Welcomed Snowpack Brings Hardship for Wildlife


The enormous snowpack that has grown this past winter across the West has been a welcome sight for a region bedeviled by drought in recent years.

But the storms delivering that bounty have conversely delivered a lethal blow to wildlife. The harsh conditions have caused higher-than-usual mortality rates for wildlife across the West; some states are considering reductions in hunting licenses to help preserve the remaining animals.

High Mortality Rates for Wildlife

Consider the conditions, as reported by Outdoor Life: Snowpack in northwestern Colorado has exceeded 143% of the 30-year average, Wyoming has broken a 129-year-old temperature record in Cheyenne,  and Utah snowpack is the largest on record in the state.

“Deer and elk generally withstand brutally cold temperatures. But this winter is just never-ending,” Colton Heward, a hunting guide in Idaho, told Outdoor Life. “I’m hearing people in the core area of western Wyoming, southeast Idaho, and northern Utah talk about up to 70 percent mortality in adult deer and near-100 percent mortality in fawns. That is devastating.”

Deer herd in winter

According to Jackson Hole Radio, “wildlife biologists won’t be able to get an accurate count on the winter kill in western Wyoming until the snow melts. But Game and Fish managers say there are going to be big losses and hunters can expect a much more conservative hunting season next fall.” In addition, all that snow has steered moose and other wildlife into developed areas in Teton County, which has led state officials to warn residents in and around Jackson to be careful around the animals.

Making matters worse, Jackson Hole Radio also reported that Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologists “are working with the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory to investigate a rare disease outbreak in pronghorn south of Pinedale. And mule deer also are going to suffer significant winter losses. As a result, there could be significant reductions in pronghorn hunting licenses available next fall.”

Conditions are similarly difficult in northwestern Colorado.  “We don’t have any percentage estimates of our losses,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife department northwest region spokeswoman Rachel Gonzales told Cowboy State Daily. But deer and elk are expected to suffer big losses on both sides of the Wyoming-Colorado line.

Cowboy State Daily additionally reported: “In the Rawlins-Red Desert area of central Wyoming, it’s thought that as many as half of the pronghorn antelope are dead or soon will be. And in south-central Wyoming around Baggs … observers fear that up to 80% of the antelope there will die.” Animals 24-7 reports “Colorado Parks & Wildlife Department and the Wyoming Fish & Game Department are looking at reductions of up to 40% in hunting license sales.”

Compounding the Problem – Road Accidents

Utah’s snowpack is the highest it has ever been since it started tracking snow in the 1930s.  KSL TV reports that those conditions have pushed wildlife out of their natural habitat, many of them winding up on roads that are easier for them to navigate. That has had fatal results, according to the story: “So far this year the number of reported roadkill in the state is at 1,056. That’s up from last year at 977, and the year before at 870, when less people were driving because of COVID-19.”

“It’s tough,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife Assistant Area Wildlife Manager Mike Swaro. “We typically see some mortality from starvation every winter. That’s just nature, not every animal survives. This year it feels like all we’re seeing is starving or dying animals.”


FISH TALE: Remember my recent story about the challenge of accessing public lands in the West? Rivers present similar challenges. That’s why I was interested by The Aspen Times report about RareWaters, which seeks to solve that problem by acting as the “Airbnb of fly fishing.” RareWaters, the Times notes, “connects landowners with river access to fly fishers eager to find a stretch of river less crowded than somewhere publicly accessible.” See how it works.

GIDDY UP! Horses are inextricably tied to the history of the West. High Country News, in a fascinating story, reports “horses first evolved in the Americas around 4 million years ago. Then largely disappeared about 10,000 years ago.” Learn how they were subsequently reintroduced here by European colonists and became integral to the region. Read more.

WILD (WEST) BLUE YONDER: The first time Steve Henry flew as a youngster, he suffered severe motion sickness. But the Nampa, Idaho, native overcame that fear and these days travels the world to compete, often winning competitions. When he’s not flying or tinkering with his single-propeller plane, he’s selling airplane kits through his business, Wild West Aircraft. Check out this interesting westerner.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: I recently caught up with Amber Smith, the talented Executive Director of Women in Ranching. She told me that “agriculture is really good at engaging 50% of the community (the men). “But there’s another 50% of people who have always been here doing that work but are not engaged. I am trying to engage the other half of rural America.” Read more.

Lay of the Land is a monthly column by Ken Mirr, the Founder and Managing Broker of Mirr Ranch Group, that highlights news of the West impacting the ranch lifestyle. Have a question about the West? Email him at Ken@MirrRanchGroup.com.

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