Drought in the Rockies, Plains Taking Toll on Fish and Wildlife


Colorado’s Blue River. Photo by Lew Carpenter
The drought persists in the Rocky Mountain West and it’s not just the ski slopes that look rough.

Fish and wildlife are feeling the effects:

  • Sagebrush and other plants that pronghorns and mule deer depend on in the winter are in bad shape in spots.
  • Water levels in some reservoirs and streams are low following a dry spring and record heat this summer. Nearly all the fish in a northeastern Colorado reservoir died in September after strong winds churning the water further depleted the already low oxygen levels.
  • A drop in the number of pheasants on Colorado’s eastern plains has resulted in one of the worst-ever hunting seasons.
  • White-tail deer in South Dakota have been hit hard by a disease that causes extensive internal hemorrhaging. Biologists say there are more cases of epizootic hemorrhagic disease during droughts because the midge fly, which spreads it, and deer are concentrated at water sources. South Dakota has offered hunters refunds on their licenses because of the outbreak.
  • In Wyoming, hunters have reported seeing pronghorns so thin that their ribs are visible.

“In a lot of areas, we haven’t had any growth, no forage production at all,” Jason Hunter,  a wildlife supervisor with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, told the Casper Star-Tribune.

The vegetation isn’t much better in Colorado, but state wildlife biologists say the mule deer, pronghorns and elk appear to be in good condition. “For now in Colorado, other than localized issues, we’re not seeing big-game problems,” state Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said.

The drought-damaged forage is a concern, Hampton added, but the unseasonably dry, warm weather has actually eased the problem a bit. The warmer weather has allowed the animals to stay at higher elevations longer so the lower-elevation range, where the forage is in sub-par condition, isn’t being grazed as much as it normally would be.

“It’s not optimal. If the cycle continues on this path and we end up with a prolonged drought, that’s where we get much more worried about range damage.”

Pheasant on the plains
The drought is having more immediate effects on the state’s fishery. Anglers were asked to avoid fishing on some rivers during the summer and to monitor water temperatures because low flows and sizzling temperatures were endangering the fish.

No one knows how long it will take for the Cache la Poudre River in northern Colorado to recover from the sediment and other contaminants eroding from mountain slopes left barren by an 87,000-acre wildfire in June. The fallout from a 2002 wildfire killed about 70 percent of the adult fish along the South Platte River after storms swept mud and debris into the river.

“Only now can we say the Platte’s back to where it had been in the past,” Hampton said.

Little relief in sight

Near-term forecasts don’t promise much relief in the Rockies. Dry, warm weather remains on the horizon as the U.S. is on track for its warmest year ever, heightening concerns about climate change.

John Ellenberger has lived for more than two decades in western Colorado. He knows the countryside well from his work as a game warden and later the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s big game manager. He remembers the droughts of the late ‘70s, late ‘90s and 2002-2003.

“This one is shaping up to be as bad or worse than any of them,” Ellenberger said.

The Grand Junction area, where Ellenberger lives, averages only about 8.5 inches of moisture annually. The high-desert landscape has received a scant 3.25 inches so far this year.

Fellow hunters and state wildlife officers agree the deer, elk and pronghorns don’t seem to have been affected by the drought to this point, Ellenberger said. However, he worries about what lies ahead.

“If you don’t have the forage production in the fall on the winter ranges for these animals, the females can’t support themselves and a developing fetus,” he said. “I think you definitely could see decreases in reproduction and survival of young.”