A group of pronghorn in winter at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. (Tom Koerner/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Fewer archers and shooters will pursue pronghorn in the forthcoming hunting season after snowstorms and drought prompted Wyoming Game and Fish Department to significantly reduce the number of licenses it issued this year.

Game and Fish estimated there to be 388,500 “speed goats” after the 2020 hunting season, the last estimate for which data is available. That’s 40,700 shy of the objective of 429,200 — about 9% below the population goal in the pronghorn’s stronghold state.

The agency expects 42,646 hunters this year, a drop of 9% from 2020.  The agency expects them to have an 86% success rate and spend an average of 3.9 days hunting per animal killed.

The pronghorn is on the Wyoming Game and Fish emblem. “Wyoming is kind of the pronghorn state [with] more [pronghorn] than most other states combined,” said Wyoming Game and Fish’s Doug Brimeyer. “That’s our iconic species.”
Because of expected fluctuations in such large wildlife herds, the agency considers a population to be at objective if it is within 20%, plus or minus, of the specific figure. A dip in numbers is not always worrying because pronghorn are resilient, with does usually birthing twins, said Doug Brimeyer, wildlife management coordinator for Game and Fish.

“When we see a wildlife population reproduce at between 15%-20% per year, that’s pretty astounding,” he said. “That’s why I’m a little bit optimistic.

“They just have a potential to bounce back.” Brimeyer said. “Unfortunately, we’re not seeing that across the state,” he said, because drought and spring storms combined to create difficult conditions for some herds.

Wildlife viewers and hunters monitor the species and its fate with the acuity of pronghorn themselves. The Game and Fish Department’s logo proudly portrays a pronghorn antelope.

“Wyoming is kind of the pronghorn state [with] more [pronghorn] than most other states combined,” Brimeyer said. “That’s our iconic species.”

Biologists review the population objective for herds every five years, but have not changed the statewide number for some time. But the objective is dependent principally on habitat, for which changing climate could create a long-term challenge. 

“It all adds up to what the land can sustain,” Brimeyer said.

Mother Nature’s punch

Game and Fish biologists keep tabs on pronghorn throughout the year, conducting line-transect aerial-abundance surveys in May and early June, Brimeyer said. In August, they tabulate sex and age ratios in classification surveys, keeping track of over-winter survival of yearlings, among other things.

Habitat biologists pick through sagebrush and forbs to characterize the amount of food available before winter sets in.

A herd of pronghorn at sunrise. Steam rises from the Green River in the background. (Tom Koerner/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

In 2020, one Game and Fish biologist saw trouble ahead in the Lander region. “[S]taff observed a 40% decline [in 2020] in the number of pronghorn along the same routes driven in 2019,” Stan Harter wrote in a newsletter. “A bigger concern is that the ratio of fawns per 100 does was the lowest observed in 25 years.”

He observed only 0.6 inches of rain between Easter and Labor Day, plus a “pretty hard” 2019-’20 winter. The combination produced a “pretty rough year,” for pronghorn.

The number of yearling bucks was down, indicating poor over-winter survival, Harter wrote.

“Several groups of pronghorn were observed in September with ribs and hip bones showing, indicating these animals were having a hard time finding good forage last [2020] summer,” his newsletter read. “All this information points to a declining population.”

Harter’s observations were localized. But nature was throwing combination punches in other parts of the state too, including farther southeast.

Justin Binfet, the agency’s Casper wildlife management coordinator, witnessed a cataclysm in the 2020-21 winter.

He wrote Brimeyer an email earlier this year titled “antelope license cuts — disaster declaration.” Hunt areas 30 and 31 southeast of Casper — where part of the Medicine Bow Herd lives — “received extremely deep snow that would then freeze very solid each night, rendering access to forage impossible,” his note read.

Because the winter had been mild, antelope were at higher elevations. The storm forced them to migrate through crusted snow and cold that “made movements extremely difficult.”

Field workers saw many dead antelope and survivors congregating on plowed county roads.

“We … observed several instances of large groups of antelope getting hit by vehicles … as they had nowhere else to go,” Binfet wrote. He recommended 450 fewer 2021 hunting licenses be issued than he had planned.

Spring didn’t bring much relief in places, Brimeyer said.

South of Pinedale “some of the grass species didn’t even come out of dormancy from the winter period,” he said. “Overall the forage production has been pretty poor when you get south of Rock Springs.”

Biologists cut licenses

South and east of Sheridan Game and Fish reduced pronghorn licenses by 1,700 this season, Brimeyer said. In the Casper area, the quota was cut by about 3,000.

Around Lander, Daryl Lutz, region wildlife coordinator, explained reductions in a newsletter.

A Wyoming mail carrier encountered this vast herd of migrating pronghorn crowding the plowed road on a delivery in late 2019. (Louise Lowder)

“Most of the cuts in license quotas are doe/fawn licenses,” he wrote. Buck/doe ratios were good enough to maintain the always-limited number of “any” antelope licenses, he wrote.

