Wyoming residents observe a changing climate and quality of life

This story by ESI Journalism Fellow Dustin Bleizeffer was originally published in WyoFile, where it appears with additional photos and resources.

We talk a lot about the weather in Wyoming because, like it does in any place occupied by humans, it unites us. Talking about a changing climate in Wyoming, however, can be more difficult.

But when the conversation moves past politics and policy, residents from all walks of life report changes that concern them.

This summer, for example, anglers across the state saw lower streamflows and increasing water temperatures diminish fishing opportunities beginning in July rather than late August. This fall, ranchers faced the difficult decision to reduce herd sizes or pay top-dollar for supplemental hay as they prepared for the winter.

Even some skeptics of human-caused climate change said this summer’s extreme conditions felt like the continuation of dramatic shifts in climate patterns they’ve observed over their lifetimes.

“I can’t say cause and effect,” Campbell County rancher Eric Barlow, who also serves in the state legislature, said. “But I can say that, certainly, [there are] trends that I just don’t quite understand or [they] don’t seem to follow the tradition, you know, from generation to generation.”

WyoFile traveled the state and talked to Wyoming residents about the changes they’re observing on a landscape that they love and depend on, and what those changes might mean to their Wyoming lifestyle.

Changes in agriculture

Few residents are as attuned to the seasonal and cyclical pulse of Wyoming’s climate than those who raise livestock and grow crops. Their livelihoods and identities — going back generations — are intrinsically tied to how the climate’s rhythms play out on a landscape.

And even with Wyoming’s traditional agricultural challenges  — harsh weather, limited water, poor soils and volatile weather — there are noticeable changes, many say.

Thayne Gray has been reading through records kept by his father and grandfather on the Warbonnet Ranch outside Moorcroft, he said. Since 1985, the family has instituted an intensive rotational grazing program on its collection of moderately high-and-dry pastures with great success. 

Crafted to accommodate the region’s once-typical weather patterns, those practices are, with increasing frequency, not enough to keep up with changing conditions.

In his reading, he said, Gray discovered that the cycles his ancestors recorded don’t reflect those he’s experienced over the past decade or more. Much has changed in his lifetime on the ranch.

“We used to have three to four years of common weather before the cycle would change from a wet cycle to a dry cycle,” Gray said. “Now, you’ll have one of the wettest years — a great wet year — next to the driest the very next year. So, I don’t know what’s causing that, but it’s just something I noticed.”

By September, cattle on the Warbonnet Ranch had already grazed out every summer and winter pasture due to continuing drought conditions made worse by unusually high temperatures. Gray had to pay top-dollar, competing with ranchers across much of the West, for several truckloads of hay to prepare for the winter.

Gray has also noticed what seems to be an emerging snow phenomenon: a warm spell follows a heavy snow. That initiates a thaw, then it freezes tight to the soil, making it almost impossible for cattle to break through the crust for forage.

“I thought it was an anomaly, but it seems to be becoming more consistent with how our winters are coming along,” Gray said.

The Barlow Ranch is bisected by Dead Horse Creek, a tributary to the Powder River, famously described as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” There’s a bit of truth to the aphorism. The river commonly runs dry enough by late August that cattle easily plod across the mucky riverbed without getting stuck.

That opportunity came even earlier this year.

Record breaking triple-digit temperatures baked the landscape in June when, traditionally, moderate rainfall and cool nights curb the heat. Rancher Eric Barlow, a veterinarian and Republican Speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives, lost seven yak calves that were born in June when temperatures reached 109 degrees Fahrenheit, he said.

“The bum yak calf we have is also a product of that day and the confusion and heat stress the entire herd experienced,” Barlow said.

The cattle, sheep and yak operation relies entirely on artesian springs and drilled wells to water the livestock. On good years, ephemeral creeks are a bonus, Barlow said, providing springtime flows from snowmelt. There are no irrigated pastures, so the operation is entirely dependent on “optimal” precipitation events.

Those optimal events are becoming less common, he said.

“I really do think we’ve seen a change in precipitation patterns,” Barlow said. “Part of the result of that is less reliable forage production year to year, and the timing of the forage.”

Barlow reduced both sheep and cattle numbers this year, he said, and still invested in several truckloads of supplemental feed hay for the upcoming winter.

The changes he’s noticed in his lifetime on the ranch can be summed up as more extremes and less predictability, he said, which makes it difficult to adapt from year to year.

“We do have a hope that, next year, we’ll have whatever normal is,” Barlow said.

