The F&S Drought Guide for Hunters & Anglers in the West

Drought is no stranger to the West. But some years are worse than others, and the situation in 2021 is particularly dire. The current drought, which began in 2020 and will likely stretch into this fall and beyond, is notable for both its span and intensity. Wild animals and fish from the West Coast all the way east to Minnesota and Iowa are experiencing the effects of record high temperatures, devastating mega-fires, and dangerously low water levels. As of September 7, 2021, 62 percent of the West and 75 percent of the High Plains are experiencing unusually dry conditions, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor data.

The current drought has been a focal point of F&S’s news coverage throughout this summer. The dry conditions have led to a plethora of stories that are particularly relevant for hunters and anglers, who are more acutely connected to the region’s wild places than most. The severity of the current drought has led to unprecedented fishing closures in the Pacific Northwest as well as low duck production in the Prairie Pothole and Pacific Flyway regions. The intense situation has forced local agencies to get creative in their approach to preserving wild game with efforts like ramping up the round-up of feral horses as well as flying in water to isolated bighorn sheep populations.

While anglers have witnessed the drought first-hand, most hunters have yet to fully experience it. Heading into fall hunting season, Field & Stream initiated a comprehensive effort to survey wildlife managers and biologists in all 16 states currently experiencing severe and extreme drought conditions in the West and Midwest. The survey took place during the last week of August and the first week of September. Our purpose was two-fold: First, we wanted to get an up-to-date pulse on the impact of the drought on wild game and fish on a state-by-state level. Second, we sought to get a read on the outlook for hunters and anglers this fall and beyond. We also highlighted particularly affected areas and species throughout the region.

Many waterbodies—like the San Gabriel Reservoir (pictured)—are exceptionally dry. David McNew/Getty Images

The 2021 Drought is Dynamic and Highly Variable

In our conversations with experts from across the West, several glimmers of hope emerged. Wildlife managers often noted that, though drought is present across much of the western states, its effects were variable. This means that while many ecosystems were experiencing dry conditions, there were also pockets that saw better precipitation, allowing hunters and anglers to seek out good opportunities despite the region-wide drought. Moreover, the drought conditions are especially dynamic, and just several weeks of rain can bring substantial relief to areas. In fact, some states saw considerably improved conditions in August alone, potentially mitigating some of the long-term impacts of the drought on wild game and fish populations.

Many state officials were also quick to note that game animals and fish in the Western U.S. evolved with the presence of drought, which makes them adept at surviving it. Even if the current drought reduces reproduction, most wild game populations will bounce back when conditions improve. The region’s animals are hardy, and the ecosystems, resilient.

Despite optimism about the survival of game stocks, many survey respondents noted that they expect drought years to be more frequent—and conditions to become increasingly severe. Climate change is leading to drier and hotter climates across much of the West. The duration of the current drought is difficult to predict, though experts say it will likely last beyond this fall. But on a long-term scale, there’s no end in sight. As the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Statewide Communications Coordinator Michelle Dennehy aptly put it: “This is the new normal.”

pine forest in smokeLarge blazes have created smoky air quality across much of the West this summer. Daniel Roberts via Pixabay

Arizona

Overview: The conditions in Arizona were looking pretty dire early this summer. According to Arizona Game and Fish Small Game Manager Larisa Harding, by the middle of the summer several areas “looked more like moonscapes than viable habitats.” Fortunately, much of the state was hit with summer monsoons and the “landscapes are greening up and now looking lusher.” This is good news for the state’s wildlife—especially with hunting season just around the corner.

Most Impacted Species: Quail, Native trout, minnow, and sucker species. Most big game species were impacted in 2020 but are primed to respond to the flush of resources from the recent rains.

Most Impacted Areas: Small mountain streams and reservoir fisheries such as in Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

Outlook: Despite recent rains, the state’s wild fish and game animals are not in the clear just yet. Harding adds that the summer rains are just “short-term relief for the ongoing drought, and we’d need several years of precipitation to recover from the long-term drought that has dropped water reserves West-wide.”

California

Overview: California has been hit particularly hard by the ongoing drought as evidenced by the state’s second consecutive summer of devastating wildfires. The persistent drought conditions—which foster huge forest fires—have led to the closure of all of California’s national forests, which has severely limited hunting and fishing opportunities throughout the state. State officials say it’s a drastic but necessary measure. California Waterfowl Programs Supervisor Caroline Brady adds that the state’s migratory waterfowl are also being pinched by a lack of wetland habitat in the northeast part of the state because of the drought.

