.”

Contest organizer Mark Gillespie told Sweetwater Now that the goal of the contest is to help with the ecosystem.

“We’re doing nothing illegal. What we are doing is for fun. We’re doing it because we like to hunt coyotes,” Gillespie said.

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$3.8 Million Wildlife Crossing Being Constructed Over I-25 Between Buffalo & Kaycee

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

A $3.8 million crossing path for Wyoming’s wildlife is being built between Buffalo and Kaycee as part of a statewide master plan to reduce collisions between wildlife and vehicles.

The state Wyoming Department of Transportation and Game and Fish Department are working together to reduce the collisions between wildlife and vehicles that number in the thousands every year, said Luke Reiner, director of WYDOT.

“We all know that when we travel Wyoming roads, we don’t like vehicles to bump into wildlife,” Reiner told Cowboy State Daily. “And it happens way too often – over 6,000 times a year in our state. And that’s just 6,000 times too many.”

This particular wildlife crossing project will use existing underpasses and high fencing on a 15-mile stretch of I-25 to funnel wildlife through to the other side of the interstate, reducing accidents with mule deer and white-tailed deer.

“These deer are essentially using the median of the interstate as habitat,” said Cheyenne Stewart, Sheridan Region wildlife coordinator for the Game and Fish Department. “But because we have these existing underpasses, because it’s not a major migratory area, the idea came that we could just put high fences along the interstate, funnel the animals through the existing underpasses and not have to build overpasses and underpasses, which is a lot more expensive.”

This more affordable option should address the danger and continue to allow some movement by the deer across the interstate, according to Sara DiRienzo, public information officer for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

“Any roadway project is really expensive,” said DiRienzo. “But this is considered one of the more affordable ones because it utilizes those existing structures.”

According to data collected by WYDOT in 2018, an average of 1,841 vehicles passed through that 70 mile stretch each day. And an estimated 57 vehicles collide with deer every year as the animals try to cross the interstate at that point.

“So when this project is all in place, we anticipate that it will reduce collisions with wildlife up to 80%,” said DiRienzo. “And that’s really valuable. It saves drivers money, it saves the state money, and of course, saves wildlife lives.”

She pointed out the Buffalo/Kaycee project was given the go-ahead now because of its affordability.

“This one rose to the top of the list,” DiRienzo said, “because not only does it have one of the most high-collision rates with wildlife in our state, but also it’s one of the most easily attainable projects because of the existing structures, and everything that we have learned about the movements of wildlife on that road. So $3.8 million goes a really long way on that stretch.”

Stewart, who moved to Buffalo a few years ago, has personal experience dodging wildlife on that stretch of highway.

“The last bit of stretch from driving anywhere is from Kaycee to Buffalo,” she said. “And it’s the most stressful part of the drive because it’s probably getting dark, and you’re probably a little tired. And you’re seeing deer and you’re just wondering, which is the one that’s going to run out in front of my vehicle?”

Support for the project came from 17 different funding sources, including partners, local government and donations from the public.  

“It’s truly a Wyoming success story,” Reiner noted, “of identifying something we really care about – wildlife – pairing it with transportation, which we all have to do – you’ve got to go from point A to point B, but you want to do it as safely as you can – and come up with a solution where everybody participates.”

DiRienzo said the project should go out for bid in February, with a plan for construction to begin in the spring.

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Black-footed Ferrets: Cloning May Be Last Hope

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By Mark Davis, Powell Tribune

In an attempt to supplement a struggling wild population of black-footed ferrets near Meeteetse, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 10 males and 10 females last week. Their goal is to maintain at least 35 individuals at the recovery site, but 20 may not have been enough.

While other sites have had better results, the endangered ferrets aren’t faring well on the historic Pitchfork and Lazy BV ranches adjacent to the Sunshine Reservoir complex. During population surveys in 2020, only one ferret was sighted by biologists. With about a week left in the current survey, only two have been reported.

