ALPINE—Gary Fralick’s calm demeanor shifted to a hustle for the hour that a steady stream of severed heads made its way through his check station on the last Saturday of deer hunting season. 

The Thayne-based Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist and his colleague, Kelsie Hayes, checked one ungulate deadhead after another. The red-shirted duo was posted up where Greys River Road exits the Wyoming and Salt River mountain ranges. Fralick knows the spot well: This fall marked his 30th straight season staffing the historic check station. 

The mountains rising over Fralick’s post grow a lot of big bucks, but 2023 was a little different. 

“This is the slowest hunt since 1993, without a doubt,” Fralick said during a lull in checking bull elk and buck mule deer heads.

The numbers tell the story. Greys River is known and widely promoted as a destination hunt for trophy class mule deer. During a typical fall, far more than a hundred hunters roll by the historic Greys River check station with a buck they’ve killed — the count was 120 as recently as 2022. This fall? Just 31 buck muley deadheads checked. 

“That’s a 74% decline,” Fralick said. 

In some specific hunt areas the decline was deeper yet. Last fall Fralick and colleagues checked 100 hunter-killed mule deer in unit 144, which covers the northern Wyoming Range. This year just 17 came out of the same zone, marking an 83% drop.

Three hunters from Oregon pose for a photo with elk deadheads at the Greys River Road hunter check station in September 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

That complete crash was predictable. The winter of 2022-’23 was a killer unlike any biologists had ever seen for Wyoming Range mule deer and pronghorn in the adjoining Green River basin. Roughly three in four adult pronghorn died, and the mule deer death rates were nearly as bad: 70% mortality in does and 60% for bucks. Virtually all the 2022-born fawns of both species perished. 

Fralick, of course, knew going into his 2023 check-station duties that he was likely to see a lot fewer of one of his favorite things: big bucks. One measure of a buck is the spread of his antlers, and a 24”-or-wider antler bucket is pretty big. 

Of the bucks checked at his station over the last 34 years, nearly 40% of the 4,000 buck deer have hit that two-foot or wider mark, Fralick said. “Crazy data point,” he said. 

Fralick has measured antler buckets up to 36” wide coming out of the Wyoming Range. It’s a safe bet to call that a “really big buck.” 

Gary Fralick measures the antler span of every mule deer buck he registers at the Greys River check station, which he has staffed for 30 straight years. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Generations of wardens and biologists have measured antlers at the Greys River check station. According to Wyoming Wildlife Magazine — a publication of the Game and Fish Department — the station on the outskirts of Alpine is the longest-running in all of Wyoming and potentially even the entire western United States, dating back to 1929. In the early years it was intended to prevent cattle rustling, the magazine reported, in addition to making sure big game hunters were abiding by the rules. 

Fralick is as much a part of that history as anybody. 

Many of the hunters the longtime biologist encounters remember him, and vice versa, from their past stops at the check station. He keeps a photobook full of big bucks on the tailgate of his green Game and Fish pickup, eagerly encouraging passersby to take a look. A group of Oregon hunters who checked three elk and a deer did just that, paging through and trying to find snaps of their own deadheads from 2018 and 2019. 

Fralick’s also seen the big fluctuations in deer populations and hunter success over the three decades he’s been posted up on the banks of the Greys River. Recovery from the current crash is likely to take longer than those in the past, he said, like the winter of 2016-’17. Wyoming’s trying to help the herd recover, though the strategies the state selected under pressure have scant scientific support, like killing more mountain lions. Hunters, too, are trying to help, by giving up their tags, though that’s also unlikely to have any effect on the deer population come future falls. 

Gary Fralick chats with a Lincoln County resident who stopped by the Greys River check station to ask the biologist questions about the deer hunting regulations. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“The trajectory of the herd is dictated by does producing fawns, and fawns surviving,” Fralick said. “It’s not based on bucks at all.” 

Fralick asked most hunters who stopped by whether they were seeing does with fawns. The group of Oregon hunters saw “a lot” — maybe 50. “We saw a lot of twins,” one man reported. 

Fralick and Hayes were encouraged. Whether big buck land bounces back quickly mostly depends on what Mother Nature has in store for those young ungulates in the months and years ahead. 

“If we have at least two years of high overwinter survival,” Fralick said, “we’ll start seeing an uptick.”

A successful mule deer hunter poses with the trophy head of an animal registered at the Greys River check station in fall 2023. (Gary Fralick)

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. Wyoming Game and Fish no longer cares for the animals in our state. If you know there is such a bad winter kill then why not close the season for a few years so the herd can recover. Nope the WGF just keeps taking in the money and killing more of them so it takes many years longer for the herd to recover. Totally irresponsible on there part! The whole department needs to be restructured and someone who cares about the herds needs to be put in charge. The top brass should resign.