Most Impacted Species: Chinook and coho salmon; steelhead, and migratory waterfowl.

Most Impacted Areas: The Klamath Basin, northeast California, and rivers in the Central Valley.

Outlook: California Department of Fish and Wildlife Public Information Officer Peter Tira says that “California’s fish and wildlife are well-adapted to survive both drought and wildfires and continue to inspire Californians with their resiliency time and time again. The state has taken emergency measures to preserve anadromous such as trucking baby fall-run Chinook salmon from our salmon hatcheries directly to the Pacific Ocean to bypass warm water in rivers.” There is also a huge wildfire prevention effort that will benefit native plants and wildlife. However, 2021 will likely turn out to be another tough year for the state’s hunters and anglers, and the outlook is unclear beyond that.

Colorado

Overview: Much of western Colorado is experiencing severe to extreme drought. The persisting dry conditions are impacting the region’s cold-water species of fish as well as its big game populations such as deer and elk—which are in decline. However, fish and game in the eastern side of the state have not been severely affected by the drought.

Most Impacted Species: Mule deer, elk, and native trout

Most Impacted Areas: Most of Western Colorado and the area’s major water drainages, particularly the Yampa River, Dolores River, and Tomichi Creek drainages.

Outlook: Hunters and anglers in the western part of the state will likely notice a decline in some fish and game populations, though the drought’s effects are variable, and some rivers may fish well while others don’t. Colorado Parks and Wildlife Statewide Public Information Officer Bridget Kochel adds that “the ongoing drought in western Colorado creates a dynamic situation, meaning conditions are changing frequently. “ She encourages hunters and anglers to continually research the status of recreation areas before heading out to “eliminate surprises” as much as possible. 

Idaho

Overview: “As with many of our neighboring Western states, Idaho has seen significant drought conditions throughout most of the state,” says Idaho Fish and Game Sportfishing Program Coordinator Martin Koenig. Idaho experienced its driest stretch of months in 96 years between March and July. The entire state is experiencing at least moderate drought, with up to 58 percent of the state seeing extreme drought conditions. Stream levels are low and water temps have been high over the summer.

Most Impacted Species: Trout and some mule deer and pronghorn populations.

Most Impacted Areas: The state’s Northern panhandle down throughout central Idaho. The Big Wood River, Big Lost River, and Salmon River systems.

Outlook: Despite the widespread drought, Idaho Fish and Game Public Information Supervisor Roger Phillips says the hunting outlook for this season is positive. He says that the state is ”not likely to see any effects from drought this fall for hunting season because we had a fairly mild winter and decent snowpack in most of the state” and adds that “hunting and fishing tend to bounce back pretty quickly if it suffers any setbacks from drought.” That said, he’s concerned about the effects of the drought if it persists for multiple years or the impact of a severe winter following the dry conditions of this summer. Meanwhile, fishing should pick up this fall as the temps drop, but the full impact of the hot summer with low precipitation on the state’s coldwater fisheries remains to be seen.

Iowa

Overview: Much of Iowa is experiencing drought conditions. The northern part of the state recently experienced a bump in precipitation but not enough to fully ease concerns. State representatives did not say whether the dry conditions would impact the state’s trophy whitetail population. EHD cases generally rise during dry years, but so far the EHD cases reported have been relatively few. Iowa Department of Natural Resources representatives did raise major concerns about the impact of the drought on waterfowl hunting.

Most Impacted Species: Waterfowl and trout.

Most Impacted Areas: The Big Marsh Wildlife Area, which relies on the West Fork of the Cedar River.

Outlook: The drought conditions in Iowa are variable. Just 30-miles to the west of Big Marsh, which is heavily impacted by the drought, the Sweet Marsh Wildlife Area is close to typical water levels. “My advice is to get out and scout as most areas are dry with a few exceptions being the larger or deeper wetlands,” says Jason Auel, a wildlife biologist with the Iowa DNR. Recent rains are providing some relief throughout the state, but “what we need [for drought conditions to subside] is a couple of inches of rain each week for a month.”

Minnesota

Overview: Minnesota is in the midst of a notable drought, though its full impact on wild game is still unclear. Natural forage is sparse, and there have been increased bear and deer depredation complaints as these critters try to feed on crops. According to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Communication Director, Gail Nosek, “in the southern region of Minnesota, many of our wetland basins have actually benefitted from drought conditions.” She adds that prairie regions evolved with wet and dry cycles and that some dry years are required to maintain the long-term productivity of wetlands.

