Harsh winter impacting Wyoming wildlife - KULR8.com | Montana's News Leader | Billings, MT

Harsh winter impacting Wyoming wildlife

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CODY, Wyo. -

Unusually harsh winter weather in Northwest Wyoming has iced roads for weeks, trapped snowplows in sub-zero temperatures for hours, and now may be killed elk, deer, and bighorn sheep between Cody and Yellowstone. Some people are reportedly feeding the animals, but Wyoming’s Game and Fish biologists say they may not be helping them.

The Shoshone National Forest, between Cody and Yellowstone, is well known for its winter herds of bighorn sheep. They are often found near, or on the highway.  

In recent years, large herds of elk were also visible roadside in Wapiti Valley and the forest, spring, fall and winter. But, this winter, there seems to be very few elk and sheep near the road. Where are they? Wyoming’s Game and Fish Habitat biologist says the weather may have something to do with it.

Jerry Altermatt said, “Animals always try to find areas in the winter that have less snow, and that aren’t as cold. And so a valley bottom is going to have colder temperatures for sure because colder temperatures because that cold air settles down low…”

He pointed out the valleys also have deeper snowpack. Altermatt is not surprised that people who live on the hillsides of Wapiti Valley are reporting more elk in their neighborhoods.

He said, “So, when you get up on the south facing slopes and ridges that are exposed to wind…you’re going to find areas that have less snow, even though they’re higher up.”

Altermatt said he’s heard reports of large herds of pronghorn in the Big Horn Basin east of Cody, with hundreds gathering near Burlington.

Altermatt said this has been a historically challenging winter for wildlife. He said the snowfall in Cody probably made records, and  “…in December it was eight degrees colder than average. In January, it was 11 degrees colder.”

He said the extreme cold depletes the calories in fat reserves that are supposed to carry ungulates through the winter months, and the deep snow makes it hard to find food. Does that mean a lot of animals will die this winter?

Altermatt said it depends, “If the conditions moderate we could see losses that really aren’t that significant. If conditions remain the way they have been, it could get pretty ugly.”

Yet, Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department discourages people from feeding the animals…especially deer. Altermatt said their digestive system can’t handle handouts from humans.

He explained, “They lack the bacteria in their stomachs to digest that food. And you may see an animal that has been fed very good food, alfalfa hay, that can actually die of malnutrition with a full stomach.”

Altermatt said animals that gather in one place to be fed can also spread disease. Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD, concerns biologists. It has been discovered in and near Cody recently.

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