Abundant spring and summer moisture across southeast Wyoming this year means that big game herds are heading into the fall and winter in good condition. For hunters, a healthy habitat means healthy herds.
“In general, habitat conditions look pretty good across the region, which should translate into some pretty good antler and horn growth on big game animals and decent body condition going into the fall,” said Rick King, Laramie wildlife supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
King said the last few years have seen adequate moisture coming at the right time of year to positively influence the habitat. Coupled with a lack of severe winters that could cause high mortality, and herds in the region are growing or have reached their objective sizes.
“Having a couple good years stacked up in a row has led to seeing pretty good numbers of all big game species across the gamut,” he said.
For example, most pronghorn herds in the region are at or near their population objectives because of several years of good fawn production. The biggest challenge for pronghorn hunters is access, as much of the pronghorn habitat is on private land.
Mule deer populations are increasing, and buck ratios in many places are the highest they’ve been in a decade or more. King said ongoing management initiatives focusing on mule deer in the North Platte River Valley and on Sheep Mountain have led to habitat improvement projects and increased research attention.
For hunters, better buck ratios and larger herds have allowed for more liberal hunting seasons over the last couple years.
“We continue to be actively engaged in mule deer management to try to keep our herds healthy,” King said.
Most elk herds in the area are larger than the department’s population objectives, which means more opportunities for hunters and plenty of bulls to harvest. The department recommends that hunters plan ahead and seek out places away from well-traveled roads and trails, which elk will avoid when there’s hunting pressure.
For moose hunters, there might not be a better place in the country these days than the Laramie region.
“Our moose population on the Snowy Range is really healthy, and it continues to produce some world-class trophy moose,” King said. “It’s a sought-after tag and really hard to draw, but hunters that are lucky enough to draw it should see a lot of moose.”
King said Game and Fish manages the herd with an eye toward offering hunters the chance for a trophy-quality harvest, which means the odds of drawing a tag probably won’t increase much even if the herd continues to grow.
“We want to be fairly conservative this year so we can maintain that trophy quality,” he said.
King said the summer’s wildfires shouldn’t present too much of a hassle to hunters. The 32,000-acre Britania Mountain Fire near Wheatland is 95 percent contained, while the 21,000-acre Badger Creek Fire is currently in patrol status.
Hunters planning a hunt in elk area 7, deer area 64 or antelope area 103, which are in the Britania burn area, should check for closures before heading to those areas, while larger animals will likely have been displaced.
Big game herds have likely returned to burn areas from fires in recent years, such as last year’s Keystone Fire.
“I think in coming years the vegetation response to that fire is going to be really positive for wildlife,” King said.
Wildlife and public lands managers are in the midst of herbicide application projects aimed at treating new burn areas for cheatgrass, which can take over disrupted landscapes if given the chance. The invasive grass outcompetes native species that benefit wildlife, but then dries out early in the season, increasing fire danger even more.
“We don’t want to see an explosion of cheatgrass,” King said.
He reminded local hunters that Game and Fish is hoping to collect chronic wasting disease samples from harvested animals as part of its ongoing surveillance efforts.
“If they’d be willing to allow us to collect those samples, we’d like to get as many as we can,” he said.