We talk a lot about the weather in Wyoming because, like it does in any place occupied by humans, it unites us. Talking about a changing climate in Wyoming, however, can be more difficult. 

But when the conversation moves past politics and policy, residents from all walks of life report changes that concern them. 

This story is part of a WyoFile series examining climate change and what it means for the quality of life in Wyoming. It is supported by the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative’s journalism fellowship program. Read about Wyoming climate trends here, and read about a Wyoming coal community in transition here.

This summer, for example, anglers across the state saw lower streamflows and increasing water temperatures diminish fishing opportunities beginning in July rather than late August. This fall, ranchers faced the difficult decision to reduce herd sizes or pay top-dollar for supplemental hay as they prepared for the winter.

Even some skeptics of human-caused climate change said this summer’s extreme conditions felt like the continuation of dramatic shifts in climate patterns they’ve observed over their lifetimes.

“I can’t say cause and effect,” Campbell County rancher Eric Barlow, who also serves in the state legislature, said. “But I can say that, certainly, [there are] trends that I just don’t quite understand or [they] don’t seem to follow the tradition, you know, from generation to generation.”

WyoFile traveled the state and talked to Wyoming residents about the changes they’re observing on a landscape that they love and depend on, and what those changes might mean to their Wyoming lifestyle.

Changes in agriculture

Crook County rancher Jerett Turnbough hands off the newest member of the next generation to his father-in-law Thayne Gray as he prepares to unload a semi truck of hay on the Warbonnet Ranch Sept. 23, 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Few residents are as attuned to the seasonal and cyclical pulse of Wyoming’s climate than those who raise livestock and grow crops. Their livelihoods and identities — going back generations — are intrinsically tied to how the climate’s rhythms play out on a landscape.

And even with Wyoming’s traditional agricultural challenges  — harsh weather, limited water, poor soils and volatile weather — there are noticeable changes, many say.

60% of Wyoming residents believe global warming is happening

72% of Americans believe global warming is happening

(According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.)

Click here to for an interactive map of national and Wyoming perspectives

Thayne Gray has been reading through records kept by his father and grandfather on the Warbonnet Ranch outside Moorcroft, he said. Since 1985, the family has instituted an intensive rotational grazing program on its collection of moderately high-and-dry pastures with great success. 

Crafted to accommodate the region’s once-typical weather patterns, those practices are, with increasing frequency, not enough to keep up with changing conditions.

In his reading, he said, Gray discovered that the cycles his ancestors recorded don’t reflect those he’s experienced over the past decade or more. Much has changed in his lifetime on the ranch.

“We used to have three to four years of common weather before the cycle would change from a wet cycle to a dry cycle,” Gray said. “Now, you’ll have one of the wettest years — a great wet year — next to the driest the very next year. So, I don’t know what’s causing that, but it’s just something I noticed.”

By September, cattle on the Warbonnet Ranch had already grazed out every summer and winter pasture due to continuing drought conditions made worse by unusually high temperatures. Gray had to pay top-dollar, competing with ranchers across much of the West, for several truckloads of hay to prepare for the winter.

Gray has also noticed what seems to be an emerging snow phenomenon: a warm spell follows a heavy snow. That initiates a thaw, then it freezes tight to the soil, making it almost impossible for cattle to break through the crust for forage.

“I thought it was an anomaly, but it seems to be becoming more consistent with how our winters are coming along,” Gray said.

Campbell County rancher Eric Barlow on his family ranch Sept. 23, 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The Barlow Ranch is bisected by Dead Horse Creek, a tributary to the Powder River, famously described as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” There’s a bit of truth to the aphorism. The river commonly runs dry enough by late August that cattle easily plod across the mucky riverbed without getting stuck.

That opportunity came even earlier this year. 

Record breaking triple-digit temperatures baked the landscape in June when, traditionally, moderate rainfall and cool nights curb the heat. Rancher Eric Barlow, a veterinarian and Republican Speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives, lost seven yak calves that were born in June when temperatures reached 109 degrees Fahrenheit, he said.

“The bum yak calf we have is also a product of that day and the confusion and heat stress the entire herd experienced,” Barlow said.

The cattle, sheep and yak operation relies entirely on artesian springs and drilled wells to water the livestock. On good years, ephemeral creeks are a bonus, Barlow said, providing springtime flows from snowmelt. There are no irrigated pastures, so the operation is entirely dependent on “optimal” precipitation events.

Those optimal events are becoming less common, he said.

“I really do think we’ve seen a change in precipitation patterns,” Barlow said. “Part of the result of that is less reliable forage production year to year, and the timing of the forage.”