“That doesn’t mean there isn’t more ferrets out there,” said Angela Bruce, deputy director of external operations for Game and Fish, but “we definitely have concerns with the Meeteetse reintroduction area and will continue to focus efforts there on the disease management.”

The work to save North America’s most endangered mammal has been and continues to be incredibly complex. Starting with just 19 individuals taken from the Meeteetse about four decades ago, more than 10,000 have now been bred in captivity and those that pass intense testing (capable of making kills to feed themselves) are released at several sites across the West.

As few as 200 to 300 ferrets now live in the wild; 3,000 are necessary to consider the species — often referred to as BFFs — fully recovered. They’ve been reintroduced at 29 sites across eight states, plus in Canada, and Mexico, according to Fish and Wildlife .

While the program has had great success, worthy of celebrating, black-footed ferrets only live for a short time, according to Robyn Bortner, captive breeding manager for the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center. “In the wild, some of the original populations, especially in Meeteetse, were estimated to have only mean life expectancy of 0.9 years.”

Ferrets unable to raise a litter in their first year of life are often lost in the effort to repopulate the area, Bortner said. Predation and disease seem to be the culprits.

All release sites and native prairie dog populations in the area are treated for disease, as silvatic plague and canine distemper are both deadly to the ferrets and widespread. In Meeteetse, thousands of acres were dusted for the fleas that carry plague and prairie dogs — the ferrets’ main food source — were inoculated through bait before the endangered predators could be released.

Yet, despite intense efforts by scientists studying the species for more than 40 years, there are inherent issues that have stymied scientists. The most difficult challenge to overcome is the lack of genetic diversity, due to the small number of ferrets originally used in the captive breeding program. It is a tough nut to crack.

Bortner said problems associated with the ferrets’ lack of genetic diversity have been popping up.

“Due to their inbreeding they do have a slightly suppressed immune system,” Bortner said. “They are very susceptible to [gastrointestinal] problems and can die within 48 hours if left untreated.”

Then came Elizabeth Ann.

Elizabeth Ann was cloned from preserved DNA from Willa, a wild black-footed ferret that died almost 40 years ago. The clone was brought to term by a domestic ferret and then transferred immediately to the captive breeding center near Ft. Collins, Colorado. The process, from concept to a living clone, was extremely quick.

“It actually happened much quicker and easier than we had expected,” said Shawn Walker, chief science officer for ViaGen, which does genetic preservation and cloning research.

Elizabeth Ann was the first of what they hope are many clones that carry tens of thousands of unique alleles (one of two or more alternative forms of a gene that arise by mutation and are found at the same place on a chromosome) that can possibly give the captive breeding program a fighting chance to breed healthier, more genetically diverse ferrets.

With permission from federal officials, the California conservation organization Revive and Restore has now taken DNA samples from another specimen in efforts to clone a male. 

However, the donor died from canine distemper virus and its DNA contains particles of the deadly disease. Scientists for the organization now need to strip the virus from the cells before they can clone the possible mate. Fortunately, ferrets in the captive breeding center can live up to eight years, so they may have time to breed Elizabeth Ann.

Further down the road and much more difficult to achieve, Revive and Restore hopes to develop disease-resistant clones.

Representatives from several organizations involved in the process met for a virtual conference last week, led by Dr. Lenox Baker, a retired heart surgeon who owns the Pitchfork Ranch outside Meeteetse. He has continued running the historic cattle operation and supports reintroduction efforts on his land. It’s a seemingly odd mix.

One of the reasons for the extirpation of black-footed ferrets from most of their traditional range was due to massive extermination efforts by ranchers to rid their land of prairie dogs, Baker said. But he insists reintroduction efforts of ferrets have made no difference to his ranching efforts.

“Nor do the prairie dogs,” he said. “To those ranchers out there, listen to this: I would not be at all hesitant to have this kind of project on your ranches.”

Ryan Phelan, of Revive and Restore alluded to the myths still being prevalent.

“I wish more people understood that dynamic and how healthy it can be for a ranch owner with cattle,” Phelan said.

