Jeff Hammer: Voles and other wildlife

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    I have a love/hate relationship with this time of year, and based on passing conversations I’ve had with my neighbors and others, I don’t think I’m alone. 

    This year, I hate that I can’t even cuss the usual winter trails voles leave in my lawn in their yearly attempt to destroy it beneath a layer of insulating snow (the little buggers) because I can’t see my lawn. I still have over a foot of slowly receding snow covering most of my yard and a heck of a lot more near the driveway where the snow had been shoveled into piles that were much higher than my head after our last significant snow in February.


    Every spring, after the snow melts and the lawn dries up a little, I get out there with a hand rake and rake up all the dead grass the voles have chewed off at the roots and stored in tunnels and burrows throughout my yard. When I’m done, the exposed trails somewhat resemble the veins one might see in the illustrations of the heart and lung area of human bodies found in anatomy textbooks.

    Obviously, I’m not a fan of voles, but I know they exist for a really good reason. Not many years ago I witnessed a rough-legged hawk tear apart and consume a recently caught vole while it was sitting on one of the wooden posts of a fence separating my back yard from a field that at the present time is being used as a nursery for about thirty cow/calf pairs belonging to a local rancher.

    I was mildly fascinated during the viewing and wished that the hawk would stick around and take care of all the vole’s relatives, but it was not to be. Possibly, he had bigger fish to fry…so to speak. 

    I ended up setting about a half dozen mouse traps along the trails that led from the field into my back yard, and every day or two I would carefully extricate two or three dead voles and toss them back into the field from which they had come, using the rationalization that the field could use a little fertilization.


    One of the great things about my lawn is that it heals itself, so that by the middle of June all the damage done by the little rodents is gone.

    I love that the days are getting longer, and with the recent time change, my wife and I have time after our evening meal (whether you call it dinner or supper) to take a short walk before dark to let our food rearrange itself into a more comfortable position.

    During those walks and others we take together on the weekends, we encounter native birds that have developed migration patterns through thousands of years of practice, birds that are now showing up to begin again the process of procreation. We’ve seen robins, red-wing black birds and have heard the haunting cries of sandhill cranes. Canada geese are pairing up, a sure sign that spring is coming soon, even though the calendar mistakenly says it’s already here. 


    But birds aren’t the only wildlife to be encountered. Just the other day, on an early afternoon walk, I surprised a young bobcat (looking for voles, I hope) across Baldwin Creek Road from Baldwin Creek Elementary (home of the Bobcats, ironically) sneaking along through the tall grass near the creek.

    We’ve also seen a couple of flashy rooster pheasants and a few mule deer trying to make a living from whatever browse they can find after a long and taxing winter.

    These species of wildlife and all the other wildlife in the state have one thing in common: they are all managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, every species from the largest bison to the smallest fish.


    And disappointingly, like Wyoming’s teachers, the employees of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Joe Pickett notwithstanding, sometimes are bad-mouthed from some of our state’s coffee shop and saloon residents; and it’s disappointing because the responsibilities of our state’s wildlife professionals seem monumental, almost insurmountable, given the many factors beyond their control.

    I sometimes wonder if these detractors have ever had an encounter with personnel from the game and fish, or if they are just spouting off what they may have heard someone else say from across the bar. Over the years, I’ve met game wardens and other personnel out in the field or at check stations, and to a person, they have always been pleasant and professional. 

    About twenty years ago, I wrote a grant that was accepted from the game and fish to radio collar a mule deer doe from the town deer in Lander. Then, my fifth grade students from North Elementary and I would periodically climb on a bus and drive around town using telemetry equipment to find her. Each time, we would then use a compass to try to get a fix on her location from three different directions and use triangulation to plot her location on a map and look for patterns.

    Talk about students being engaged. For nearly three years, we collected data, but finally on Spring day, I found her dead near the highway to Fort Washakie.

