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  • Wyoming Outdoor News

    Location: Wyoming

    Wyoming shares something in common with most western states...we are a dry place. Much of the state receives an annual rainfall of less than 8 inches a year. The actual rain measurements vary quite a bit, depending on the geography and location in the state. Moisture typically ranges from 5 to 8 inches in the lower portion of the Bighorn Basin, and to maybe 40 inches in a few of the mountainous areas. The northeast part of the state will average 12-16 inches, while the southwest rains and snows will only add up to 7-10 inches in an average year.

    So, why bring all this up? It's not only livestock and crops that run on water, but fish and wildlife as well. When your rains only total around 10 inches or less a year, every flake and every raindrop is important.

    The winter of 2007-08 was a good one from the standpoint of moisture when all things are considered for fish and wildlife. There was some winterkill in a few areas with the heavier snow pack. But, that was largely because coming off a drought year, there was not the quality and quantity of forage available and many animals went into the winter in less than ideal shape. On the positive side, in many places of the state, the rains and snows provided the boost the parched habitat needed to add new growth. A number of the state's lakes reservoirs also received the welcome rejuvenation that was so sorely needed. But while much appreciated, one good year does not complete a recovery from drought situations. Grasses often flourish after a good, wet year, which is good for grazers like elk, but for browse dependent animals like deer, it may take several wet years in a row for drought stricken shrubbery to respond with the new leader growth so essential for the well-being of the herds.

    To be of maximum value to animals like deer and antelope, the moisture needs to be in the lowlands where the animals winter rather than the high mountains. While mountain snowpack is extremely beneficial for water storage, if the snows and rains skirt the foothills and prairies, it is of limited benefit to big game populations. Likewise, moisture is needed in the sagebrush deserts and flatlands. Two or three wet years in a row in these locales can do wonders for production of sagebrush so vital to many species.

    The need for moisture does not stop with big game. Birds are also highly dependent on getting the wet stuff at the appropriate times. Ideally, if there is good moisture in the spring, the birds go into their mating season with more lush vegetation for nesting. Better nesting conditions mean the birds have better cover to help avoid predation situations and it is of immense help for improving the forage of the birds. Wet weather and improved vegetation contribute to production of insects, which is an important food source for broods of upland game species. Survival of chicks is much better when the birds have a virtual smorgasbord of soft-bodied insects for nourishment. Cold, wet weather can also have a downside for birds if it occurs at the height of the nesting period as the unseasonable conditions can have an effect on overall nesting success.

    But, to restate the obvious, wet years have several major benefits for the herds. Not only is the forage produced more plentiful, it is also more nutritious. This translates into better fat reserves, and in short, healthier animals. Animals in good condition are much more likely to survive the perils of winter, and when the winter finally does release its grip the females respond with more young. After a doe deer or antelope has its initial pregnancy, twins are the rule. Although fawns may begin to take solid food at 15-20 days they can survive without nursing at about 90 days of age. If the habitat is in good shape, the likelihood of the doe being able to provide sustenance to twin fawns through this critical period is greatly increased. If the doe is not in good shape the odds are that only one or sometimes no fawns will survive.

    Some of the greatest mortality occurs during winter months with young-of-the-year animals. Good habitat means the animals will go into the winter in better condition and their chances of making it through this critical period is greatly increased.

    As we get into these next few months, the moisture received during these traditional wet months is critical to the habitat and in turn, the overall well being of the herds. If March and April are dry the boost the habitat received from the moisture last winter and spring could be short lived. But with a good dose of ideal weather, the improvements will be noticeable. Next month we'll examine the drought and moisture situation and from a fisheries perspective.

    News Source: Wyoming DGF - Apr. 06, 2009

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