Partnerships with landowners in Wyoming have been key to the species recovery efforts, according to Zack Walker, Game and Fish non-game supervisor.

“We have phenomenal partnerships with the Lazy BV and Pitchfork ranches who are dedicated to black-footed ferrets and their success,” Walker said. “Much of what we’ve been able to accomplish for ferrets is due to their considerable support, of which we’re grateful and appreciative.”

Ashlee Lundvall, a Game and Fish Commissioner from Powell, was on hand for the release of the 20 additional ferrets last week. It continued an effort to restore the ferrets in the Meeteetse area that began in 2016.

Lundvall called it an honor to participate.

“I was so thankful that my daughter, Addison, was able to join me and experience the thrill of seeing these amazing creatures headed back to their natural habitat,” she said in a statement. “This is a side of conservation that I want her, and those of her generation, to see and be part of.”

The department plans to release 10 ferrets in Shirley Basin near Laramie in the coming weeks — the first place in Wyoming to reintroduce black-footed ferrets following successful captive breeding.

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Gigantic Cat-Sized Flying Squirrels Unlikely To Move To Wyoming Says Squirrel Expert

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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

There’s little chance that visitors to Yellowstone National Park will have to dodge a species of cat-sized flying squirrels discovered recently in the Himalayas. But one of the country’s leading squirrel experts said those who look closely might get a glimpse of its much smaller cousin soaring among the pines.

In fact, there are three species of flying squirrels in the Yellowstone area, according to John Koprowski, dean and professor at the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming. The squirrels, which can be found in the country’s western mountains and eastern United States, can fit in the palm of your hand, Koprowski said.

This means America’s flying squirrels would be dwarfed by the two species of gigantic wooly flying squirrels, which weigh in at about five pounds and are three feet in length.

The gigantic wooly squirrels were recently identified by scientists on the scraggy rock faces of the Himalayas as reported in a June 10 article of National Geographic in which Koprowski was quoted.

Koprowski, who is new to the University of Wyoming, is one of the country’s foremost experts on squirrels. He told Cowboy State Daily Friday that the discovery of the new species was exciting in that it further illuminates how much we still don’t know about the natural world and what else might be out there to still be discovered.

Flying squirrels do not actually have wings, he explained, but rather are kept aloft by a patagium, which is a furry membrane that connects their wrists and ankles and acts like a hang glider. They further use their fluffy tail as a rudder to help guide them and also have an extension on their wrist bone that flicks out like a switch blade to help them effectively steer between rock faces.

“They can actually control their flight well,” he said.

For those who may fear an infiltration of large flying squirrels from the Himalayans, that likely will never happen. The wooly flying squirrels are used to surviving at high elevations of up to 16,000 feet and would probably struggle physiologically at lower elevations given their large size and thick coats, though as Koprowski noted, there’s no way to be sure unless they’re actually tested in this environment.

Apart from the flying species, Koprowski is a big fan of squirrels in general and thinks they have much to offer in terms of conservation along with just being fascinating creatures.

He didn’t set out to become one of the world’s most renowned experts on squirrels, but more or less fell into it as kid growing up in Cleveland and later as an undergraduate at Ohio State University, Since he had no car, Koprowski was forced to study the animals he could find scampering around his suburban neighborhood or on campus. 

His goal had been to study lions, tigers and bears, but it would have taken him a while to get to a place to see one. In the meantime, his knowledge of squirrels allowed him to get his masters and doctorate degrees and now, he gets to study a variety of species in the U.S. and many countries abroad with a focus on ecology, wildlife conservation and management. 

But it all started with squirrels, which as he noted, can be a great way for city kids to connect natural world. 

They also serve as subtle harbingers when it comes to stressors in forests and grasslands. Because squirrels are sensitive to sound, an absence of squirrels can indicate noise pollution. It can also indicate overgrown forests since they leave areas where they cannot hear or see predators.

Squirrels also play a role in natural restoration as one of nature’s foremost seed redistributors and disseminators of leafy materials, Koprowski said. 