Most Impacted Species: Coldwater fish such as trout, northern pike, and walleye. Waterfowl.

Most Impacted Areas: Most of Minnesota’s wetlands, lakes, and waterways; and trout streams in central Minnesota.

Outlook: Waterfowl habitats are variable throughout the state, much like in Iowa. Hunters should look for areas with good natural food sources and water. Wildfire closures may affect hunters in the northern part of the state. While the state’s fish populations should be able to recover in the next year or two, anglers should head to large rivers this fall for a better bite. Meanwhile, the state’s whitetail population is “robust” and upland game species are actually benefitting from the dry conditions.

Montana

Overview: Montana experienced a relatively mild winter followed by a dry summer. According to the Montana Fish Wildlife and Park’s Game Management Bureau Chief, Brian Wakeling, “wildfire has been a prevalent story this summer as well. Many ecosystems are developed with the presence of fire, and fire remains an important component of Montana’s natural ecosystems.” Wakeling adds that the dry conditions have led to poor forage conditions, which means that many big game animals will go into the winter leaner than usual. This raises the potential for a higher winter kill, depending on weather conditions. The state implemented strict “hoot owl” restrictions on a particularly high number of its fisheries for much of the summer, limiting anglers to early-morning fishing. Rains and cooler temperatures have improved conditions in recent weeks but not by enough to fully offset the drought’s conditions.

Most Impacted Species: Upland birds, small mammals like rabbits, and cold-water fish species dependent on smaller streams and creeks. The drought’s effects on big game will vary from locale to locale.

Most Impacted Areas: Southern and western Montana.

Outlook: “Because Montana adjusts seasons and quotas in response to recent changes in populations, hunters that participate in these hunts shouldn’t find dramatically different experiences,” says Wakeling. He says that the state’s wildfires will displace animals but most not likely drastically impact their populations. “While long-term forecasts for much of the West call for warmer and drier conditions, keep your eye on the local conditions,” adds Wakeling. “There is much variability, and if you keep your nose to the wind, you may be able to capitalize on some tremendous opportunities.”

Nebraska

Overview: A drought has been impacting Nebraska since 2020. As of this August, 45 percent of Nebraska is experiencing drought conditions while another 39 percent of it is considered abnormally dry. Counties in northeast Nebraska are in extreme drought. So far, the state’s fisheries have avoided any major die-offs—likewise for big game populations. The western part of the state has been experiencing wildfires, which will likely limit access for some hunters this fall. Will Inselman, Assistant Wildlife Division Administrator for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, notes that “drought, although not what biologists ever hope for, is quite common across the Great Plains, so a lot of species in Nebraska are well adapted for these conditions.”

Most Impacted Species: Upland birds and teal. 

Most Impacted Areas: The panhandle and extreme western portions of southwest Nebraska.

Outlook: The drought will pose challenges to hunters this fall because of the emergency haying and grazing of CRP lands as well as sparser conditions elsewhere. Inselman notes that “we still had some production this year and there should still be plenty of game birds and big game out there. Hunters that can adapt to these changing habitat and weather conditions should still find success, with the key being finding water sources.” Meanwhile, the state’s fisheries team is feeling optimistic about the resilience of Nebraska’s fisheries.

Nevada

Overview: Drought conditions are at an all-time worst and fire danger is at an all-time high in some parts of Nevada. The southern portion of the state is experiencing a long-term drought that stretches all the way back to 2000. Areas that depend on the Colorado River basin are at their lowest levels since the late 1990s. Monsoonal rains have not come in the areas that they normally have for the past two years, though light rains in southern and central Nevada provided a glimmer of hope early in July. “The effects of drought on game species are almost always detrimental,” says Nevada Department of Wildlife Public Information Officer Ashley Sanchez. She adds that much of the state’s game animals have been impacted by the drought in one way or another, but that the impacts will differ depending on the location and species. Sanchez also notes that wildfire has been prevalent in the western side of the state.

Most Impacted Species: Bighorn sheep and animals that depend on guzzlers for water, sage grouse, and native trout.

Most Impacted Areas: Southern and western Nevada, particularly the Truckee River watershed.

