Mark Zornes watched the deer population near his home in Kemmerer begin to dwindle at the end of December. In early January, the fawns had all but disappeared.
This winter is taking its toll on elk, deer and antelope across western Wyoming, not just in Zornes’ backyard.
In southern Lincoln County, railroad trains have killed at least 50 elk and dozens of pronghorn near Sage Junction, west of Fossil Butte National Monument, Game Warden Neil Hymas said. When snow piles up, mule deer, antelope and elk find travel easier in highway and railway rights-of-way where the forage sometimes is better.
The trouble started in late December when temperatures dropped far below zero for days in a row, said Zornes, the wildlife management coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Green River Region. Significant snowfall forced animals to expend more energy to reach winter range where they normally find forage.
While there are no official mortality numbers yet, it seems there will be a winter die-off more significant than the state has seen in at least a decade, said Doug Brimeyer, deputy chief of the wildlife division for Game and Fish. The impacted areas run from Teton County down to the southwestern corner of the state.
Primarily it’s deer and antelope that are suffering — elk use Game and Fish feed grounds and the National Elk Refuge to survive severe winters, Brimeyer said.
Animals younger than 1-year-old die first. They haven’t had time to put on body fat, Brimeyer said. But animals of all ages are struggling to survive and travel their traditional migration corridors. Wyoming Game and Fish is working with landowners to open gates and take down fences to make the journeys easier, Brimeyer said.
Antelope normally don’t jump over fences, but snow keeps them from crawling underneath as they usually do. Some deer that jump fences are too weak and can’t quite make it, getting tangled in the wires.
“It’s just a tough time to be a wild critter out there,” Zornes said. “With all the extra stuff we’ve thrown up in their way it makes it tough.”
Those animals that are able to get over or around fences are expending valuable energy, so many are seeking out roads and railroad tracks for easier passage. That’s led to more animal–vehicle collisions. Along Interstate 80, semis have hit large groups of pronghorn killing 20 to 30 animals in a single crash, Zornes said.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation counts carcasses annually on U.S. Highway 89 south of Jackson. In January 2016 the DOT counters found nine carcasses. On the same stretch, they counted 40 dead animals this January, said Keith Compton, a district engineer with WYDOT.
Antelope also lie down on train tracks in the winter. Often when startled by trains, the pronghorn run straight down the tracks instead of out of the way, said Stan Blake, a train conductor.
Spilled corn or wheat on the tracks also attracts animals during extreme winters when they can’t find other forage, he said. Blake, who is a state legislator, said he hasn’t been working on trains much this winter because he’s been in Cheyenne. But Wyoming Game and Fish reported 23 pronghorn killed by a train near Sage Junction Jan. 9.
Game Warden Hymas responded to that call. He said trains have killed more than 20 mule deer. On Wednesday, he said more than 50 elk have been killed on the tracks in a dozen to 15 “strikes” which have killed as many as 15 animals at a time.
At Nugget Canyon, west of Fossil Butte National Monument, a deer fence was built decades ago to keep migrating deer out of the U.S. Highway 89 right of way. Underpasses allow deer, elk and other animals to move south of the highway safely.
Recently, a car went off the road in Nugget Canyon and tore a hole in the deer fence, Hymas said. Deer found it and got into the right of way. With DOT crews working hard to keep the highways open, Hymas turned to volunteers from the Kemmerer chapter of Muley Fanatics to mend the fence. They did.
“Deer mortality is far less than it would have been in a winter like this” because the fence keeps them off Highway 89, Hymas said. There have been no car-elk collisions in Nugget Canyon, he said.
From a few miles west of Kemmerer to Sage Junction, Union Pacific’s tracks parallel the highway on the south. Elk that normally move farther south have stopped in the area to forage along the tracks and on grasses along Twin Creek.
When the train comes through, it “just slaughters them,” Hymas said.
Severe winters have long-lasting impacts on herds. The winter of 2010-2011 killed 80 to 90 percent of fawns born in the Wyoming Range the previous spring, Zornes said. The impact on the herd still can be seen today, he said. Some of those young deer would now be mature bucks.
“That missing age class is still apparent,” Zornes said.
Biologists don’t want to further stress herds by entering winter range to count carcasses. But they are seeing evidence of die-off numbers today that are more commonly seen in mid-March, Zornes said.
“And we’ve got a lot of winter left,” he said.
Recent warming temperatures are good news for animals this year. Also the deer Zornes has seen still appear slick, a sign of good body condition.
“A lot of animals entered winter in exceptional condition,” he said.
Still, Wyoming Game and Fish already is planning on ways to manage diminished herds this year. The department will likely shorten hunting seasons and decrease the number of licenses it issues in 2017, Zornes said.
“We’re definitely going to feel and see it,” he said. “We know there is going to be worse hunting in 2017 than there was in 2016. It will be real noticeable to folks.”
Wyoming Game and Fish is asking people to respect wildlife winter closures and stay off winter range. People with dogs are asked to keep their animals from chasing already stressed wildlife. Drivers should be on the lookout for animals along the roads.