Changes to fisheries

When Jeff Streeter began working as a fishing guide on the North Platte River near Saratoga in the 1970s, the river ran full and cold throughout the summer, supporting one of the world’s most sought-after trout fisheries and attracting high-paying anglers.

That hasn’t been the case during the past decade or so, he said.

By mid-July this year, higher-than-average temperatures in the Upper North Platte Valley, combined with years of persistently lower runoff, had already gummed the river with thick moss. The streamflow was so low that fishing guides couldn’t float clients on long stretches of the river, and late-day water temperatures were too warm for trout to survive being caught and released.

“These river systems are stressed when they don’t receive [ample] flows,” Streeter said in July while gearing up for a morning of fishing on the Encampment River, which flows into the North Platte.

Warmer stream temperatures coming earlier in the summer have prompted more frequent “hoot owl restrictions” — regulations designed to improve fish survival by stopping catch-and-release trout fishing in the heat of the afternoon. Anglers must hit the water earlier in the day, if at all, during these conditions.

The result is a diminished trout fishery and a hit to the local economy, which relies heavily on summer tourists drawn to fisheries in the valley, Streeter said.

Irrigators, who still pull what they can from the river, also must cope with the higher temperatures and lower precipitation. Resource conservation works best when fishermen and local ag producers collaborate, and there’s a proven track-record for those types of efforts throughout the state, said Streeter, who worked many years as a Trout Unlimited conservation advocate. But the continuing human and climate pressures in the Upper North Platte Valley threaten to erode that type of cooperation, he said.

While sitting on the Encampment River’s bank, Streeter also lamented changes overhead. More intense wildfire seasons have resulted in smoke-clogged summer skies.

“We should be very cautious not to attribute every change and every weather event to climate change,” Streeter said. “But on the other hand, we should not be able to — in one lifetime — we shouldn’t be able to feel a difference in the climate. And we do. And that’s worrisome to me.”

Changes on the sagebrush landscape

Master falconer Vahé Alaverdian moved from Los Angeles to live amongst the sagebrush and vast expanses of public lands south of Pinedale in the Upper Green River Basin.

He loves to hunt greater sage grouse with the aid of a bird dog and falcon — the ultimate sporting challenge, he said. Sage grouse and the wide-open sagebrush basinlands teeming with wildlife also provide the perfect opportunity to train his falcons. His company, Falcon Force, uses trained raptors to control nuisance birds for mostly West-Coast clients that include vineyards, blueberry and cherry growers, theme parks, golf courses and airports.

In addition to its utility, Alaverdian considers the sagebrush landscape a paradise of sorts.

“This is my shrine,” he said early one morning in September while sitting on the tailgate of his pickup in the middle of a sagebrush sea. A falcon perched on one gloved hand.

And the landscape that he loves and depends on is in duress, he said. Alaverdian attributes the changes he sees on the sage-steppe landscape to drought. A persistent lack of moisture results in stunted growth of vegetation and a diminishing bounty of small and large insects, he said. That threatens a cascading effect on wildlife that depend on the sagebrush habitat. Eagles, for example, seem more aggressive for lack of their normal diet of small prey like rabbits.

“My falcons that I’m flying here often fall prey to immature eagles,” Alaverdian said. “And [the eagles are] trying to survive. I can’t blame them. They become a major danger factor for what we do.”

Wyoming’s sagebrush habitat is vital to sage grouse and song birds, as well as pronghorn, mule deer and other game. Persistent warming and drier conditions here can have profound effects on all manner of Wyoming wildlife.

“The drought is just tearing the desert up,” Mike Burd of Green River said. “[Wildlife doesn’t] have the [quality] habitat out there that they used to have. I’ve seen it, and it’s hard to watch.”

Burd, a retired trona miner, grew up hunting and fishing in Western Wyoming — along the banks of the Green River, high in the Wind River Range and down in the vast basins of the Red Desert. Rivers and streams seem to have less flow earlier in the season, he said, and a lot of animals — birds and ungulates — seem to be struggling.

“It’s been so gradual, [young people] don’t notice it,” Burd said. “But I’m in my 60s, and I have noticed it.”

A changing climate threatens Wyoming’s outdoor culture, which is rich with traditions that help bond generations, Burd said. In addition to diminishing fishing and hunting opportunities, it’s small things, too, like campfire bans coming earlier in the summer. Campfires are where friends and family gather to tell stories — one of Burd’s most cherished traditions.

“My kids aren’t going to get to experience the Wyoming that I grew up in, and my grandchildren, surely not,” Burd said. “I hope I’m wrong. I really do hope I’m wrong. But I doubt it.”