Governor holds meeting to discuss Wyoming’s wildlife
On March 30, Sublette County hosted a town hall meeting, requested by Gov. Mark Gordon, to provide an update on the state of Wyoming’s wildlife, which have been seriously impacted by the current tough winter weather conditions and to seek public comment regarding the issue.
During the first half of the meeting, Gordon, alongside Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) Director Brian Nesvik and University of Wyoming Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources Professor and Scientist Dr. Kevin Monteith offered some insight into what they have seen from Wyoming’s big game populations this winter.
Wyoming wildlife update
“As many know, we have seen tremendous loss in wildlife,” Gordon began. “This winter has been the toughest winter in a very long time, and it has been devastating for wildlife across the state, especially those in the southwest region.”
Nesvik noted WGFD has had an eye on the statewide situation since January, with a more recent focus on big game animals across winter range from as far north as Jackson and as far east as Baggs, where winter weather conditions have persisted longer than usual and have been the most damaging.
In fact, he further noted the 30 year average of the number of days below zero in Pinedale is 39, with this year reporting a whopping 62. On top of frigid temperatures, Nesvik explained wildlife have had to battle heavy snow loads, limited forage availability and disease.
“Around Feb. 15, WGFD personnel started seeing some dead antelope, which seemed fairly healthy. But, we discovered there is a Micoplasma bovis pneumonia outbreak in Sublette County, and hundreds of pronghorn are dying,” he explained. “We have now observed and positively tested animals from Pinedale down to Rock Springs, and certainly, like we see with other species, pneumonia is exacerbated when there are difficult winter conditions.”
Currently, Nesvik shared, WGFD has documented a 50 percent adult mortality rate for female pronghorn, a 30 percent adult mortality rate for female mule deer and a 90 percent plus mortality rate for all fawns.
“We have had elk show up in places they typically don’t, and we have even seen a little bit of elk mortality which is unusual since they are such a resilient animal,” he said.
After Nesvik, Monteith took to the stage to discuss research conducted on factors affecting ungulate survivability through winter months.
He noted work began in 2013 and focused on documenting how tough winters influence animals, what it takes for them to survive and the repercussions after winter is over.
“The Wyoming Range mule deer herd has two wintering segments – one in the Big Piney-La Barge area and the other in the Kemmerer-Cokeville area,” he explained. “These animals migrate to the Salt River and Wyoming Range in some of the most spectacular migrations we are aware of, and it is perhaps the largest mule deer population in the world.”
“With our project, we work to follow individual animals for as long as we can, and recently we have been able to follow them from birth all the way to adulthood,” he continued. “The power of this is we can follow animals that persist through hard winters, like we are experiencing right now, and see what it takes for them to make it out on the other side.”
First, Monteith noted animals exhibiting greater freedom of movement during winter months have a higher probability of survival, but heavy snow loads characterizing hard winters makes this difficult.
The second factor influencing ungulate survivability, according to Monteith, is the quality of browse on winter range.
“Sagebrush makes up over 80 percent of these animals’ diet, so the better the quality and the more leader growth the sagebrush has will lead to a greater probability of survival of animals on winter range,” he said.
Additionally, Monteith explained animal age also has a lot to do with survivability.
Older animals, especially those over 10 years of age have a very low probability of surviving tough winters. Monteith noted survivors are usually those in the prime age of their life.
Lastly, he shared the primary driver affecting survivability is the amount of fat reserves animals have built up before entering winter months. Ideally, they should have at least 12 percent body fat as they move into the winter.
“These are the fat reserves they bring from summer range, and if they don’t have enough, we are likely to lose them through the winter,” he said. “There are some things that dramatically influence their ability to gain fat on summer range, however, including habitat quality, moisture and the number of animals competing for food.”
In addition to higher mortality rates brought on by tough winter conditions, Gordon, Nesvik and Monteith also mentioned there is an increased risk for intermingling between wildlife and livestock.
In an effort to mitigate the instance of brucellosis transmission, which remains a top priority for the state, WGFD has initiated emergency feeding operations for elk at several locations across the state, including six in Star Valley, which Nesvik notes is the most he has ever seen in the area.
Although these operations are helpful in reducing the risk of cattle and elk disease transmission, the three speakers explained emergency feeding hasn’t been initiated for deer and pronghorn.
“We have looked at the results and outcomes of feeding efforts in other states, and at the end of the day, they just don’t have enough of an effect on the population level to make any difference,” Nesvik stated.
“Feeding is a tough situation, and although it seems like the intuitive thing to do since we just talked about the importance of fat cover, it is actually quite complicated and doesn’t necessarily solve the problem,” Monteith chimed in.
In fact, he noted the digestive system of deer and pronghorn are full of microorganisms to help with digestion, and as winter progresses, especially in current conditions, the microflora adapts to the course diet they feed on.
“Feeding may make us feel good, but it is insidious because we are going to lose a lot of animals at the same time given the digestive upset and acidosis that are consequences of it,” he added.
Although animals can be slowly introduced to hay or fed forage specifically designed to avoid this issue, Nesvik and Monteith reiterated the lack of benefit feeding operations would provide.
Additionally, Monteith cited documentation from the winter of 2016-17, which shows adenovirus as the leading cause of mortality in fawns. He explained this virus is transmitted through animal-to-animal contact, and contact through increased concentration densities associated with feeding sites is another concern with feeding operations.
After Gordon, Nesvik and Monteith provided these updates, they turned the microphone over to meeting attendees. Tune in to next week’s edition of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup to read about comments and solutions proposed by the public during the meeting.
Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to email@example.com.