2018 Fall Hunting Forecast

Wyoming News September 13, 2018



2018 Fall Hunting Forecast

CASPER. WY. | WGFD     –     Pronghorn (antelope): Throughout the Casper Region, antelope herds are continuing to rebound after substantial winter losses six years ago coupled with three years of very poor fawn production through 2013. Fawn production and survival was excellent in 2014 and has remained above average since, which has led to four consecutive years of herd growth throughout the Casper Region. Hunters will experience noticeably increased antelope densities in most areas. However, antelope numbers remain below management goals in a few areas where they’ve been slower to rebound, particularly in Hunt Area 30.

During the spring and summer of 2017, moderate drought hit most of the Casper Region, and was fairly intense in some areas as precipitation was spotty. In many locations, cool season forage production was nominal with limited warm season production. Overall, range conditions were generally fair to poor going into the 2017-18 winter. The 2017-18 winter has been variable in the Casper Region, with extraordinarily mild winter conditions prevailing throughout the Casper, Douglas and Lusk areas, and more normal winter conditions in northeastern Wyoming. Over-winter survival is projected to be high in most of the Region and near average in northeast Wyoming. The combination of summer drought and mild winter weather has allowed antelope populations to continue to grow in most of the region. These weather conditions have tempered herd growth a bit more in northeast Wyoming, although antelope numbers continue to improve there too.

For 2018, antelope hunting seasons in the Casper Region are designed to increase hunting opportunity in most hunt areas as populations continue to grow. While three of the four Casper Region antelope herds remain under objective, herds are continuing to rebound. In most areas, doe/fawn license numbers were increased for 2018 to temper the rate of growth while still allowing herds to grow toward objective. In addition, most areas now have relatively high buck ratios as fawn production has improved in recent years. This surplus of bucks has led to increased Type 1 license issuance throughout most of the Region. There are a few exceptions where license numbers remained unchanged or were slightly reduced, such as in Hunt Areas 2, 6, 8, 9 and 30. Following drastic reductions in license issuance from 2011 – 2015, drawing odds should continue to improve for most hunt areas as this marks the third consecutive year of increased license issuance, although it will still be tough to draw a tag in some areas. Hunting success should also improve in 2018 as hunters will see noticeably increased antelope numbers compared to recent years. As always, antelope hunters are reminded that asterisked (*) hunt areas have limited public hunting access and are largely comprised of private lands. In these areas, hunters should get permission to hunt private land before applying for a license, or at least recognize that hunting small isolated parcels of public land can be difficult and frustrating at times.

Deer: Throughout the Casper Region, mule deer populations have rebounded over the past four years following long-term gradual decline since the early 2000’s. As with most antelope herds in the Region, mule deer populations experienced record or near record fawn production in 2014 and continued moderate to good fawn production since. Although mule deer populations remain below established management objectives in some herds, they have grown significantly over the past four years. Of the seven defined mule deer herds in the Casper Region, one is now over objective (in the Black Hills), three are at objective, and three remain below. However, even in the three below- objective herds, mule deer numbers have noticeably increased over the past 4 years. While several more years of good fawn production and survival will be necessary to build some populations to objective levels and meet public desires, the outlook for mule deer in the Casper Region is brighter than it has been in a long time.

During the spring and summer of 2017, moderate drought beset most of the Casper Region, and was fairly intense in some areas as precipitation was spotty. In many locations, cool season forage production was nominal with limited warm season production. In general, mule deer were in decent nutritional condition entering the 2017-18 winter as overall range conditions were fair in key mule deer habitats. The 2017-18 winter has been variable in the Casper Region, with extraordinarily mild winter conditions prevailing throughout the Casper, Douglas and Lusk areas, and more normal winter conditions in northeastern Wyoming. Over-winter survival is projected to be high in most of the Region and near average in northeast Wyoming. The combination of summer drought and mild winter weather has allowed mule deer populations to continue to grow in most of the region. The combination of weather conditions and an outbreak of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) in 2017 has tempered herd growth a bit more in the Black Hills, although mule deer numbers remain above objective.

