2016 Hunting Forecast – Game and Fish

Wyoming Game and Fish Department

2016 Wyoming Hunting Forecast

When you’ve got the smallest human population of any state in the Union on the ninth largest land area, the hunting forecast is always a pretty dang good one. But a variety of other factors: namely a hot, dry summer inflicting a very active fire season, drawing a good license and favorable weather, enter in to make the trip complete.

At best, hopefully the weather complications are just a dry, noisy forest. But if it stays hot and dry, it could also include fire bans and potentially portions of hunt areas inflicted by forest fires closed to access. Unless Wyoming would be the beneficiary of some serious, widespread August precipitation, hunters are encouraged to check on possible restrictions including InciWeb, the federal fire website at http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/.

Enough for disclaimers.

Pronghorn pronghorn-herd

Wyoming has hunting worthy of championing under any circumstances and pronghorn is often considered our trademark. It is pretty easy to forecast, too, with Game and Fish officials across the state agreeing, “If you drew a license you should have a good hunt.”  With more pronghorn than the rest of the continent combined, tremendous hunting is anticipated. Unlike deer and elk, there are no general pronghorn licenses – just a specific number of licenses to meet management goals for each hunt area.

The public domain of southwest and central Wyoming still hosts the state’s most sought-after pronghorn licenses, just not nearly as many as 20 years ago. In addition to the public land, fewer licenses make the hunt even more of prize, report Mark Zornes and Daryl Lutz, wildlife management coordinators or head wildlife biologists in Green River and Lander.

Hunter management areas, particularly between Medicine Bow and Laramie, have bolstered public access. HMAs are department-leased ranches, where the Game and Fish oversees hunting and permission in accordance with landowner wishes.

As is the history of pronghorn hunting success in the Cowboy State, unsuccessful hunters are those who didn’t find a buck that met their standards or could not connect with their shots. Weather seldom plays a limiting factor in pronghorn hunting. Occasionally a rain will make roads impassible for a day or two. On even rarer occasions, a snow can make pronghorn hard to spot. Mid-day hot weather (the increasing norm) can bed animals down and make them harder to locate. The heat can impair pronghorn table quality, too. In warm weather, hunters are urged to treat their pronghorn carcass as they would a game bird carcass. Put ice in the body cavity to quickly cool it or butcher it down to pieces small enough to fit in coolers.

As in most years, leftover pronghorn licenses remain in northeast Wyoming. But Lynn Jahnke, wildlife management coordinator in Sheridan, cautions interested hunters to have permission to hunt before buying the license. Public land is scarce in most of northeast Wyoming and obtaining private access can be challenging, particularly at this juncture in the year.

Wyoming benefited from excellent pronghorn fawn recruitment in 2014 and 2015 which will hopefully bolster quotas in upcoming years. But due to the hot, dry summer, 2016 will fall short of “excellent” Just how short, remains yet to be seen. Spring moisture that contributed to good fawn recruitment should also prompt to excellent horn growth this season in most of the state.  The exception could be Crook and Weston counties which did not benefit from as much May moisture. Newcastle Wildlife Biologist Joe Sandrini still predicts good hunter success provided the hot, dry weather does not lead to any disease outbreaks.

Likewise, West Casper Wildlife Biologist Heather O’Brien, is predicting a great hunt northwest of Casper in area 73. She said the population there is poised “to really take off,” unless the dry conditions lead to disease problems this summer and fall.

Deer mule-deer-winter

Improved fawn recruitment is helping break the trend of depressed mule deer hunting forecasts. Now we’re not saying the mule deer decline throughout the Rockies has turned the corner, but we are confident in saying hunting prospects are overall improved for 2016.

In addition to the fawn recruitment increasing hunter’s chances of seeing young bucks, three years good overwinter survival in the Jackson area is helping hunters’ prospects of seeing mature bucks in the Jackson, Alpine and Pinedale areas, reports Doug Brimeyer, wildlife management coordinator in Jackson. He adds our spring moisture is contributing to “excellent antler growth, too.” Those same factors should spell an uptick in mule deer prospects in the southern Wind River Mountains and Green Mountain, Lutz reports.

The west side of the Bighorn Mountains have benefited from the upswing in fawn production, too, and mule deer hunting should be notably improved, says Tim Woolley, wildlife management coordinator in Cody. But, he says, the Owl Creek and Absorka mountains have not experienced as significant a rebound.

Mule deer in very southern Wyoming from Savery to Mountain View did suffer winter mortality to varying degrees. Judging from an ongoing trapping and radio-collaring study in the Baggs area, wildlife biologist Tony Mong estimates about 10 percent of the bucks succumbed to the winter. But the famed hunt area 82 “still should be in pretty good shape, but less than terrific,” he says, adding deer are particularly widely distributed this summer due to forage abundance. Mong also alerts households with young hunters, that youth only can hunt two days longer than adults (Oct. 13-14).

