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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”