Throughout most of the Casper Region, deer hunters in general license areas should continue to see more mule deer bucks this fall as recruitment of young bucks has remained strong. However, hunting seasons in these areas will remain conservative to allow for maximum population growth, with short season lengths and only harvest of antlered mule deer being permitted. The exception being in the Black Hills, where mule deer numbers have reached management goals for the most part, and mule deer are hunted in November with white-tailed deer. However, hunters are reminded that mule deer densities remain low on accessible public land in the Black Hills, especially on National Forest lands in Hunt Areas 2 and 4. Here, the vast majority of hunting opportunity on National Forest is for white-tailed deer, although some mule deer do occupy these lands. Mule deer hunters in the Douglas and Lusk areas will continue to experience improved hunting and mature buck availability on private lands, but should continue to expect low harvest success on public lands given limited availability, hunter crowding or low mule deer densities. In Hunt Area 66, there will again be no antler point restriction for 2018, although season length will remain short at 7 days. In this area, conservative buck harvest coupled with good fawn surival over the past four years has resulted in improved buck ratios. Here, hunters should continue to see improved success compared to recent years. Doe/fawn license issuance for mule deer has long been eliminated throughout most of the Region outside of the Black Hills. Throughout the Casper Region, nonresident mule deer hunting opportunity was drastically cut over the past 10+ years as mule deer populations declined. Nonresident quotas for Regions B, D, and J saw reductions of 76% between 2004 and 2015. This trend is now reversing itself, as Region A license issuance will remain high in 2018 while Region B license issuance was modestly increased for the second consecutive year. Region D and J license issuance remained unchanged for 2018.

All four limited quota deer hunt areas in the Casper Region will see increased license issuance as recruitment of bucks has been good to excellent since 2014. These areas are managed for high mature buck ratios and harvest success, and can now provide increased hunting opportunity has deer numbers continue to improve. A modest increase in Type 1 (antlered deer) license issuance will occur in both Hunt Areas 34 and 89 west of Casper, where there should be a strong age class of 4-year old deer available this fall. These two areas have long been managed very conservatively to provide good mature buck hunting opportunity even in past years when mule deer populations were depressed. However, despite an uptick in license issuance, drawing odds for both Hunt Areas 34 and 89 Type 1 licenses will remain low given their popularity. License issuance was also increased in Hunt Area 22, although hunters are reminded this area has limited public access for mule deer hunting. In Hunt Area 10, which is largely comprised of the Thunder Basin National Grasslands, there was a slight increase in Type 1 license numbers as more bucks are becoming available, although overall buck numbers and deer densities remain well below desired levels.

Outside of the Black Hills, white-tailed deer numbers are also increasing following a few years of relatively low densities. As with mule deer and antelope, favorable weather conditions have provided for improved fawn production, leading to modest population growth in some areas and dramatic growth in others. When conditions are optimal, white-tailed deer are capable of high reproductive rates leading to rapid growth. As a result, more licenses valid for white-tailed deer only (Type 3 & 8) are being issued for the Casper and Douglas areas (Hunt Areas 22, 65, 66 & 88). For the most part, Type 3 and 8 license issuance will not change in the Cheyenne River drainage (Hunt Areas 11-14) where white-tailed deer can be hunted concurrently with a general / Region B license. However, hunters should note that Hunt Area 10 was split out from Areas 11- 14, and now has its own set of Type 3 and 8 licenses. In addition, new Type 3 and 8 licenses were developed for Hunt Areas 7, 8 and 9 to take advantage of emerging opportunities to hunt white- tailed deer there. Hunters are reminded that, outside of the Black Hills (Hunt Areas 2 & 4), white- tailed deer primarily occupy private lands along creek bottoms and irrigated meadows, and that permission should be obtained to hunt private land before purchasing a white-tailed deer license for most of these areas.

In the Black Hills, where the State’s largest concentration of white-tailed deer occur on public lands, the population increased substantially since 2013 and remains at high levels. Despite an outbreak of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) in the summer of 2017 coupled with average 2017-18 winter conditions (compared to mild winter conditions in the rest of the Region), there will again be excellent hunting opportunity for white-tailed deer considering the recent rapid population growth. Local managers are hoping to reduce this white-tailed deer herd slightly from current levels, and will thus maintain relatively high Region A and doe/fawn license issuance. Continued high white-tailed deer densities should provide good hunting quality and harvest success for Black Hills deer hunters on both public and private lands. Hunters should note that in Hunt Areas 1-3, all doe/fawn licenses were converted to Type 7, meaning does or fawns of both species can be harvested. However, hunters are again reminded that doe/fawn harvest is restricted to private lands in the Black Hills. Maintaining liberal nonresident opportunity in the Black Hills is especially important for attaining desired doe harvest, as nonresidents holding Region A licenses typically harvest the majority of doe white-tailed deer on private lands in this part of the state.