Outlook: Sanchez predicts a difficult season for hunters in the state no matter what species of animal you plan to target. The drought will limit opportunities, especially in areas where water is limited. She notes that “current drought conditions are severe enough that we’ve observed lower fawn recruitment in deer and antelope, as well as reduced elk calf ratios and lower numbers of surviving bighorn lambs.” The NDW is taking emergency actions to address the situation, but Sanchez says that “drought conditions simply make survival more challenging for wildlife and make managing wildlife infinitely more difficult.” Hunters and anglers need to make sure to be aware of emergency closures. Trout fishing will improve in the short term as temperatures drop.

New Mexico

Overview: At one point this summer, over half of New Mexico was experiencing exceptional drought. In the last four weeks, conditions have improved substantially. Northern, eastern, and southern New Mexico was hit with a great monsoon system. Parts of western and central New Mexico are still experiencing significant drought conditions.

Most Impacted Species: Gila trout.

Most Impacted Areas: The Gila River Ecosystem.

Outlook: Because of the end-of-summer rains, it looks like New Mexico’s wild animals and fish will escape the worst impacts of the drought. Still, overall, the state is in a region that’s facing warmer and drier conditions in the long term, putting the viability of habitats for some native cold-water fish such as the famed Gila Trout in question. Populations of bighorn sheep are also vulnerable to persisting dry conditions in already particularly dry areas. New Mexico’s Department of Game and Fish did not respond to the F&S drought survey.

North Dakota

Overview: North Dakota is in the middle of a drought that’s near the two-year mark. As with other Midwest states, the 2020-21 winter was relatively mild, which lead to high survival rates for most species. The dry summer, however, has “has severely limited the quality of forage and brood-rearing habitat,” according to North Dakota Game and Fish Communications Supervisor Greg Freeman. A lot of the state’s wetland areas are dry, while other wetlands are drying up. “This will affect most wildlife populations but is not a long-term disaster yet,” says Freeman, who notes that wet-dry cycles are required to keep habitats productive. The same phenomenon is occurring in the state’s grasslands.

Most Impacted Species: Ducks and other waterfowl.

Most Impacted Areas: The state’s central and western regions.

Outlook: “There will still be critters on the landscape to chase but it may take a little more planning,” says Freeman. The state’s duck populations were relatively high before the drought. This year will likely see low production, but hunters can take solace that it likely won’t impact waterfowl populations long-term. Meanwhile, waterfowlers will likely see good goose hunting this fall. Landscape-wide, hunters should expect to see—and harvest—fewer young animals than usual this year.

Oregon

Overview: Oregon is experiencing an especially severe drought year that’s at least as bad as its southern neighbor of California. One hundred percent of the state is in a drought while about three quarters of the state is experiencing extreme or exceptional drought. The situation is dire for the area’s fish, especially migratory salmon and steelhead, though the full extent of the impact is yet to be realized. The state has observed pre-spawning mortality of chinook salmon in some rivers. As for game animals, there’s less forage than usual, but other impacts won’t be known until further studies are completed. Adult duck counts are on par with average, but there have been lower than usual duck broods.

Most Impacted Species: Salmon, steelhead, native trout, and sturgeon.

Most Impacted Areas: The North Coast, southern Oregon, the North Umpqua River, and the Nehalem River.

Outlook: “It is anticipated that the current year reproduction may be reduced for many species,” says Michelle Dennehy, the statewide Communications Coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). “Overwinter survival of adults may be impacted but it is too early to know if that will occur or to what extent.” That said, the ODFW is moving ahead under the assumption that droughts like the current one will become more and more frequent—and that the state’s wildlife management strategy will change because of this. “We expect droughts to be more common and more severe due to climate change—this is the new normal,” says Dennehy. “Long term, we are working to restore and improve fish passage, identify and protect cold water refuges, improve riparian habitat, which can help keep river temps cooler, and advocate for managing water to help fish.”

South Dakota

Overview: The vast majority of the state is in either severe or exceptional drought. The dry summer follows on the heels of a mild winter, which means that hunters of the state’s wildlife population have likely yet to take a significant hit. However, as with elsewhere, forage and cover will be limited for a variety of species. Waterfowl likely had significant drops in reproduction, which could limit duck hunters. And decreasing water levels will further limit other waterfowling opportunities. There has been a minimal impact on the state’s fisheries. The state is known for its pheasant hunting—and pheasant and grouse hunting has not been negatively impacted by the drought. 

Most Impacted Species: Ducks and other waterfowl.