Barlow reduced both sheep and cattle numbers this year, he said, and still invested in several truckloads of supplemental feed hay for the upcoming winter.

The changes he’s noticed in his lifetime on the ranch can be summed up as more extremes and less predictability, he said, which makes it difficult to adapt from year to year.

“We do have a hope that, next year, we’ll have whatever normal is,” Barlow said. 

Changes to fisheries

Longtime Wyoming angler, fishing guide and conservationist Jeff Streeter on the Encampment River July 21, 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

When Jeff Streeter began working as a fishing guide on the North Platte River near Saratoga in the 1970s, the river ran full and cold throughout the summer, supporting one of the world’s most sought-after trout fisheries and attracting high-paying anglers.

That hasn’t been the case during the past decade or so, he said.

By mid-July this year, higher-than-average temperatures in the Upper North Platte Valley, combined with years of persistently lower runoff, had already gummed the river with thick moss. The streamflow was so low that fishing guides couldn’t float clients on long stretches of the river, and late-day water temperatures were too warm for trout to survive being caught and released.

“These river systems are stressed when they don’t receive [ample] flows,” Streeter said in July while gearing up for a morning of fishing on the Encampment River, which flows into the North Platte.

Warmer stream temperatures coming earlier in the summer have prompted more frequent “hoot owl restrictions” — regulations designed to improve fish survival by stopping catch-and-release trout fishing in the heat of the afternoon. Anglers must hit the water earlier in the day, if at all, during these conditions.

The result is a diminished trout fishery and a hit to the local economy, which relies heavily on summer tourists drawn to fisheries in the valley, Streeter said.

Wyoming angler Jeff Streeter’s shadow casts over the shallow flow of the Encampment River July 21, 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Irrigators, who still pull what they can from the river, also must cope with the higher temperatures and lower precipitation. Resource conservation works best when fishermen and local ag producers collaborate, and there’s a proven track-record for those types of efforts throughout the state, said Streeter, who worked many years as a Trout Unlimited conservation advocate. But the continuing human and climate pressures in the Upper North Platte Valley threaten to erode that type of cooperation, he said.

While sitting on the Encampment River’s bank, Streeter also lamented changes overhead. More intense wildfire seasons have resulted in smoke-clogged summer skies.

“We should be very cautious not to attribute every change and every weather event to climate change,” Streeter said. “But on the other hand, we should not be able to — in one lifetime — we shouldn’t be able to feel a difference in the climate. And we do. And that’s worrisome to me.”

Changes on the sagebrush landscape

Master falconer Vahé Alaverdian checks his falcon tracking app on Sept. 10, 2021. He considers the sprawling sagebrush landscape in the Upper Green River Basin his sanctuary, and sees the impact of persistent drought conditions everywhere. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Master falconer Vahé Alaverdian moved from Los Angeles to live amongst the sagebrush and vast expanses of public lands south of Pinedale in the Upper Green River Basin.

He loves to hunt greater sage grouse with the aid of a bird dog and falcon — the ultimate sporting challenge, he said. Sage grouse and the wide-open sagebrush basinlands teeming with wildlife also provide the perfect opportunity to train his falcons. His company, Falcon Force, uses trained raptors to control nuisance birds for mostly West-Coast clients that include vineyards, blueberry and cherry growers, theme parks, golf courses and airports.

In addition to its utility, Alaverdian considers the sagebrush landscape a paradise of sorts.

“This is my shrine,” he said early one morning in September while sitting on the tailgate of his pickup in the middle of a sagebrush sea. A falcon perched on one gloved hand.

And the landscape that he loves and depends on is in duress, he said. Alaverdian attributes the changes he sees on the sage-steppe landscape to drought. A persistent lack of moisture results in stunted growth of vegetation and a diminishing bounty of small and large insects, he said. That threatens a cascading effect on wildlife that depend on the sagebrush habitat. Eagles, for example, seem more aggressive for lack of their normal diet of small prey like rabbits.

“My falcons that I’m flying here often fall prey to immature eagles,” Alaverdian said. “And [the eagles are] trying to survive. I can’t blame them. They become a major danger factor for what we do.”

Vahé Alaverdian and Kyna Sturges watch as a falcon ascends into the Wyoming sky during a training session Sept. 10, 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Wyoming’s sagebrush habitat is vital to sage grouse and song birds, as well as pronghorn, mule deer and other game. Persistent warming and drier conditions here can have profound effects on all manner of Wyoming wildlife.

“The drought is just tearing the desert up,” Mike Burd of Green River said. “[Wildlife doesn’t] have the [quality] habitat out there that they used to have. I’ve seen it, and it’s hard to watch.” 

