Harsh winters, drought impacting Casper Region pronghorn, deer; elk offer strong hunting outlook - Casper, WY Oil City News
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Harsh winters, drought impacting Casper Region pronghorn, deer; elk offer strong hunting outlook

Pronghorn antelope (Shutterstock)

CASPER, Wyo. — With fall hunting season approaching, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department on Monday issued hunting outlooks for various regions of the state.

In the Casper Region, harsh winter conditions have impacted some pronghorn and deer herds.

Pronghorn

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Pronghorn herd numbers are variable across the Casper Region. In herds in the northeast part of the state from Douglas to Lusk to Sundance, however, pronghorn populations are “far lower than managers would like to see.” 

“After a period of strong population growth through about 2018, antelope numbers have since declined due to harsh winter conditions in back to back years coupled with poor fawn survival,” Game and Fish said. “The 2020-2021 winter was mild, which helped over-winter survival, but it followed extreme drought conditions region-wide in 2020, with 2021 again experiencing severe drought in those parts of the region where antelope numbers are struggling most.”

While pronghorn herds in central Wyoming regions have also seen declines over the past few years, they remain near or above population objectives. Game and Fish said that population numbers are “fair to good” in Hunt Areas 32 and 69-73.

“One notable exception is in Hunt Areas 30 and 31 between Casper and Douglas, where two massive spring snowstorms caused some localized die-offs resulting in much lower antelope densities in these areas compared to recent years,” Game and Fish said. “In northeast Wyoming, the compounding effects of winter mortality and summer drought have resulted in antelope populations well below desired numbers, especially in Hunt Areas 4 through 9.”

Despite the declines in overall population numbers, Game and Fish said that hunters can still expect to experience average to high harvest success because buck-to-doe ratios remain strong and the department has decreased the number of pronghorn hunting licenses issued.

The number of licenses issued was cut by “several thousand” this year, according to Game and Fish. Type 6 and Type 7 doe/fawn hunting licenses account for the highest proportion of licenses that were cut in areas hardest hit by winter and drought conditions.

“West of Casper, many antelope hunters will again be asked to have their antelope’s horns measured and teeth pulled for aging as part of a research project aimed at optimizing buck ratios to balance hunting opportunity with maximum horn growth,” Game and Fish notes.

Mule deer

When it comes to mule deer, Game and Fish says that their populations have generally declined or remained stable in Casper Region herds. All herds are below their established population objectives.

“As with antelope, mule deer experienced relatively harsh winter conditions in two of the past three years and relatively poor fawn survival with extended summer drought conditions,” Game and Fish said. “Despite lower-than-desired overall numbers, buck ratios remain high in most mule deer herds, and hunter success should be good for those hunters hunting on private lands and in limited quota areas.”

In general license areas, public land hunters should expect low to moderate success due to the lower mule deer population numbers combined with higher hunting pressure.

“Private land hunters in the Cheyenne River area between Lusk and Newcastle should again see some large antlered bucks as in the past few years,” Game and Fish adds. “Hunters lucky enough to draw a license in limited-quota, conservatively managed areas should see very high buck ratios with modest trophy potential.”

“In these high altitude desert areas (Hunt Areas 34 and 89), many prime-age mature bucks don’t grow large antlers compared to mule deer in other parts of the state. However, these herds are managed for relatively high numbers of older-aged bucks and produce some very nice deer every year.”

White-tailed deer

White-tailed deer populations are continuing to do well across most of the Casper Region, according to Game and Fish. However, the department notes that the majority occupy private lands.

“The notable exception is in the Black Hills, where high numbers of whitetails occupy the Black Hills National Forest,” Game and Fish said. “However, in the Black Hills, white-tailed deer numbers are significantly lower than they were just a couple years ago. While there are still good numbers of whitetail around, deer hunting on the Black Hills National Forest and other public lands in northeast Wyoming will definitely be challenging. This will also be the case on many parcels of private land in that area.”

Elk

Elk population numbers are at or above objective levels in all herds in the Casper Region.

“Elk seasons therefore continue to be extremely liberal in terms of season length and license issuance,” Game and Fish said. “In recent years, elk harvest has approached or exceeded record levels in many Casper Region herds.” 

“The Casper Region continues to provide excellent bull elk hunting opportunities, with many areas continuing to boast high harvest success on any-elk licenses and good antler quality.”

Game and Fish notes that the Casper Region is trying out a new license for “raghorn” bull elk. This Type 2 license is for Hunt Area 7 and requires the license holder to harvest a bull elk with four points or less.

“This season was instituted to reduce high bull ratios without reducing the number of larger mature bulls,” Game and Fish said.

Game and Fish said that antlerless elk hunter success has been strong across most of the region. However, high hunter densities on public lands can lead to lower success rates in early fall.

“In areas with interspersed public and private lands, antlerless elk hunters tend to require more days afield to harvest their elk as large cow/calf groups readily displace off public land,” Game and Fish said. “Overall, 2021 seasons will continue to emphasize female elk harvest throughout the Casper Region, while also providing good mature bull hunting in most areas. Those hunters willing to expend the effort should continue to enjoy remarkable numbers of elk and good success if the weather cooperates.”

Game and Fish notes that following another year of drought, hunters should be aware that wildlife are contending with less water, food and cover. That leads wildlife to tend to congregate around lusher habitats with water holes.

The department is also asking hunters to help with chronic wasting disease management.

“Hunters are asked to provide a lymph node sample from your deer, elk or moose for chronic wasting disease testing, especially if hunting in a CWD priority monitoring area or a mandatory testing area,” the department notes. “These samples are important to determine and monitor CWD prevalence for the health of the herd.”

“Additionally, Follow all carcass transport and disposal regulations to help limit the spread of CWD, both within Wyoming and other states. Please read all you can about CWD, how you can help and the requirements for hunters on our website.” 

New hunters who have not yet taken a required hunter safety course are able to participate in the department’s hunter mentor program.

“The program gives new hunters or those who have been unable to attend a hunter education course the opportunity to hunt under the close guidance of an experienced mentor,” Game and Fish said. “Forms are available on the Game and Fish website.

“Hunters finalizing plans can use the Game and Fish Hunt Planner for maps and previous year’s harvest statistics. Maps are available for offline use, making the hunt boundary and land status lines clear for even the most remote hunt areas. As always, big game hunters are reminded that hunt areas denoted with an asterisk (*) have limited public hunting access and are largely comprised of private lands.”

Hunting regulations are available on the Game and Fish website. Public access information is available through Access Yes, including walk-in hunting areas and hunter management areas. Those with questions about regulations or licensing can call (307) 777-4600.”