Most Impacted Areas: Central South Dakota, including the Black Hills Region. Lake Oahe.

Outlook: “Despite the drought, the hunting and fishing opportunities in South Dakota will still be abundant this fall,” says Nick Harrington, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks communication manager. That said, hunters and anglers should take extra precautions to avoid starting wildfires and be careful navigating shallower than usual waterbodies, which will have more exposed structure than usual. The state does not expect any negative long-term impacts from the current drought. “While hunters may need to change their techniques and strategy to be successful, hunters who are willing to scout and pay attention to the fine details should enjoy success in the field,” says Harrington.

Utah

Overview: A large portion of Utah is gripped in a severe or exceptional drought. The intense drought has combined with poor air quality, largely because of California wildfire smoke, to create difficult conditions for outdoorsmen throughout the state. At one point this summer, the Great Salt Lake hit its lowest point in recorded history. In the last couple of weeks, end-of-summer rains have brought mild relief to some portions of the state, reducing the proportion of areas experiencing exceptional drought. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DNR) Public Information Officer Faith Jolley notes that the drought decreases animals’ habitat, forage, and water supplies and “may lead some animals to seek food and water in urban areas, causing conflicts with humans. And more animals may also die due to competition for increasingly limited resources.”

Most Impacted Species: Mule deer and waterfowl.

Most Impacted Areas: Southern Utah and the Great Salt Lake wetlands.

Outlook: Several years of drought have put the state’s deer herd on a decline and this is likely to continue in 2021. Jolley says that the state “will likely have a more concrete answer next year on how this year’s drought has impacted fish and wildlife species.” In the meantime, the Utah DNR is taking several precautionary steps to mitigate the drought including adjusting fishing regulations at drought-impacted waterbodies, issuing fewer general season deer permits, and prohibiting campfires and recreational shooting at wildlife management areas.

Washington

Overview: According to Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife Water Policy Section Manager Megan Kernan, “the 2021 drought has been unique as compared to Washington droughts of recent history.” This is because the state started the year with an above-average snowpack, but drought conditions quickly—and somewhat surprisingly—emerged in the spring. Unusually hot early summer temps led to rapid snowmelt that quickly dried up the state’s summer water supply. The full impacts of the drought have yet to be realized, but the state has observed both deer die-offs from drought-related viruses and impacted anadromous fish populations.

Most Impacted Species: Cold-water fish such as salmon and steelhead. Whitetail deer.

Most Impacted Areas: Eastern Washington, the Snake River, and rainfall-dependent watersheds.

Outlook: The state does not expect drought conditions to significantly impact this fall’s hunting and fishing seasons. There will, however, be limited fishing opportunities. The WDFW joined Oregon in implementing emergency closures on famous rivers for catching steelhead. State officials closed steelhead fishing from the mouth of the Snake River to the Idaho state line at Clarkston because of declining stocks. The impact on whitetails hasn’t impacted the fall’s hunting opportunities yet.

Wyoming

Overview: Wyoming has been experiencing the worst drought in state history in terms of coverage and intensity since the 2012-13 drought with roughly 80 percent of the state experiencing moderate to extreme drought. 2020 was a particularly bad year for drought and wildfire in the state, though 2021 hasn’t been quite as bad. So far, the drought has negatively impacted sage grouse populations and limited fishing opportunities because of low flows and high water temps. As with other parts of the West, dry conditions in Wyoming are likely to continue long term. Forage is limited and increased conflict between predators and humans has been observed. “Less water means fewer places for fish and other wildlife to live, swim and avoid predators,” says Paul Dey, Aquatic habitat program manager for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “In drought conditions, the water temperature can rise, which can impact cold-water species like native trout.”

Most Impacted Species: Native cutthroat trout, and sage grouse.

Most Impacted Areas: Northeast Wyoming, and the Flaming Gorge watershed.

Outlook: State officials predict that the current drought will impact the wild game and fish populations in Wyoming for a long time. Ian Tator, statewide terrestrial habitat manager, says the lack of forage can lead to “impacts that can last for years and leave wildlife like elk, deer, and pronghorn hungry during spring when they need succulent new growth to support gestation and during the coldest months of the year, leading to population-level impacts.” Similarly, the slow fishing on many of the state’s waterways may last for several years. The state is working to foster resiliency and has recently invested $12.9 million for on-the-ground wildlife and fish habitat projects, which will hopefully offset some of the impacts from current and future droughts.

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