Elk: Elk numbers remain at or above objective levels in all herds in the Casper Region. Elk season recommendations therefore continue to be extremely liberal in terms of season length and license issuance. In recent years, elk harvest has approached or exceeded record levels in many Casper Region herds. The Casper Region continues to provide excellent bull elk hunting opportunities, with many areas reporting strong harvest success on any-elk licenses and good mature bull antler quality in recent years. Antlerless elk hunter success continues to be good in most of the Region, although high hunter densities on public lands often result in reduced hunter success in the early fall.

In the Laramie Peak/Muddy Mountain elk herd (Hunt Areas 7 & 19), overall elk harvest continues to be excellent as cooperation with landowners has resulted in good hunter access for cow elk on private lands along with expanding Walk-In-Area and Hunter Management Area opportunities. Elk hunting in the Laramie Range should continue to be good this coming fall, although hunter success on public lands during October and November rifle seasons has diminished in recent years as many elk tend to congregate on private lands with restricted hunting access. Availability of elk on public lands during September archery seasons continues to be excellent. Antlerless elk seasons will again run through January in both Areas 7 and 19.

Antlerless hunting opportunities will extend through mid-December in Hunt Areas 23 and 120 until the end of December in Hunt Area 122. Overall, elk harvest success in Hunt Area 23 continues to be limited as the vast majority of elk tend to congregate on one large ranch with little to no hunting pressure. Over the course of the season, elk do occasionally leave this property and become available on adjacent public lands, or can be found in small groups in other portions of the hunt area. This results in moderate elk harvest over the course of a long season, although hunters typically expend more effort per animal here than in other hunt areas within the Casper Region.

Elk hunting in the Black Hills continues to be a mixed bag. Hunters with access to private lands, where the majority of elk occur, have been doing well while public land hunters in Hunt Area 116 have had little success. The general license season in Area 116 was designed to increase elk harvest on private lands while allowing for some opportunistic elk harvest on National Forest, where elk numbers are low. Elk densities on the Bearlodge portion of the Black Hills National Forest have always been low during the fall as hunting pressure and human activity quickly displaces them to private lands. Expectations of harvesting an elk on National Forest in Area 116 should therefore be tempered. License quotas for Hunt Area 1 will remain relatively low as overall harvest success has been lower than desired in recent years. Finally, in Hunt Area 117, some increased opportunity for antlerless elk harvest should again be provided for early and late season hunters on select private lands to reduce elk damage. Here, hunters should note that all cow/calf license types were combined into one Type 7 license to simplify regulations. Overall, season recommendations for 2018 will continue to emphasize female elk harvest throughout the Casper Region, while also providing good mature bull hunting in most areas. Those hunters willing to expend the effort should continue to enjoy remarkable numbers of elk and good success if the weather cooperates.

Bighorn Sheep: Bighorn Sheep Hunt Area 20 encompasses the Wyoming portion of the South Dakota/Wyoming interstate Elk Mountain Bighorn Sheep Herd. Between 2009 and 2013, one sheep license was issued each year on the Wyoming side while two licenses were issued each year from 2014-2017. For 2018, three any-ram licenses will be issued for Hunt Area 20, marking the highest number of licenses issued within this relatively new herd. Since inception of a hunting season in Area 20, hunters have experienced 100% success, with most hunters harvesting very nice rams. In fact, most harvested rams from Area 20 have met minimum Boone and Crockett scoring requirements. Given hunter success over the past decade, good sheep distribution on public lands, and a very high mature trophy-class ram ratio, those lucky enough to draw a license should have a chance to harvest a nice mature ram.

Upland Game Birds and Small Game: Sage-grouse numbers increased significantly in the Casper area over the past four years as they were on the upswing within their population cycle. Following a year of relatively poor chick production, sage-grouse numbers have declined somewhat over the past year, but are still high enough to provide good hunting opportunity in most areas around Casper. Sage-grouse populations in northeast Wyoming are relatively small and isolated, with very conservative hunting seasons in place in some counties while other areas remain closed. Blue (dusky) grouse numbers in the Laramie Range were fair last year following a few years of good numbers. Hunters should expect to see a mixed bag, with some localized areas having good numbers with others having low densities. Hungarian partridge numbers declined in the Casper area in recent years, and hunters should not expect to see high numbers in 2018 either. As a general rule, upland game bird hunters should not expect to see high densities of “huns” in this part of the state as much of the Casper Region is not considered to be good Hungarian partridge habitat. The Black Hills will continue to provide modest hunting opportunity for ruffed grouse on National Forest, although this can be highly variable from year to year. Hunters willing to work hard and hunt aspen and birch dominated areas should be able to find a few “ruffies” for the table.