  2. A total disgrace what the Game and Fish watched happen to the deer and antelope last winter. There were things they could have done if they had put down their coffee cups and went to work. It was done in the past and it saved a lot of animals.

  3. Shut the hunts down its easier for an outfitter to roll hunters over and public hunters can watch the herd grow
    I don’t belive any state cares about animals just money Wyoming seems to put 6 deer tags per buck on the hoof
    This year its probably triple that

  4. Game and Fish please make the Wyoming range limited quota areas. Its not 1970 anymore, and hunters aren’t hunting with 30-30s anymore. Ten more years of the 1500 yard rifles, side by sides going anywhere and everywhere, ONX helping hunters figure things out as well as Google Earth. Ultralightweight hunting gear, harsh winters… the bucks got everything against them. Please make the Wyoming range limited quota deer hunts. Its the only way to save the once great hunting grounds.

  5. The Wyoming game and fish has proven over and over throuout the years they do not care about our wildlife in Wyoming. The game and fish’s only concern is the amount of money generated from licenses. If they truly cared they would have at least attempted to save the thousands of antelope and deer that starved to death on the winter range last winter.

    1. I totally agree. Why not go back to the season where a person can harvest a mule deer doe the last 3 days of the hunting season. I’d gladly harvest one of the large does I’ve seen. I’m not buying another deer license until this changes. I keep donating to the Game and Fish without harvesting a mule deer buck. You shoot all the antlered deer and there won’t be any left

  6. The trajectory of the herd is dictated by does producing fawns, and fawns surviving,” Fralick said. “It’s not based on bucks at all.”

    So with that statement we should just kill off all the bucks because it doesn’t have anything to do with herds recovery?? I think they play a big role and if the buck to doe ratio is way off and they can’t all be covered during the rut, then the recovery will be very slow to happen. Basically what I took from that statement is we shouldn’t cut back on sales because we want the profits and don’t really care about the health of our herds. I truly hope we don’t see such a long winter again or we may not have much of a herd left.

    1. Fralick must think that Wyoming is Jurassic Park, where all the animals were female and didn’t need a male to reproduce. Yes, G & F is a money grubbing operation, not a manager of wildlife

  7. Deere and antelope numbers dropped huge over a severe winter due to starvation. Unfortunately this has and will happen from time to time. They do not have winter feeding refuges funded by hunters. Greys River was never a spot these animals (elk) were meant to winter in. Humans live in Star Valley occupy that territory. Our ancestors were smart and ethical enough to create a Hunter funded game and fish which operates elk feeding refuges like in Alpine and one in upper Greys river. Anyone who wants to close elk winter feeding without moving all people out of Jackson and Star Valley and condemn animals to starvation needs a real hard look in the mirror. The North American hunter led conservation model is the lost successful we know of.

  8. The idea that removing predators will assist the recovery of prey has “scant scientific evidence” of support is factually incorrect. Especially when a prey population is severely reduced. One of the primary predator-prey relationship lessons I learned in my ecology classes way back when, was the Kiabab deer crash of the 1920s. In that instance, the removal of predators led to a massive increase in deer, leading to an overuse of forage, and a subsequent population crash as habitat conditions declined. At the time of my classes, the habitat still had not recovered from the over grazing by deer. The knee-jerk idea that predators do not affect prey is silly. Along with other ideas, like predators only prey on the sick and old animals, it is simply a recent product of our politically correct (and biologically incorrect) society.

    In reading the journals of westward pioneers, few mention Big Game, with the possible exception of Bison, as a reliable source of food along the trail. There just wasn’t an abundance of deer or elk encountered by travelers. With untouched, pristine habitat conditions, how could that have been? The Kiabab experiment strongly indicates predators as the primary reason.

  9. Everyone wants the big rack. Hangs on the wall for couple years. Old bucks or bulls mean tough meat. Plus you can’t eat the horns. But it always been about the money. Look how South Dakota promotes pheasant hunting even knowing it will be slim hunting in down years. All about the $$$$$. Hey. I wonder how the corner crossers all over done this year?

    1. Not sure how, or why you equate “corner crossers” to the epic winterkill but….I’m sure quite a few folks have and/or will have successful hunts by legally corner crossing to access private property. The days of the robber barons are over, Larry

  10. Check out all the high fence that has been installed along the highways. The few crossovers are too high for young animals to get over. And how long do you think it will take for the animals to find and use those underpasses? Government trying to solve a problem has caused another.

    1. Not very long. They’re already using them. Underpasses have been shown to reduce deer/vehicle collisions by up to 90%. Where have you been??

  11. If G and F wasn’t so money hungry to feed the expenses of its excessive redshirt force, maybe they shouldn’t of issued so many deer tags after a historic winterkill? Sadly, G and F has become a money grubbing institution vs. a wildlife manager.