But for those who see them merely as backyard pests, Koprowski warns that given their tenacity and stellar capacity for population growth, it’s likely a losing battle for home owners wishing to eradicate the animals from their backyards.

“They usually win those battles,” said Koprowski, who also sees value in them as another wildlife species that’s just pretty cool to watch. 

“The more wildlife I see, the better,” he said. “When you realize their imperfections and quirky behaviors, they’re fun to watch.”

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Park Service Asks Public Not To Drive Over Elk

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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

While the thought of driving over a 700-pound elk may sound absurd, elk calves are at much higher risk because they are are significantly smaller and could end up beneath a car.

As a result, the National Park Service on Tuesday reminded people in areas frequented by elk to take caution and look around before putting their car into drive as a baby elk could be close by.

In fact, a photo the organization posted on Facebook shows an elk calf taking shelter beneath a vehicle right next to a tire, which could turn the animal into a burrito in matter of seconds.

“Check around corners and between cars before entering an area,” the Park Service advised. “In developed areas, calves are often stashed near buildings, under porches and stairs, and in between vehicles.”

Running over an elk would not be good, especially for the elk. But it could also be problematic for your car.

And then there’s the issue of the Mom elk — or cow elk as they are called. Cow elk do not like humans anywhere near their calves.

A 90-year-old man from Colorado found that out the hard way earlier in June as an elk plowed into him. Luckily the nonagenarian escaped injury despite going airborne.

“Give elk extra space as cow elk can be more aggressive this time of year and may kick or charge people and pets. If an elk charges you, take shelter in a vehicle or behind a tall, sturdy barrier quickly,” the Park Service said.

Noted outdoorsman and Pinedale resident Paul Ulrich said he escaped a charging elk three years ago by jumping off a cliff into a lake in the North Absaroka Wilderness.

“It wasn’t a big dropoff but it really was my only option,” Ulrich said. “Briefly I thought I would test out my matador skills but in the last second I decided jumping was the best choice.”

Ulrich said he was considering going to matador school in Spain to avoid lakes in the future.

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Wyoming Game Wardens Report An Increased Number Of Deer Hit On The Highway

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Wyoming Game and Fish Department wardens from Lander, Riverton, and Dubois report receiving an increased number of calls recently to assist with animals being hit by vehicles.

These areas have consistently seen large losses of big game animals and increased wildlife collisions in the fall.

Every fall, big game animals leave their higher elevation summer and fall ranges for traditional lower elevation wintering areas and their migration routes and winter ranges often put them into conflict with motorists.

Many migration routes for big game animals often lead them alongside and across highways.

In addition, big game animals are often drawn to areas along roadways to seek better forage that results from road runoff moisture, and areas recently seeded after construction.

Motorists are urged to be on the lookout at all times as animals may be on the move, but it is the dusk to dawn period when animals are most active.

“It is that time of year again when deer are moving around and bucks are in the rut. Big game animals are paying less attention to vehicle traffic and more attention to their biology,” Lander Game Warden Brady Frude said.

“They are most active at dawn and dusk and of course, with shorter daylight hours, this now coincides with high levels of commuting traffic. All these factors lead to significant increases in deer/vehicle collisions along our roads,” he said.

South Riverton Game Warden Mitch Renteria said with the deer rut in full swing, deer are less aware of their surrounds and more visible around roadways as they prepare for the long winter.

Please drive safely to and from your destinations, slow down, and as always, give wildlife a break,” Renteria said.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department advises people to be aware of roadside surroundings.

When motorists spot animals near highways, they should assume the animals will move onto the roadway. Following a few simple steps can prevent wildlife collisions:

Slow down.
Expect wildlife and scan the sides of the roads.
Use headlights and stay alert while driving at dusk, dawn and at night.
If you see one elk, deer, or antelope by the road, expect there to be more nearby.
If an animal is on the road, expect the unexpected. They do not instinctively know how to react to your car.
If you encounter an animal crossing the road, switch your headlights to low beam so that they are not blinded and can move out of your way.
Give the animal time and room to move off the road. Do not try to outrun it.
If you see a wildlife-crossing sign, pay attention. It is there for a reason.
Do not swerve to miss an animal. Steer toward the animal’s hindquarters, as they most often will move forward.

