A harsh winter has decimated the mule deer population in Wyoming, sparking concern among residents and increasing the likelihood of hunting restrictions.
Approximately 80% of the adult Wyoming Range mule deer population is dead, according to a new report from the state’s Game and Fish Department. Neary every fawn did not survive the winter as well.
The state’s mule deer population typically sees a 20% loss rate during the winter. Losses were determined by monitoring seasonal deer migration. At the start of the winter season, there were 30,000 mule deer.
The winter also took a toll on other game animals including elk and pronghorn populations. An estimated 500 pronghorns (commonly known as antelopes) died of bacterial pneumonia over the course of the winter.
To prevent an unsustainable population decline, the Game and Fish Department has taken steps to restrict hunting. The department cut hunting tags and limited licenses in certain areas although it has not yet entirely stopped deer hunting seasons.
While testifying about the wildlife losses before the state legislature’s Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee, Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik warned the preventative measure may result in revenue losses for the department.
“Most of the agency’s budget comes from hunting and fishing license tags, as well as Wyoming’s share of federal taxes that hunters and anglers pay on things such as firearms, ammunition and fishing tackle,” report Cowboy State Daily.
Nesvik said the department should be able to cover six months of expenses, but cautioned that a significant “one-time” expense such as infrastructure improvement would need to be delayed.
State leaders have been debating how to handle the deer population devastation for months.
A town hall meeting in March convened by Governor Mark Gordon and the Game and Fish Department was filled to capacity. The accompanying Zoom call also reached its maximum capacity as state residents joined remotely. Some residents felt the government should have intervened sooner to prevent the death.
“This winter has been the toughest winter in a very long time,” Gordon told the crowd, per the Casper Star Tribune. “What we need to do… is have people come together, as we are right now, talking about — what are the things we can do on the ground, in place, that make the most sense?”
Deer hunting is a core part of some state residents’ lives, allowing them to provide meat for their families. In 2020, the Wyoming Hunger Initiative – led by First Lady Jennie Gordon – launched a game meat donation program to help food-insure people and families.
“I am so excited to invite hunters to become part of a Wyoming solution to hunger,” said First Lady Gordon, per Buckrail. “As an avid outdoorswoman and hunter myself, I know the opportunity to give back to our most vulnerable neighbors will be a rewarding one.”
Hunting is also a major industry for Wyoming, generating $300 million in 2017.