On the hunt

Pronghorn graze earlier this year on the side of Wyoming Highway 130 near Big Hollow Road.

Thanks to good habitat conditions, big game herds in southeast Wyoming are looking strong heading into the fall, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Corey Class, Game and Fish regional wildlife coordinator, said a tough winter in 2010-2011 and drought in 2012 are in the past, with nothing catastrophic since to threaten herds.

“We’re bouncing back from all of that,” he said.

A couple heavy snowstorms this spring probably affected pronghorn, along with some hailstorms, Class said.

“We’re starting to see what looks like lower fawn ratios for pronghorn on the east side of the region,” he said.

A stretch of dry weather in June and July was relieved by a couple weeks of especially rainy weather in early August.

“That later rain is really, really important for ungulates in particular,” Class said.

As animals prepare for winter survival, it’s always helpful to have high quality forage available.

“We expect they’re going to be going into winter in pretty good condition,” he said. “The high country in the Snowy Range looks great. Everything is pretty green.”

Although most information about herd health at this time of year is anecdotal, Class said wildlife managers are seeing a good number of mule deer fawns and elk calves among local herds.

A year ago, hunters were prohibited from entering the burn area of the Beaver Creek and Broadway fires in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming, which smoldered into the fall.

This year, habitat assessments show rebounding vegetation that’s popular with big game.

“We’re seeing a lot of deer and elk in it right now,” Class said of the burn area. “Wildfire certainly is part of the system, and it really does benefit habitat. It’s the best habitat treatment you can get.”

He expects this summer’s Keystone Fire, which was much smaller, to provide a similar habitat boost for wildlife in the Snowy Range.

Land managers will be watching these burn areas during their recovery for evidence of cheat grass, which has become an expected blight on Western landscapes.

In 2016, the U.S. Forest Service collaborated with Game and Fish to spray herbicide on 3,000 acres that were burned during the Squirrel Creek Fire in 2012, and they’ll consider similar work to control cheat grass in newer burn areas.

While elk herd sizes have been strong and steady in recent years, mule deer herds have struggled more. This year, mule deer hunters will have longer seasons and more liberal restrictions in response to increasing numbers of bucks.

“Our deer seasons got a little bit more liberal this year because we’ve had a few years of pretty good production,” Class said.

For the Sheep Mountain herd in hunt areas 74-77, for example, the season is 10 days long and open for any buck.

In 2016, the season was seven days long, with hunters restricted to bucks with at least three antler points.

“We’re at some of the highest buck ratios we’ve seen in a while, and our populations are increasing,” he said.

Researchers are discovering that chronic wasting disease is spread by bucks, providing another reason to keep their numbers a little lower.

“It’ll be good hunting,” he said.

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