    Tom Ryder led that effort from the game and fish department. He indicated that no data really existed on the town herd, and he was interested in what we learned; but then, he was equally excited about a study being conducted on the Middle Fork in Sink Canyon by a graduate student with respect to the American dipper, a common bird found on western rivers.

    Tom was cut from the same cloth as other biologists and wardens I’ve met over the years and each one was and is deserving of respect.

    But it takes money to operate such a professional, well-run organization, and unlike most state wildlife departments from around the country, our department’s funding doesn’t come from the general fund of our state’s coffers. 

    A December 2020 article from the Wyoming Wildlife Federation informed me that 64% of the department’s funding comes from the various licenses sold to hunters, fishers, and trappers. Another 22% comes from federal excise taxes on guns, ammunition, and fishing equipment. The rest of its funding, 14% if one cares to do the math, comes from grants, investment interest, and other sources. 

    Given that information, it’s easy to understand how resident and nonresident sportsmen fund research not just for those species that are hunted, fished and trapped, but for all species of concern in the state.

    Each month, I receive in the mail a Wyoming Wildlife magazine, one of the many conservation related magazines that finds its way into my mailbox on a monthly or quarterly basis; and if I were required to somehow restrict my periodical intake to just one publication, that magazine would be the one. It amazes me that the department can produce a high quality monthly periodical for fifteen bucks a year per subscription.

    In the March 2023 issue alone I found articles related to relocating beavers to help with riparian vegetation and floodplain connectivity, the department’s efforts to mitigate the effects of invasive New Zealand mud snails, and information about lesser known amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds one might find in the state.

    Who knew that the northwest corner of the state is home to a snake called the Northern rubber boa? Well, now we do.

    The January 2023 issue included an extensive and very interesting article on threatened minnow species in the North Platte River. 

    Who knew that natives like the brassy minnow and the orange throat darter might be in trouble; and an invasive, like the brook stickleback, was found to be more widespread than originally thought. Well, now we know, thanks to our game and fish department.

    But such research doesn’t come cheap, and I don’t mind if some of my elk license fee is used to fund research related to the burrowing owl, but I’m starting to become a little troubled by the fact that some residents and nonresidents, who don’t hunt, fish or trap, are enjoying the wildlife benefits provided by those of us who do.

    According to, Wyoming has the second highest percentage of residents who purchased a hunting license in 2020 at 22.7%. The latest information I could find online with respect to fishing was for 2016, when 18% of residents bought a fishing license.

    Honestly, I was surprised, as I felt that many more Wyomingites, both natives and newly arrived folks actually live here for the extensive variety of hunting and fishing experiences our state offers.

    One way to view that information is to say that roughly one out of every five residents and many nonresidents pony up the funding to provide the wildlife experiences that can be enjoyed by all of Wyoming’s residents and visitors.

    For those readers who find intrinsic value in the wildlife found in our state, but choose not to hunt, fish or trap, maybe it’s time to consider showing your appreciation to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department by helping in a monetary way. 

    An over-the-counter price for a resident elk license costs $57. By purchasing such a license, one can be assured that the money will go directly to the game and fish department, and it will be used for a multitude of purposes from habitat improvement to research into threatened species. Even spending the $21 for a yearly Conservation Stamp would help.

    Obviously, buying an elk license doesn’t require one to hunt, but buying one might provide the impetus to find out more information about hunting and how one can get involved. By not hunting, the only harm is to the state’s hunter success statistics, but the good is substantial.

    Nonresidents can help by joining one of the many conservation groups that also work in partnership with the our game and fish department such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, or Trout Unlimited and many others. Much of the membership fee will go directly to habitat maintenance and improvement. It’s easy to understand that without habitat, there would be no wildlife.

    Today, the snow will melt a little more, exposing a little more of my lawn; and to be completely honest, I’ll be just a little disappointed if I don’t see any evidence of vole activity, but only a little.

    I don’t want to completely eradicate the little vandals, but neither do I want to get to know them on a first name basis.


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