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Game & Fish

Winter Range

A Game and Fish Department biologist measuring annual growth of sagebrush plant (click for larger version)
02/01/2007 - Cold, snowy winters can put a strain on Wyoming's big game animals. But that strain is nothing compared to the lasting impacts that warm, dry winters can have. Wyoming has had too many warm, dry winters in recent years and vegetation simply does not grow without adequate moisture.

Poor vegetation production can have severe impacts on big game animals that are trying to survive on their winter ranges. Winter ranges are typically areas that are blown free of snow, allowing the animals easier access to forage. It is usually the smallest habitat area used by big game animals, but it is also the most critical because it provides the protein the animals need to get through the cold winter months.

Needless to say, the Game and Fish Department is concerned about the lack of shrub growth on winter ranges. Biologists have been monitoring the growth rate of sagebrush plants in the Bates Hole area south of Casper, an area long used by antelope as winter range. Through these studies they hope to find green, flexible stems that represent several inches of annual growth and will provide the necessary winter forage. What they've been finding is dry, stunted vegetation that has grown scarcely more than ¾ of an inch over the recent summer. This is a result of the lack of moisture and overgrazing by wildlife. The dry conditions have prevented the annual growth necessary to help these shrubs recover from grazing in previous years, and when the big game animals return looking for food they damage the already stressed plants even more. Soon little is left but stubble. These shrubs cannot stand up to this increased grazing pressure and the results are a range that is in extremely poor condition.

During a drought big game animals naturally spread out more in search of food. But unfortunately all the winter ranges throughout the region are in similar condition and many game animals struggle to find enough to eat. In time, the lack of adequate forage causes decreased fawn production and ability to survive winter.

One of the biggest challenges wildlife managers face is trying to balance big game herd sizes with the availability of adequate habitat. While hunters want to see more big game animals, biologists warn against maintaining artificially high numbers on winter habitat that is unable to support them.

Many hunters question why the Game and Fish Department issues doe and fawn tags when the number of these animals is already low. But even though there are not a lot of animals out here, there are still too many. There just isn't enough food to sustain them all. So biologists want to keep big game populations from growing until there is enough healthy vegetation to support them. It is uncertain how long that could take. Once conditions get this drastic, any new precipitation goes into the ground to first replenish soil moisture and does little to help shrubs recover.

Certainly above-average snowfalls the remainder of the winter would benefit the rangeland. But severe storms could also impact the survival of many animals that have been unable to find enough food to help them survive brutal weather conditions.

The Game and Fish Department has a responsibility to be sure these animals will be here for years to come. But if the drought continues we will need to be more aware of how many animals these ranges can support. We can't expect extreme numbers of animals that would ultimately harm rangelands – the same rangelands that will need to support wildlife populations into the future.

As wildlife managers, our primary tool for controlling wildlife population numbers is hunting seasons. And when the range is in poor condition we need to harvest more animals, even does and fawns, to keep the range healthy. So when the moisture does finally come the range will still be healthy enough to recover and once again provide the forage necessary to sustain Wyoming's big game herds in abundance.

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