A coyote scans the landscape on the cut bank above the Gros Ventre River on the road to Kelly. (Tim Mayo)

Wyoming wildlife officials are considering slashing populations of three native predators in an area where a hard winter has cratered mule deer survival rates.

Black bears, mountain lions and coyotes in particular could be targeted in the Wyoming Range. The goal would be to help the Wyoming Range Mule Deer Herd stage a comeback, though some scientific research suggests that it will be difficult to influence the depressed deer population’s trajectory. 

“There’s so many variables that go into these ecosystems — they’re very complex — but I do believe that a potential exists to provide a more rapid rebound by targeting predator species,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Brian Nesvik told WyoFile. “It’s certainly not absolute, but the potential exists.” 

There are a number of hoops wildlife managers must jump through to authorize killing more mountain lions and black bears, which are classified as trophy game species. Hunts for both the big cats and bruins are capped and the open season ends when a designated number of lions and female black bears are killed. And the quotas have already been set. Black bear quotas were approved in January. Mountain lion limits were finalized in July 2022. 

Mule deer does and fawns stage on winter range before beginning the spring migration north through the Wyoming Range. (Samantha Dwinnell)

To remedy this, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission is getting together outside its normal meeting rotation in early or mid May. No decisions will be made at that meeting, according to Game and Fish large carnivore supervisor Dan Thompson. The intent, he said, is to instead talk over the timeline for reopening the regulations for both species outside of the normal cycle, which normally come up for review every three years. 

Wildlife officials have more latitude to go after coyotes, which, as a classified predator, can be killed indiscriminately without limit at any time of year. 

After the big winter of 2016-’17, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department spent about $100,000 of hunting and fishing license funds on shooting coyotes from aircraft on mule deer fawning grounds from the Little Mountain area to the southern Wyoming Range. 

Contracted gunners employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services office managed to kill 177 of the canines in fawning areas, said Doug Brimeyer, a deputy chief of wildlife for Game and Fish. There was no monitoring to ascertain whether that aerial gunning influenced fawn survival, he said.

Aerial gunning

Agency leadership is discussing redoing that lethal aerial operation in the wake of winter 2022-’23, which left behind unusually deep and persistent low-elevation snowpack that claimed more than half of all adult Wyoming Range deer. 

Game and Fish is looking at changes to how the operation would run this time. Instead of culling coyotes this year, Brimeyer said, they’re thinking of waiting until 2024, knowing that fawns from this spring’s crop will have low survival rates and stunted body sizes and antlers — findings that have emerged from Wyoming Range deer research. The agency may also ask Wildlife Services to fly earlier in the year, well before the late-May through June mule deer fawning period.

“We spent $100,000 on 177 coyotes [in 2017], and the correspondence we had with Wildlife Services was that a lot of those deer were moving into the aspens in the foothills,” Brimeyer said. “They felt we’d be better off if we would have spent that money on the tail end of the winter, rather than when the vegetation is coming up when it’s harder for them to spot coyotes.” 

A black bear in Yellowstone National Park. (Courtesy / Pickpik)

The state taking steps to knock down bear, lion and coyote numbers comes after outfitter after outfitter called for predator control at the Game and Fish Commission’s late April meeting in Casper.

“I would work over the predators,” Outfitter Daniel Richins, of the R&K Hunting Company, told commissioners. “That’s one thing that’s within our power to control to try to bring the deer back, because this year they’re going to take it on the chin.” 

Logan Hedges, of Smoot, echoed the sentiment. Growing up, he said, the mule deer hunting in the region was “pretty awesome.” 

“And boy, it has been hurting lately,” Hedges said. “A lot of that has to do with predators, regardless of what anybody says.” 

But research specific to the Wyoming Range Deer Herd suggests that predators typically have a small effect on the population. University of Wyoming ecologist and professor Kevin Monteith, now a decade into studying the once 50,000-deer-strong herd, addressed the issue at a March 2022 meeting, explaining that winter severity and habitat conditions have a far more significant effect. 

What the science says

“If we don’t have the resources [i.e., habitat] to grow deer, we can shoot all the predators [and] we’re still not going to grow deer,” Monteith said. “I think that’s what’s important.”