After several years of almost unfettered growth resulting in a recent peak in their population cycle, cottontail rabbit populations have declined in much of the Casper Region. Regardless, modest cottontail densities will continue to provide excellent hunting opportunity throughout the Casper Region. While small game hunters may have to work just a bit harder, cottontail hunting should remain fair during the 2018-2019 season unless wide-spread die-offs stemming from disease (i.e. tularemia) occur this coming summer. New for this year, small game hunters will be able to hunt through the end of March across the state.

Wild Turkey: Following the severe winter of 2010-2011 and consecutive years of below-average poult production, wild turkey numbers and harvest declined considerably in the Black Hills (Hunt Area
1) through 2013. However, poult survival improved in three of the past four years resulting in increasing turkey numbers as of late. Spring gobbler harvest improved noticeably in 2017, with the highest harvest recorded since 2011. Given improved turkey production and decent over- winter survival, turkey hunters should expect to see even more birds during the 2018 spring and fall seasons. Given the majority of spring harvest is comprised of 2-year old toms, hunters should notice an uptick in spring gobbler numbers this year, but overall wild turkey numbers in the Black Hills remain below those of the late 2000’s. As such, the Department has again recommended a general license, one-tom bag limit through at least the spring of 2019. Based on public input acquired through an extensive survey conducted in the fall of 2011, and results from a gobbler mortality study, Type 3 licenses will only be issued in Hunt Area 1 in years when turkey numbers are strong, and will be discontinued in years when bird numbers are depressed.

In the remainder of the Casper Region, wild turkey densities remain relatively low compared to past population peaks, and most of these birds are found on private land. Turkey populations have noticeably increased over the last three years in the Douglas and Lusk areas, and can provide some good hunting opportunity in the Laramie Range and on private land along cottonwood bottoms in the Cheyenne River drainage.

Migratory Game Birds: Wyoming’s spring weather was considered to be normal and contributed to local breeding conditions within the state being ranked as good. Re-nesting efforts by mallards and other species which failed their first attempt at nesting was likely also good due to favorable conditions. Hunters can expect better than average local populations of ducks across the state. Migration chronology and weather, as well as the efforts of scouting for birds and obtaining permission to hunt private land when necessary, will ultimately influence the success of migratory bird hunters throughout the state.

Ducks – The annual May breeding survey was again conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2018. This year’s results produced high numbers of breeding ducks across the survey area. Wetland conditions were similar or had improved across the survey area from last year. Overall, production and the fall flight are expected to be similar to last year.

Dark Geese – Canada geese harvested in the state come from two populations. The Rocky Mountain Population (RMP) which can be found west of the Continental Divide, in the Wind River and Bighorn River Basins, as well as in western Carbon and Natrona counties. The RMP population increased again in 2018 and is at a all-time high. Large geese found in eastern Wyoming belong to the Hi-Line Population (HLP). The HLP also increased in 2018 and the population is at the third highest level ever recorded. Generally, Canada goose numbers across the state will be good to great.

Mourning Doves – Call-count data show mourning dove numbers have increased slightly in Wyoming over the last 10 years. Production within the state in 2018 was very good to excellent. The majority of doves will migrate out of the state with the first cold snap, which usually occurs between late-August and mid-September. However, doves from northern areas migrate through the state in mid-September and good hunting can still be found after the first few days of the season.

Sandhill Cranes – Cranes which migrate through eastern Wyoming (Crane Hunt Area 7) are primarily from the Mid- Continent Population, which has been relatively stable since the early 1980s and exceeds the established objective range of 349,000–472,000. Cranes which breed and stage in central and western Wyoming (Hunt Areas 1-6, and 8) are from the Rocky Mountain Population. The fall pre- migration survey in 2017 counted 19,592 cranes which was slightly below the 2016 count but within the population objective of 17,000-21,000 cranes. However, the 3-year average used to determine harvest allocation decreased, resulting in a reduction of 50 permits available for Wyoming in 2018. Cranes in Areas 4 and 6 roost and feed in the same general locations every year. Roost locations in Hunt Area 4 are Hidden Valley, Riverview Valley, and the south side of Ocean Lake. Roost locations in Hunt Area 6 are located north of Worland, the Otto area, from Powell to Ralston, and Ralston Reservoir. For best success, scout for cranes prior to the season and obtain permission to access the fields they are using.

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