Wyoming wildlife faces harsh winter, high mortality

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SHERIDAN — It’s been a challenging winter for wildlife in Sheridan and in regions across Wyoming.

With extreme cold early in the season and intense snow, wildlife is struggling to find food, retain necessary body fat and in some cases are wandering too close to danger.

Sheridan Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist Tim Thomas said the weather really starts having an affect on animals when temperatures drop to zero degrees or below.

“Those animals can’t eat enough natural forage to keep up with the amount of energy they’re burning to produce heat,” Thomas said. “And so they’re in a deficit spending basically, they’re using more fat reserves than they can put on at that point.”

Thomas said the snow creates two problems. The first is that layers of settled snow make it difficult for wildlife to paw through to get to food. The other problem is the sheer depth of the snow.

He said it makes it difficult for species, especially deer and antelope, to move through it and causes them to expend much more energy trying. He said the winter has been especially difficult for fawns.

“They go into the winter without much fat because during the whole summer their big thing is growing,” Thomas said.

“So they’re not putting on a lot of fat reserves, so they don’t have a lot to draw from when we get into these periods of deep snow or cold temperatures,” Thomas added.

He said this won’t affect deer population until three or four years down the road, when that age class is moving through the population. And while the winter mortality is high, it’s leveling a population growth that’s come in the past few years.

“Due to the weather and good environmental conditions the last two or three years, we’ve had lots of fawns born and lots of fawns make it through the winter,” Thomas said. “So our population’s been going up and so this will probably just be a pause in that growth that we’ve seen.”

While Thomas said Sheridan hasn’t had many problems with elk mortality, Lucy Wold from the Green River WGFD office said they’ve had problems with elk deaths, but for different reasons.

Wold said that the early cold in December and January combined with big storms and rain also caused layers of ice over deep snow. She said this forced elk, deer and antelope toward Interstate 80, U.S. Routes 30 and 189 and the train tracks, resulting in a high number of wildlife fatalities.

“We’re talking 30, 40 elk at a time on railroad tracks,” Wold said.

Wold said the WGFD started baiting elk the first week of February and is still doing so in an attempt to keep them away from the tracks, roadways and livestock areas. She said if temperatures remain as mild as they have recently, it’s possible this operation will end soon.

Thomas, though, warned against feeding wildlife outside of WGFD operations. He said many species have specialized digestive systems, making it difficult for them to digest certain foods.

Both Wold and Thomas said the best way to help the wildlife this winter is to leave them alone, allowing them to save energy that is necessary for them to survive.

“I just really want to emphasize leave wildlife alone,” Thomas said. “…If you’re hiking or cross-country skiing or whatever and those animals start to move in reaction to you being there, back off and give them their space because this is — they’re having a little bit of a tough go this winter.”

By |February 16th, 2017|

About the Author:

Chelsea Coli joined The Sheridan Press in October 2016 as the county government, business and outdoors reporter. Coli has a master’s in journalism from Georgetown University and a bachelor’s from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Before moving to Wyoming, Coli taught English through the LADO International Institute and worked as an intern and copywriter for Ruby Studio in Colombo, Sri Lanka.