Relative to winter severity, habitat and deer body condition, predation has relatively little effect on deer survival in the Wyoming Range. (University of Wyoming)

In the early 2000s, he said, Idaho “went to great lengths to go to war on coyotes” in an effort to influence a mule deer herd and researchers found that it had “absolutely no relationship whatsoever” on fawn production. 

Mark Hurley, now the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s wildlife research manager, headed that study, and he concluded that: “[B]enefits of predator removal appear to be marginal and short term in southeastern Idaho and likely will not appreciably change long-term dynamics of mule deer populations in the Intermountain West.” 

There’s even scientific evidence from a Wyoming-based study that suggests intensively hunting mountain lions can have the opposite effect, creating a population of deer-killing specialists. The reason, the now-defunct Teton Cougar Project found, is that lion hunters tend to be choosy, selectively killing mature cats that prefer to prey on elk over deer. The younger, deer-eating specialists are left behind. 

Research from the former Teton Cougar Project found that the older the lion, the larger the prey it specialized upon. The findings cast doubt on the effectiveness of heavily hunting the big cats to help mule deer, because younger, deer-eating lions are often the ones left behind. (Panthera)

But there’s other research, Brimeyer said, that suggests predator control can help when populations are “chronically depressed.” 

“What we don’t want is to have high predator numbers when your deer population is so suppressed,” he told WyoFile, “because then you end up being in the predator sink.” 

In the March 2022 meeting Monteith touched on this concept, too. In Alaska, he said, there have been examples where heavy predation from wolves and grizzly bears held moose populations down in a low-density “predator pit.” 

There are indications that the Wyoming Range Deer Herd will be smaller than ever before, perhaps increasing the odds of exposure to such a phenomenon. 

In past bad winters — 2016-’17 and 2018-’19 — about 70% of collared adult doe deer survived to see spring. Survival in winter of 2022-’23 will end up much, much worse. As of Thursday, just 37% of collared does, 44% of collared bucks and 1% of collared fawns that went into the winter in the Wyoming Range were still alive, according to data from Game and Fish’s Mule Deer Monitoring Project.  

This dead doe deer near Kemmerer, a casualty of the winter of 2016-’17, was a member of the Wyoming Range Herd. The winter of 2022-’23 is hitting the herd harder than ever, and had killed an estimated 63% of all does through April 27. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Still, Nesvik expects pushback if his agency dials up hunting pressure on black bears and lions. And the opponents, he said, will likely be lion and bear hunters, who are often reliable advocates for preserving populations of their preferred quarry. 

Quotas already increased 

Both species are already subject to significant hunting pressure in the Wyoming and Salt River ranges and the immediately surrounding areas by quotas set in 2022 and 2023 by the Game and Fish Commission. 

“These areas have high quality black bear habitat and we have increased limits there to provide opportunity and stabilize/reduce black bear populations,” Thompson, the state’s large carnivore supervisor, wrote in an email. 

Spanning six black bear hunt areas in the Greys River management unit, up to 55 females can be killed between spring and fall hunts. Those caps were updated in January. Black bear boars can also be killed without counting toward the quota. The Game and Fish Commission also recently extended the fall season later into the year in the southern Wyoming Range, he said.

Joe Kondelis, the Cody-based president of the American Bear Foundation, declined to comment on Game and Fish’s still-evolving plans. 

Mountain lions, meanwhile, are managed in the Wyoming Range with the “overarching theme” of using hunting to “stabilize and/or reduce populations,” Thompson said. In July 2022, the commission agreed to boost the lion quota from 15 to 20 with the goal of trimming cat numbers in the southern Wyoming Range, he said.

A mountain lion recovers from being sedated by Teton Cougar Project researchers in 2015. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Jason Reinhardt, a devoted houndsman who chases lines with dogs in the Wyoming Range all winter, said that hunting pressure in the region is already very high because Star Valley is full of outfitters. The idea of moving the quota even higher, he said, is “ludicrous.” 

“This area used to house big mature toms — cats that were 8, 10, 12 years old that were record-book quality because they were allowed to have birthdays,” Reinhardt said. “Now we’re becoming no different than Utah and Nevada, where a lion is a lion. Whether it’s 60 pounds or 160 pounds, it’s getting shot.” 

Coyotes don’t have the same lobby within the hunting community that’s likely to push back against the Game and Fish Department’s planned aerial culls. Others outside that world, however, are already speaking up. 