Over the Continental Divide to the east in the Upper North Platte Valley, wildlife biologist Will Schultz reports, “Deer hunting prospects look bright for those lucky enough to draw.” Hunt areas 78-81, 83 and 161 are in their fourth year of being limited quota seasons, instead of general seasons. The Shirley Mountains, hunt area 70, continues as a general season area but has just a 1-week season with three-point or better antler restriction as it “still recovers from the 2010-11 winter,” Schultz says.

The November seasons of the Black Hills draw statewide attention because of the attraction of public land whitetail hunting and the last general deer license seasons in the state.

Since both mule deer and whitetail populations in the Black Hills hit a 10-year low in 2012, numbers have been improving. “Solid gains have been make the past two years as fawn production and survival in 2014 and 2015 were some of the best on record,” Sandrini said. “Deer hunting in the Black Hills will be a mixed bag this fall. While hunting, you should not take Tadalafil because of its action. Deer are up substantially in many areas, but it’s a younger herd and older bucks are a small percentage of what’s out there, plus there are some areas, like the southern hills near Newcastle, where the deer have not come back as strong.”

He also cautions that due to the dry, hot summer, conditions in early August point to the potential of outbreaks of epizootic hemorrhagic disease or EHD and blue tongue. “But at this point (early August) we are not too worried given the strong numbers we have,” he said.

Elk DSC04907

Let’s visit some of Wyoming’s prospects. Commonly known as “Laramie Peak,” hunt area 7 stretching from Sybille Canyon to Glenrock should be offering the product of plentiful elk, high success and mature bulls that’s made it a very sought after hunt area. In the actual Laramie Peak area, Wheatland wildlife biologist Martin Hicks reports the elk are getting a boost from aspen rejuvenation following the 2010 and 2012 fires.

Just to the west, Schultz is also predicting good hunting for those fortunate to draw licenses in the Shirley Mountains, hunt area 16. On the west slope of the Sierra Madres, Mong wants to alert adult general license hunters the first week of the season, Oct. 15-21, will be antlered elk only. Mong says the change from any elk was enacted in hunt area 21, the hunt area that produces more elk harvest than any other in Wyoming, because of the extra hunting pressure a Saturday opener produces and the antlerless harvest achieved the last several years. Elk area 21 also offers a special early youth season: Oct. 13-14 for antlerless elk.

Zornes alerts hunters that a concerted effort for several years to get the elk population down to objective in the south end of the Wyoming Range has been successful. Hunters will generally be seeing fewer elk, but a number more fitting with the habitat available. He says the limited quota areas of southwest Wyoming will offer their usual high quality hunts, including increased antlerless opportunity in the famed “Steamboat Mountain,” the desert area north of I-80 from Wamsutter to the Green River.

Brimeyer is anticipating a “very good season for high-quality bulls,” particularly if the weather cooperates in the Jackson, Afton and Pinedale areas. With the highest grizzly bear population in many years, both he and Woolley caution hunters, particularly archers, to “be very bear aware afield.” They also alert hunters that wolves will sometimes displace elk in western Wyoming and hunters may need to check out adjacent drainages if elk are not present where they have been found in the past.

All elk herds surrounding the Bighorn Basin, with the exception of the Crandall/Sunlight herd, are above objective. That includes the northern Bighorn Mountains, where an extensive elk movement study is underway. Hunters spotting elk with collars are urged to report the location to the Game and Fish.

O’Brien reports the hunt areas west of Casper, particularly Muddy Mountain, area 19, are supporting robust elk populations and should offer high hunter success again this year.

From Dubois to Rawlins, Lutz reports, “The elk forecast hasn’t changed a bit the last several years: There’s lots of opportunity, especially with a little weather.” Can pretty much apply that perspective to almost all the Cowboy State.

For some elk and deer hunters, the 2016 forest fires by be a short-term annoyance from restricting access to impairing glassing for game. But in the long-run, these fires will significantly improve habitat for both species and other wildlife, too, report the coordinators and biologists.

Bighorn sheep and moose moose

Those hunters diligently investing in preference points for years or literally winning the lottery by drawing a bighorn sheep or moose license in the random drawing should continue to experience Wyoming’s famous high harvest success.

Moose licenses continue to decline in the northwest part of the state, so hunters may be investing more time to find their animal. Plan to invest even more time, wherever the hunt, if the weather is hot. Big black animals prefer to be in the shade when warm. Look for the biggest racks to come out of the Snowy Range and possibly the east slope of the Bighorn Mountains.