A few weeks of rain can make a difference, Brimeyer suggested. Between Casper and Laramie, “We’re now seeing moisture, [and] pronghorn are doing well.”

Periodic rains around Rock Springs in the last two weeks “kind of changed things,” he said.

Game and Fish evaluates herds’ population objectives every five years. If the agency finds environmental conditions have reduced the habitat’s carrying capacity, a new objective will be considered through the public process.

“The objective is tied to ideal habitat conditions,” Brimeyer said. “We’ll adapt to that if we see prolonged drought.”

Not everybody who shoots a .270 or .243 caliber bullet — two of the most popular pronghorn rounds — qualifies as an antelope biologist, despite keen interest. When numbers are down, wildlife managers can’t just make changes on paper and see results in the field.

“It’s not as easy as just not harvesting,” Brimeyer said. You have to adapt and see if there’s habitat there. It’s not as simple as raising objectives.”

Doe-fawn licenses — an indication of abundance — are available when the population is up and range, modified by drought and weather, has the capacity to nourish them.

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“There are only so many mouths that can be sustained,” Brimeyer said, “otherwise, there’s winter mortality.”

As Wyoming regularly addresses its habitat and herd sizes, could climate change be a cause for hosting fewer antelope?  “The reality of that is ‘yes,’” Brimeyer said.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Antelope population continues to decline due to overhunting of these animals encouraged by Game and Fish for years. I guess they think they need more cash.
    Meanwhile that fearsome predator the Jack Rabbit is essentially extinct now in Wyoming, thanks once again to the Game and Fish. Many other Game and Fish “predators” are also seriously declining because per the Game and Fish these animals can be slaughtered 365 days a year, anytime anyplace.

    1. Amen. Wyoming’s wildlife agency is sold out to livestock farmers (who produce a tiny portion of the national meat supply yet call the shots for us all).

  2. There is one more issue that needs to be addressed as well…I live in the south end of Gillette and have observed (with my own eyes) eight pronghorn killed by vehicles; bucks, does and younguns, in the past two weeks. More signage and wildlife corridors should be a priority!!

  3. Once upon a time about three decades ago , Pronghorn were the ONLY big game species in Wyoming that actually paid for the WG&FD programmatic cost of hunting them with their own license revenues. All the other trophy big game hunts…Elk, Deer, Sheep, Moose, and sundry bear and goats et al … did not produce enough tag revenue to cover their own costs and had to be subsidized. ( Not sure about cottontail rabbits. ) The joke I heard from a retired game warden was out of state fishermen buying 3 day Wyoming licenses were what paid for high country elk hunting in the budget.

    I cannot speak to the current state of affairs in Wyoming’s hunting license domain , since I exited the commercial hunting trade back in 1994 for good, and pay little mind to the department’s budgeting travails these days. So I have to qualify my remarks as maybe not reflecting the current situation on the ground or in the G&F war room.

    All the western states—not just Wyoming — need to have a reformational epiphany to find some other ways to generate the funding of genuine wildlife conservation besides selling hunting tags. Truth be told, hunting licenses have hardly lived up to the hype that they pay the bulk for wildlife conservation. That narrow view has never been validated. There is a world of difference between benuine native wildlife and big game, game fish , game fowl . All the latter are managed as crops – with harvests and yields, put and take , long rifle ” management” , not by porioritizing actual wildlife conservation. My criticism takes to form of Wyoming managing the State’s native animals for Economics first ( revenue ) and fudging the Ecologics ( habitat + population + adaptive sustainability ) to do it. We never seem to get past the money part…

    1. We surely do not get beyond the money part, unless the situation is as is. With drought, water shortage, fires etc, Some of those paradigms may shift, since the cost to income ratio is taking a different modeling. Never thought I would embrace wildlife suffering to change a profiteering paradigm.

  4. How about “hosting” less cattle on the range. Not one mention in this article about the impact of cows, it’s not all drought and climate change. Maybe we should decrease the grazing allotment numbers and leave more grass for the wildlife.

    1. Yes, it is really about there being no food on the desert floor. Around Rock Springs to Evanston- Pinedale to the Colorado border there is not a shred of food left for any wildlife. Sheep herds come in and eat it all. Then come the cows grazing. It is a high plains desert where stuff grows about an eighth of an inch a year and the herds come year after year, multiple times a year around Rock Springs. I walked them hills since the 80’s and saw what wildlife has been left to eat. And after all that the cattlemen and ranchers in the grazing association put the blame for the whole lack of food on wild horses. Got’ta get them rounded before they eat some greenery. It is greed for the last blade of grass, damn the wildlife, fatten my wallet.

    2. “How about ‘hosting’ less cattle…”

      Most of the State Legislature is wealthy ranchers. So good luck with THAT!