“What’s the problem with losing a lot of fawns this year in the natural cycle of predator and prey?” Teton County resident and animal welfare advocate Cindy Campbell said. A lot of the anti-predator rhetoric Game and Fish commissioners heard at the Casper meeting, she said, was based on anecdote and emotions. 

“That’s difficult for me to hear,” Campbell said. “When I get accused of high emotions around grizzly bears, we’re called ‘woke, snowflake, baby criers.’ So what’s the difference? I believe that what was set forth in that [Game and Fish commission] meeting was completely emotionally based.”

Mike Koshmrl reports on Wyoming's wildlife and natural resources. Prior to joining WyoFile, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures for the Jackson...

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  1. One wonders why the hunting outfitter organization who appears to be concerned with predators killing the big game whom they instead want for their high paying clients have not pushed for the idea of prohibiting the use of All transportation vehicles on All types of Wyoming road ways. Vehicles take/kill larger number than killed by predators. Which big game deaths are more acceptable?

  2. Lemme get this straight. We spent $100K to kill 177 coyotes south of Rock Springs, and we didn’t monitor fawn survival to see if the needle moved? I’m with Monteith. You can cover Wyoming with dead coyotes and still not grow more deer. It just ain’t that simple.

  3. Game biologists have demonstrated that after a winter such as this one with significant winter kill of wildlife or/and livestock, in the subsequent summer coyote litter size significantly increases — a word to the wise.

  4. An option would be to finally kick the welfare-almost free-grazing livestock on the public lands. It’s critical that the remaining wildlife have forage to carry on and build numbers. The way it is now on public lands, the BLM and Forest Service field agents are turning a blind eye to the severe over grazing that’s been going on for the past 4-5 years.

    1. Exactly right. “Turning a blind eye” is a nice way of saying they are deliberately not doing their jobs. There may be reasons for that, but the ranchers are overgrazing the land without question, and paying a pittance.

  5. Kathleen Dickson, to a point I agree with you BUT remember that sea lions/seals
    are federally protected which shines an entirely different light on population AND
    management issues. Also, much of what ails the salmon populations is international
    and tougher for a lackluster effort like Oregon or Washington wants to put forth. Weather cannot be controlled (or can it ??) making it largely a transient problem whereas the Ocean is a GROWING problem

  6. Too bad Wyoming won’t consider just cancelling this year’s deer hunting season. It’s what we’re doing on the Oregon coast concerning the poor salmon returns. The fishing season has been cancelled at least until Fall. No one’s talking about killing the salmon’s main predator, sea lions. And the fishermen are, for the most part, fine with it.

  7. I fully agree with Ecologist for the state,Kevin Monteith! Coyotes eat a lot more species than deer. Why not for one time listen to the folks who have spent a lifetime searching for the facts. Now they want to fund areal hunting of coyotes, what a joke, it has not worked before and will not work now. Maybe we would learn by letting nature take care of the problem. A few years ago over 240 Antelope consumed hay with my cattle, not on one of them died eating hay. The got used to it by eating some old grass hay so that when it ran out their systems were accustomed to hay. Antelope eat lots of hay and don’t die, but game and fish just continue with the old belief that it will kill them.

  8. This is a stupid idea…Whatever happened to letting nature take its coarse?

  9. Instead of spending more money on killing predators, save the $100,000 (or more) that Mr. Nesvik apparently intends to spend to kill coyotes. Ask the outfitters to match it with another $100,000. Pair that with money from the Muley Fanatics and use the dough to buy a key piece of habitat, perhaps a parcel critical to protecting a mule deer migration route.

  10. If shows that predators have less affect on game animal survival and starvation is the number one factor… leave the predator animals alone. Decimating animal populations by hunting can take years of recovery can alter biodiversity necessary for survival.

  11. Does it make sense to cut the number of cows and sheep allowed to graze in the deer depressed regions? Seems like if you want more deer you need more forage. What I see in the Palisades and Greys is a near denuding of the mid and upper elevation grasses and saplings by these livestock. Can’t have both. We really need to follow the science. Otherwise it’s just a shouting match.

