May 01, 2023
Winter may have been a wonderland for crooner Bing Crosby and lovers of the Christmas holiday season, but for lovers of western big game hunting and even bird hunting in the Great Plains, that wonderland has been lost for now.
For those who pay attention to the news, to social media, or to both, it probably comes as no surprise that many in the western U.S. and northern Great Plains are breathing a sigh of relief as spring finally comes and a winter for the record books begins to melt away.
And what a winter it was, with extremely harsh conditions enveloping much of American West and northern plains, where the snow and cold never relented. There were screeching blizzards in the Dakotas and Montana, heavy snows in the Rocky Mountain high country, and overwhelming whiteout conditions on the mountain passes of California’s Sierra Nevada. There were even pictures of snowfall in Las Vegas and all the way to the southern border in Arizona this winter.
In the wake of a winter that refilled drought-stricken reservoirs in California in a matter of weeks and left trout stream lovers with hopes for a kinder, gentler summer, this winter was the stuff of legend. And the recent season’s record snowpacks and bitter cold also came at a high cost since in many parts of the west, there has been a sobering effect on elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope and more wild critters, including upland birds.
Supplemental feeding happened in places and may have provided some relief, but not enough. And as wildlife congregated in lower elevations trying to escape the high country’s deadly conditions, collisions with vehicles became the norm as the region endured the worst winter since Ronald Reagan was the U.S. President.
One place where that is true is in northwestern Colorado where many wild critters, including elk, mule deer, and antelope, have died from starvation and cold-exposure. And as noted above, countless others have been forced to migrate into the low country, trying to find enough food to make it another few days even as vehicles were whizzing by only yards away.
Even now, as snowstorms fade and the snowpack begins to melt quickly, the coming green up may be too little, too late for wildlife that have somehow managed to survive so far. The wildlife losses are staggering and it will be some time before the danger of more losses has passed.
As a result, tag cuts are coming in many areas of the West, including the Centennial State where the Colorado Parks and Wildlife managers announced in late March that steep hunting license tag cuts of more than 40-percent could be coming soon.
And that’s even with the knowledge that after a few years of COIVD-19 pandemic effects and inflationary prices putting the economic squeeze on communities that depend on hunting income each fall, such tag cut moves may be necessary no matter the financial cost.
"That's what makes these decisions the hardest," said CPW area wildlife manager Bill de Vergie in a recent Denver Post news story detailing potential cuts. "It's something we had to do." If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then the photos that Rachael Gonzales, public information officer for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Northwest Region office, took recently speak volumes about how dire this winter has been for months on end.
“Prolonged snow and extreme cold since October 2022 have made it difficult for wildlife to get much-needed food to survive the winter months,” Gonzalez wrote in Colorado Outdoors just a few weeks ago. “In some locations, wildlife is walking on 30 inches of hard-packed snow, making it impossible to access the food below. In an area known for its large residential elk herds and quality year-round habitat, hearing that another round of snow and cold was coming for the northwest part of the state was the last thing local staff wanted to hear.”
At the beginning of the year, Gonzalez wrote that CPW wildlife managers put supplemental feeding efforts into motion trying to help weakening wildlife herds survive. By mid-March, Gonzalez noted that the baiting operation begun in January, had seen over 1,000 tons of hay distributed to nearly 100 landowners and ranchers in the Craig, Maybell, Rangely, and other nearby locations. But even with that effort, the story is far from over warns the CPW public information officer.
“While local staff have seen improvements in conditions for some locations, including the opening of south-facing slopes providing easy access to vegetation, local CPW staff can’t stress enough that we still have a long way to go," wrote Gonzalez in her March 21, 2023 story. "The next 30 – 90 days will be crucial for wildlife survival. Staff are monitoring the situation, but would like to remind everyone that, while they hope their efforts will help all animals in this area of the state, with over 50,000 year-round elk and deer herds spread across 10,200 square miles (6.5 million acres), it’s simply not possible."
This season’s long running winter snows also impacted northern Utah, including epic March snowfalls in Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon that left famed ski areas like Snowbird and Alta battling record snowfall of over 700 inches for the winter. Skiers were stranded for days, some resorts were forced to close temporarily for too much snow, mind boggling snowpack levels impeded lift operations, and avalanche danger was a constant threat. Obviously, this will not be good for wildlife.
In California, Sierra Nevada ski areas faced similar difficulties in the late winter with cars and rooftops being buried under the crushing weight of more than 800-inches of winter snowfall in places. As the Pacific firehose trained itself on the West, the desert country had deep snows at times, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Parks had to shutter their front doors for long stretches as roads were impassable, and snow even fell on the mountains surrounding Hollywood and Los Angeles. Also telling was the fact that the San Diego National Weather Service office was forced to issue a mountain blizzard warning for the first time in its history.
If there is a silver lining to all of this, it’s the fact that drought-stricken water resources will eagerly drink up the coming snowmelt from record level snowpacks in the high country. Trout streams should benefit from higher and colder flows, parched vegetation should recover, antler growth could be tremendous this year, and record drought has been eliminated, or significantly reduced, for now.
