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Wyoming hunters skip this season to let deer bounce back from last winter

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Wyoming is home to very few people but lots and lots of wildlife, the world's largest herds of mule deer and pronghorn antelope. And hunting for those big game animals is hugely important culturally and economically there. But Wyoming Public Radio's Caitlin Tan reports that this year a lot of people are choosing not to hunt.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's right.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right, April. (Inaudible)...

CAITLIN TAN, BYLINE: April Stansell works at the Daniel Junction, a little gas station in western Wyoming that sells the essentials - beer, ice cream, fried chicken and hunting supplies. Stansell is an avid hunter herself.

APRIL STANSELL: This was 2020. He was just a small one but was my very first deer ever.

TAN: She shows a picture of a small mule deer buck she shot in the nearby Wyoming range.

STANSELL: I did it all by myself. My husband came up and literally just picked it up, and we took it home. And then me and my dad butchered it.

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TAN: Stansell looks forward to hunting every fall, spending time by herself in the mountains amongst the wildlife. It's recreational but also how many families feed themselves. Just last year more than 70,000 people hunted mule deer and pronghorn in Wyoming. But this year many are choosing not to, like Stansell.

STANSELL: I just feel like it was a good decision to just give the animals a break, not push them too hard 'cause they already had a bad winter.

TAN: Last winter was one of the coldest and snowiest on record in Wyoming. We're talking multiple weeks of 40-below temperatures. This nearly wiped out two of the world's largest herds of mule deer and pronghorn. About 40,000 died, down from about 70,000. Stansell says the death toll was so brutal she might not hunt for several years, and she's not alone.

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ZACHARY KEY: OK. Here we are.

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TAN: In a recent Facebook livestream, Zachary Key greets 4,000 viewers. A lifelong Wyoming resident, he lives and breathes hunting, so what he does next with his hunting license is unusual.

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KEY: I'm going to put it right here, right in the shredder, and that's the commitment we're making to the wildlife this year.

TAN: That license he just shredded would have allowed him to hunt the herds that were devastated. Key started a campaign this year to get people to forego mule deer hunting. He asked them to send him their licenses in exchange for a chance to win prizes sponsored by local businesses, like a brand-new ATV or a whole beef.

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KEY: We'll do a little tumble.

TAN: Key churns a big container of raffle tickets and picks one.

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KEY: Here goes No. 1.

(SOUNDBITE OF TICKETS SHIFTING)

KEY: Scott Lewis of La Barge, Wyo., of all places.

TAN: Over a thousand people put in, which means over a thousand people not mule deer hunting in Wyoming this year. But the state is already trying to address the death toll. In the hardest-hit locations, no licenses for females will be issued, meaning up to 75% fewer hunting licenses in some places. But males, or bucks, can be hunted because fewer of them are required to repopulate herds. University of Wyoming wildlife professor Kevin Monteith says with these changes...

KEVIN MONTEITH: Hunting will virtually in no way limit recovery of those populations.

TAN: Monteith says he thinks the herds will recover, but it'll likely take generations for them to once again be the world's largest.

MONTEITH: Right now, they don't hold that No. 1 spot anymore. The level of loss associated with this winter is nearly unprecedented, like catastrophic-level loss.

TAN: He says what will affect their recovery the soonest is the severity of the upcoming winter but not necessarily hunting this fall. For NPR News, I'm Caitlin Tan in Pinedale, Wyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Caitlin Tan