    1. When cows eat the last blade of grass in Wyoming, this state would still find a way to blame coyotes.

  12. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department ostensibly uses the so-called North American Model of Wildlife Conservation . Or says they do , on paper . Except an examination of their actual field work with game harvests consistently shows otherwise.
    The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation rests on two basic principles – fish and wildlife are for the non-commercial use of citizens, and should be managed such that they are available at optimum population levels forever. That’s quoted straight from the mission statement , followed by the Seven Tenets. Off the top, the Wyo GF&D runs afoul of six of those tenets. Only the fact they restrict market hunting of wild animals is upheld (Tenet 2 ) redeems them. The North American model was conjugated because of exactly that : the wholesale destructive killing of vast numbers of animals purely for mercantile purposes in 19th century America …such as extripating at least 35 million Bison almost extincting them , wiping out the Passenger Pigeon, and killing down nearly every large animal between the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts. At the time the Pilgrims landed in 1620, there were Elk in Massachusetts ( Berkshire Hills ) and nearly 12 million Elk resided across the Lower 48 future states. They were taken down to maybe a scattered population of 50,000 before the dawn of the 20th century… 99.6 percent of America’s wild elk killed. Believe it or not Whitetail deer were nearly extincted, along with Grizzly bears. No wild animal larger than a weasel was spared market hunting carnage.
    Wealthy elitist sportsmen rebelled against all this because they couldn’t hunt trophy animals that weren’t there , so they ginned up the North American Model to restore huntable wildlife numbers. Teddy Roosevelt is given credit for adding in the part about ” democratizing” hunting, but many other genuine brand name conservationists contributed major pieces of the North American Model dogma…Muir and Leopold among them. Over in Teddy’s camp they just wanted to shoot big game again and forever.
    There are two fatal flaws in the North American Model. The first is it’s all about HUNTING disguised as conservation , but not actually wiuldlife conservation . it is instead Game Herd Management. Please know there is a huge difference between wildlife and big game when it comes time to ” manage”. Game managers are all about crops, harvests, and yields. Wildlife conservators are more concerned with preserving the species starting with habitat. Animals like Elk and Deer et al should always be considered wildlife first , then and only then as game. Wyoming never got the memo about that. It’s always been the Wyoming GAME and Fish department , not the Wyoming Wildlife and Fish agency. WyoGF&D has always been in the game business.. In broad strokes think purposely managed ungulate hunts, farmed upland game bird releases , put and take trout fishing.
    The other failure of the North American Model is it totally ignores the place and function of Predators on the landscape. Talk about first degree negligence… Wolves, bears, cougars, coyotes and all the mesopredators ( including even Bald Eagles) were either marginalized or put on alist to be killed anywhere anytime as nuisance animals, varmints, or undesireable. Between the sport hunting cabals and the Stockgrowers , it’s a miracle we have any predators left in Wyoming. The problem is Predators are essential. The tenets that Science shall guide Wildlife Policy, and Wildlife should only be killed for legitimate purpose, were criminally ignored for nearly a century. In some cases, still are. Ask the coyotes…

    So here we are. Wyoming had a killer Winter. Carcasses are piling up. And what does Wyo G& F plan to do about it at the behest of commercial trophy big game outfitters (with an assist as always from the Stockgrowers ) …? First, kill the predators.

    Of course they would say and do that. The outfitters always blame predators for taking ” their” game animal. Game and Fish sees their license revenue evaporating faster than the winterkilled herd count is dropping. Outfitters and the WyoG&F Commission always put the money first, covering their eyes with blinders made of $ 100 bills , and they end up doing the wrong thing with respect to WILDLIFE conservation. More than usual this time around. And once again the debatable North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is egregiously violated… six of its seven guiding tenets breached and trampled . Which if it happened in any other public arena would be considered criminal. Even feloniously so.
    Go ahead and listen to what the G&F game managers and the trophy hunters and commercial big game outfitters say , but always follow the money.

    Footnote: did it ever occur to the stakeholders so willing to kill predators that maybe with all those winterkill ungulate carcasses littering the landscape that the wolves bears coyotes and cougars will have a giant 24/7 all you can eat smorgasbord to dine on before they even look sideways at a fawn? Nope, doesn’t occur to them. They don’t know the first thing about landscape scale ecology and seem incapable of thinking out more than one fiscal year ahead… it’s the Wyoming Way. Sheesh.

  13. I know there are a lot of voices/points of view quoted in this article, but outfitters should not be a trusted voice in this discussion. They are in this for profit, that’s it. More game animals more business, it has nothing to do with the balance of the ecosystem for them. They really don’t deserve a place at the table on this one.