Take, for instance, the Great Salt Lake near Salt Lake City, Utah, which only a few months ago was in dire straits around Thanksgiving. “Last fall the lake was at its all-time low level, so we were looking at two-thirds of the lake bed being exposed,” said Ben Abbott, a Brigham Young University hydrology and ecology professor, in a report by Salt Lake City’s ABC 4 television news channel.
But now, after record snowfalls in the Wasatch Mountains that were so over the top that ski lodges that had to keep skiers and guests in basement areas as avalanche control efforts went on outside, the parched natural lake has risen an amazing three feet in just the past few months. And with high country snowmelt beginning to flood its way downhill, there’s more to come. “The estimates that I’ve seen range from two to four additional feet that we might see the lake level go up,” said Abbott in the ABC 4 news report. That was not good news for wildlife in parts of Utah, where winterkill losses are staggering in some places. While there’s no talk of tag reductions just yet, that could be forthcoming in a historic winter that hasn’t been seen in the Beehive State since the early 1980s.
In Wyoming, the news is equally bad and this winter has been horrifically harsh, if not outright historic, with snowfall and cold being relentless, even into the current spring. On April 5, heavy snowfall and cold slammed Wyoming again and Wyoming News Now reported that Casper broke two records set back in the infamous winter of 1982. According to the National Weather Service in that report, the first record happened when Casper received 26.7-inches of snow on Monday, April 3, which broke the previous daily snowfall record of 24.3-inches. The second record came when 31.3-inches of snow in the two-day storm broke the biggest snowstorm tally in Casper, eclipsing the previous 40-year old record by more than four-inches. And in the nearby mountains, as much as 40 inches fell.
As has been noted, this has been a terrible winter for wildlife across the West and the Cowboy State Daily news site called wildlife losses in Wyoming “catastrophic” in one report. It was also noted that Wyoming Game and Fish Department officials continue to discuss how to address these losses and that Gov. Mark Gordon can make emergency adjustments all the way to the start of fall hunting seasons.
The situation is so dire in some places that just days ago, Cowboy State Daily columnist Bill Sniffin talked about the horrific winterkill and told of stories out of several Wyoming counties that had piled up antelope carcasses and were still counting losses from decimated mule deer herds. He went as far as to opine that while no official estimate was out there, he couldn't help but wonder if as many as 100,000 antelope, maybe even upwards of 200,000 antelope, had been potentially killed this winter.
Again, that number is not an official one, but its worth pointing out that Sniffin lives there and is close to the pulse of what is happening in his home state of Wyoming. With key meetings looming in Wyoming, some reports indicate that antelope tags could see a 50-percent or greater reduction in some areas. Sniffin notes that changes are likely. "The Game and Fish Commission is already cancelling many hunting seasons and curtailing a bunch of others," wrote Sniffin. "It’s good to see that a whole bunch of Wyoming hunters are voluntarily not seeking hunting licenses this year for many types of game. It is going to take several nice winters to get these herds built back up."
Wyoming resident Guy Eastman, a media personality and show host on Outdoor Channel’s Eastman’s Hunting TV, painted a stark picture too in a recent Cowboy State Daily story. He noted in that story that in the core of Wyoming's best antelope habitat, areas around Baggs and in the Rawlins-Red Desert region, wildlife managers could see antelope losses ranging between 50 and 80 percent and losses of mule deer possibly being in the 50 percent range.
"Those are the most premier antelope herds in the entire world," Eastman is quoted in the story. "From a wildlife perspective, in those respective species, antelope and mule deer, it's a catastrophic loss for the entire North American continent when you're talking about herds that are that prestigious." He added that if the potential numbers cited above prove to be true, these are wildlife losses on a scale that most hunters have never seen in their lifetimes.
And with the prospect of even more springtime snowfall through April and into May, this story is fluid and not done yet. Expect to see more news about steep losses among big game species in more western states, and with it, more stories of wildlife managers scrambling to figure out how to address such catastrophic losses this year and beyond.
It’s also worth noting that there will certainly be effects on other wildlife species hunted by readers of Petersen’s Hunting. In the mountain foothills and prairie country of western states and the upper Great Plains, upland birds like pheasants, sharptails, sage grouse, and Hungarian partridge may have suffered big losses too in the relentless snow and cold.
Waterfowl will undoubtedly benefit as they begin to arrive in the Prairie Pothole Country and find nesting conditions more to their liking this year in some spots across the northern U.S. and southern Canada, and that could result in a better fall flight later this year. But upland bird hunters and their wide-ranging bird dogs could find more difficult wingshooting prospects come September, October, and November.
The news is sobering in many places, and only time will tell the full story that is still developing in many places. So throughout the spring and into this summer and fall, stay tuned here at Petersen’s Hunting as we work to keep you informed about the infamous winter of 2022-23 and the effects that it will bring to us all as the rest of the year unfolds.