Burd, a retired trona miner, grew up hunting and fishing in Western Wyoming — along the banks of the Green River, high in the Wind River Range and down in the vast basins of the Red Desert. Rivers and streams seem to have less flow earlier in the season, he said, and a lot of animals — birds and ungulates — seem to be struggling.

Mike Burd stands on the bank of the Green River Sept. 8, 2001 in the town of Green River, Wyoming. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“It’s been so gradual, [young people] don’t notice it,” Burd said. “But I’m in my 60s, and I have noticed it.” 

A changing climate threatens Wyoming’s outdoor culture, which is rich with traditions that help bond generations, Burd said. In addition to diminishing fishing and hunting opportunities, it’s small things, too, like campfire bans coming earlier in the summer. Campfires are where friends and family gather to tell stories — one of Burd’s most cherished traditions.

“My kids aren’t going to get to experience the Wyoming that I grew up in, and my grandchildren, surely not,” Burd said. “I hope I’m wrong. I really do hope I’m wrong. But I doubt it.”

Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

Join the Conversation

13 Comments

Want to join the discussion? Fantastic, here are the ground rules: * Provide your full name — no pseudonyms. WyoFile stands behind everything we publish and expects commenters to do the same. * No personal attacks, profanity, discriminatory language or threats. Keep it clean, civil and on topic. *WyoFile does not fact check every comment but, when noticed, submissions containing clear misinformation, demonstrably false statements of fact or links to sites trafficking in such will not be posted. *Individual commenters are limited to three comments per story, including replies.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Good reporting by Dustin.

    Reading the comments, I hope Harold Newbrough is right, but fear that Gene Andrews and Brett Glass more likely have hit the mark.

  2. Although it’s hard sometimes to separate science from politics, we need to study the data coming from scientists. There is no ulterior motive here. Climate has changed and will continue to change has it always has. What is different now is the speed and acceleration at which the chemistry of our atmosphere has changed. Over the last million years CO2 concentrations varied from a low of about 180 ppm to a high of 298 ppm. Up and down like a roller coaster. In the last 150 years we went from 270 ppm to 417 ppm. It’s inevitable to witness some extreme changes associated with yearly increases in greenhouse gases.

  3. I have lived in WY since ’59. Believe it or not, there have been drought cycles in my lifetime that look very similar to what you are describing. Not every drought cycle is an end of the world climate change. And not every climate change is the end of the world.

  4. if only we could have seen this coming .
    funny thing is those that swear the science is a hoax or wrong can never point out what is wrong in it they just do not want to believe thier senses

  5. Here in Laramie, our formerly cool, pleasant summers are oppressively hot and plagued with wildfire smoke. Roads are closed as crews fight the fires, and nearby forests are devastated yearly by fire and pine beetles (which are no longer kept in check by subzero temperatures). Quality of life has absolutely been hurt.

  6. Of course climate change is real. It has been happening for thousands, if not millions, of years. Just one example, the Great Lakes of Minnesota were Great Glaciers at one time. If we had been around at the time they were disappearing we would probably be doing everything we could to prevent it. (Unsuccessfully, I might add.) The question is, how much impact do humans have on the change? And what can humans do to stop or slow the change? And should we? An admonition from a TV commercial from many years ago comes to mind: “Don’t mess with Mother Nature.” In the 1970’s an ice age was predicted. In the 80’s we were all going to die from extreme heat. Now we have changed the terms global warming and global cooling to global climate change, which means it could go either way without the predictors being ostracized. I’m 75 years old, raised in Wyoming, and have spent the great majority of my adult life in Wyoming. I’ve seen many “climate changes” in that time, from extremely wet summers to extremely dry summers, from cold and snowy winters to dry, windy winters. You name it, Wyoming has had it all at one time or another. What can we do to change the weather patterns? Probably nothing, but we can do what we have always done: adapt and survive.

    1. Knowing what I know, I skip articles about global warming. It’s just too stressful to contemplate. The scientific observational blade has been sharpened in the past 40 years and it doesn’t look good.

    2. Good reporting. Real people telling their real stories. May we cultivate great citizenship and problem solving by basing it on the social landscape: human observations and scientific data.

  7. Climate change is real and so is the denial of the majority of wyoming residents supporting a dictator who says climate change is a hoax .Two state representative s in park county don’t even believe in it , they will fund an education system but ignore any science that comes from it. And they are not alone in Cheyenne.

  8. It certainly is apparent to me that the climate is changing in Wyoming. I left for 25 years, and when I returned, it was not the same.

  9. This is an extraordinary article about climate change. It’s real stories that are unvarnished with political drama. Thanks for sharing your skills and insight.