This story first appeared on Cowboy State Daily
By Mark Davis
Drought is affecting most western U.S. states, including Wyoming. The National Drought Mitigation Center says that’s resulting in multiple responses — from changes in regulations to preparations for an early and long fire season.
In Wyoming, the Game and Fish Department is already reacting to dry conditions, proposing to reduce antelope license quotas for the 2021 hunting season. In many hunt areas, the proposals cut the quota due to “impacts from persistent drought conditions in the state,” the department said in a Friday press release. Tough spring blizzards also compounded the problem.
“The license reductions should be short-term, according to wildlife managers who believe the conservative proposals for each herd will stabilize pronghorn populations and allow them to bounce back,” the department said.
Yet, drought conditions are expected to increase across the West this year, reports the National Drought Mitigation Center. Parts of most western states are currently listed in the most severe category of drought — more than at any time in the past 20 years, the center warns.
“Once again this week, much of the West remained dry. Where precipitation did fall — in the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies — it either missed the drought-inflicted areas or wasn’t enough to overcome shortages,” it said. “The only exception was in north-central Wyoming and southern Montana, where last week’s snowfall lessened precipitation deficits and improved streamflow and soil moisture resulting in a one-category improvement to drought.”
The conditions have prompted states to call in firefighters early, expecting a bad fire season due to the hot, dry conditions. The center portion of Wyoming is considered to be in the worst shape. Park County is listed as “abnormally dry” to “moderate drought,” while the southeast corner of the county is listed as “severe drought.”
Further south, northern and western parts of Colorado are experiencing extreme to exceptional drought. Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico are forecast to be hit the hardest, but almost the entire western half of the nation is listed to be experiencing severe drought. Dry weather combined with gusty winds is expected to persist this month, leading to an elevated fire risk.
The 2020 fire season was devastating to many regions of the West, most notably in Colorado and California. Billions of dollars in property and dozens of lives were lost. Here in Wyoming, the Mullen Fire (38 miles west of Laramie) burned nearly 177,000 acres and the Pilgrim Creek 1 Fire (in the Bridger-Teton National Forest) burned about 500 acres. Earlier in the year, the Lone Star Fire in Yellowstone National Park burned 4,123 acres in an area not far from Old Faithful.
According to the National Fire Information Center, 46,535 fires burned more than 8.4 million acres last year. The concern is that fire seasons are growing, said William Matthew Jolly, a research ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station.
“The fire season in parts of the western United States is more than a month longer than it was 35 years ago,” he said in a recent report.
The authors attribute the longer seasons in the western United States to climate changes — including the timing of snowmelt, vapor pressure and the timing of spring rains.
Most basins have lower snow/water equivalents percentages from last year. The Yellowstone Basin is down 26% from 2020 and down 2% from last week. The Shoshone Basin is down 32% from last year and down 9% from last week. Only the Bighorn River Basin showed improvement from last week, increasing by 8%, but still down 17% from last year.
The Cheyenne Basin is currently the driest in the state. While it’s up 25% from last week, from 42% of the median to 67%, it’s down nearly 50% from this time last year. Statewide snowpack/SWE is at 95% of median, said Jim Fahey, Wyoming Natural Resources Conservation Service hydrologist.
“Many basins in Wyoming generally had 5 to 15% increases in snowpack/SWEs from last week,” he said.
Intermittent light snow is expected this week across all mountain ranges in Wyoming.
“The Bighorn Mountains have the best chance for moderate snow amounts early this week,” Fahey said.