Bighorn sheep hunt areas 1-5 on the east side of Yellowstone National Park provide about 80 percent of Wyoming’s annual ram harvest and hunting is expected to be excellent again this year. Area 5 west of Meeteetse appears to be bouncing back after a population drop four years ago that was probably disease related. Area 7 near Jackson is also experiencing healthy recruitment. The eight license holders in the famed Whiskey Mountain (area 10) south of Dubois had the option to defer their license to 2017 because of the Lava Mountain Fire. Given the status of the Lava Mountain fire in early August, Lutz believes those hunters who didn’t defer will have a great experience.

Bison bison1

Wyoming’s bison hunt north of Jackson has grown to 295 licenses, nearly 100 more tags than bighorn sheep, and with a long season running Aug. 15 to Jan. 31 has become an increasingly popular activity.

Brimeyer says trimming bull licenses back last year to 45 tags appears to be improving trophy quality. Cow/calf hunters are cautioned to be patient and diligent awaiting those larger herds to work their way into open hunting areas during the season.

Sage Grouse

Sage grouse surveys on their spring breeding areas or leks in Wyoming were nearly 20 percent higher in 2016 than 2015, reports Sage Grouse Coordinator Tom Christiansen. And 2015 was 66 percent higher than 2014.  Better yet, the wet spring provided good brood-rearing conditions in most of the state.  This is good news for grouse hunters this fall.  In general, moist spring conditions lead to good plant and insect production which results in higher nest success and chick survival. Mid-summer reports from the field suggest good numbers of successful hens with chicks so hunting should be at least on par with 2015 from the statewide perspective. Hunters may see local variation, including west of Saratoga where researchers report relatively low nesting success this year.

While regulated hunting has not been demonstrated to be a threat to population sustainability, sage grouse are currently a species of intense management concern so hunting seasons are set very conservatively with a short season and small bag limits. Additionally, sage grouse hunting is self-regulatory in that hunters tend to hunt less and harvest fewer birds when populations are depressed.

Photo courtesy of Mark Gocke.Other Upland Game Birds

In Wyoming’s prime chukar and Hungarian partridge range of the Bighorn Basin, there was a healthy carry-over of birds but brood production this summer faces some challenges.

“Both Huns and chukars seemed to have pulled off somewhat of a hatch this year,” reports Bart Kroger, wildlife biologist in Worland. “I haven’t seen bunches and bunches of broods, but have seen several of each species, with about four to six chicks per brood.”

He adds the Basin is really dry, which is probably not helping much. “My prediction is we will have fair to good numbers of both Huns and chukars, at least enough to make it worthwhile for most hunters,” he said.

Lutz is expecting another year of good partridge hunting in the rough country in the Lander and Riverton areas, too.

Hicks reports an increase in sharp-tailed grouse on leks in southeast Wyoming. That combined with good nesting conditions should add up to more birds to hunt this season. He says it should be a similar outlook for wild pheasants in Goshen County, with crow counts up slightly combined with the good nesting cover.

Hunting for stocked pheasants should be as good or better than last year. Production is excellent at both the Sheridan and Downar bird farms and the Game and Fish expects to  stock at least 30,000 pheasants this hunting season.

The Game and Fish is always hopeful for mountain grouse (blue and ruffed) production, but you never know how it is going to end up. The nesting cover should be good, but hatching success is often variable due to storms. Some scattered reports from western mountains lend a little optimism for that part of the state.

Migratory Game Birds

High numbers of breeding ducks were reported in western portion of the Central Flyway in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s May Breeding Survey. “However, wetland conditions are considerably drier in many areas this year, so production is expected to be lower than it has in recent years,” says Nate Huck, migratory bird biologist.”That said, a similar fall flight is expected.”

He adds Wyoming hosted good conditions for duck nesting, but continued May moisture may have flooded some nests.  Ducks

Production for both Canada goose flocks migrating through Wyoming – the Rocky Mountain Population from western Carbon and Natrona counties west and generally the Hi-Line Population from Casper east – was above average and an increased fall flight is expected.

“Production is certainly important, but the most important factor for a successful duck and goose season is weather,” Huck says. “You need enough weather to get the birds past the Yellowstone River in Montana, but not so much they bypass Wyoming.”

Surveys show mourning doves have increased slightly in Wyoming over the past 10 years, Huck reports. Production appears to be near average for 2016. “Increased precipitation should have improved water availability as well as seed production, which may improve hunting,” he says. “But the majority of doves migrate out of the state with the first cold snap, which usually occurs between late-August and mid-September.”


From all indications (including, unfortunately, the number killed on roads) this should be another excellent year of cottontail hunting. It will be hard to match last year’s epic population in much of the state, but still enjoy it when you can. Hunters are advised to wear rubber gloves when cleaning the animals, particularly prior to cold weather, with tularemia being diagnosed in several areas of the state.