Nationwide, more than 150 people are killed and 29,000 injured each year in animal/vehicle collisions, and areas in Fremont County have some of the highest numbers of wildlife/vehicle collisions in the State.

If you see an injured deer, call the nearest Game and Fish Regional Office or the Stop Poaching Hotline 1-877-WGFD-TIP, after normal business hours, with specific information about the location (road, mile-marker, etc.).

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Researchers Continue Long-Term Study Of Wyoming’s Golden Eagles in Big Horn Basin

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Researchers in Park County are keeping an eye on golden eagles in the Big Horn Basin as an indicator of the health of the area’s ecosystem.

According to biologists, the golden eagle is a species of greatest conservation need because of the rapidly changing conditions of its primary habitat. 

Dr. Charles Preston is the curator emeritus for the Draper Museum of Natural History at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. For the last 12 years, his staff and a group of volunteers have been keeping a close eye on the golden eagle population in the Big Horn Basin.

“Because raptors are the top of the food chain – and, so they give us an idea of what’s going on with the ecosystem,” Preston said. “And I’m really interested in ecosystem dynamics, how ecosystems change through time. Raptors give me a good window into that.”

Each year, select birds are banded, measured, weighed and their general condition is determined. This year, feathers were collected from the golden eagles as well.

The team also collects the remains of prey found in the eagles’ nests to study how what they eat affects their reproductive cycles. 

Data from the study will be stored in the McCracken Research Library at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody for the public to access. 

But it’s not just the predator-prey relationship that the study has focused on, according to Preston. People are also a large part of the equation.

“It’s important to understand how our activities affect, both positively and negatively, the wildlife,” he said. “Because almost everybody wants to maintain a healthy wildlife population and community.”

Preston noted that continuous, long-term research is the key to this study – especially for a species like the eagle.

“Because things change from year to year, whether it’s weather, or prey abundance, or landscape, those changes are important,” Preston said. “So just a couple of years, a snapshot in time might be valuable for one thing, but it doesn’t give you a big picture.”

With the advancements of wind farms and other energy development, an increase in outdoor recreation, and residential construction encroaching on the birds’ habitat, Preston said studies like this one will continue to provide valuable information.

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Wyoming Game & Fish Releases 700 Endangered Toads Into The Wild

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Oh, hoppy day!

The state’s efforts to boost populations of the endangered Wyoming toad took a step forward recently with the release of 700 of the toads at four sites near Laramie.

The toads were born through a captive breeding effort launched in an effort to restore the species.

The toads were believed to be extinct in 1985, but a small population was found in Albany County in 1987.

Since then the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has been working with a number of other agencies, including the University of Wyoming, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Fish Hatchery System, to increase the wild population of the amphibians.

The June release marked the fifth time 1-year-old toads have been turned loose in the wild, according to a Game and Fish Department news release.

By releasing toads rather than tadpoles, the survival rate of the animals returned to the wild is much better, said Wendy Estes-Zumpf, herpetological coordinator for the Game and Fish Department.

“That really minimizes the typically large — up to 95% — mortality you get from releasing tadpoles,” she said.

In addition, the toads raised in captivity are ready to breed when released, Estes-Zumpf said, while wild toads usually take two to four years to reach breeding size.

Estes-Zumpf said the population of toads in the wild is not yet self-sustaining, but added progress is being made. In 2019, 52 of the adult toads were found in the wild, along with 10 yearlings and a number of younger toads and tadpoles. 

“They’re doing better than they have in the past,” she said. “In the past 10 years the team has developed a strategy for evaluating reintroduction techniques. There has been more research, we’ve seen an increase in the number of toads and we’ve definitely increased our knowledge on the ecology of the toads.”

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

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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

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.”

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