Ed O. is the big 5-0

Some places epitomize Wyoming’s wildness. The Ed O. Taylor Wildlife Habitat Management Area is one of them. Now celebrating its 50-year anniversary, the historic land offers just as much now, if not more for Wyoming’s wildlife and sportspeople, The largest and most remote WHMA in the Sheridan Region, the Ed O. was purchased to secure permanent protection for elk and mule deer winter range. During the summer and fall, the area also offers anglers access to several miles of quality fishing on the Middle Fork of the Powder River and adjoining Blue Creek. At just over 10,000 acres the unit is a mix of Wyoming Game and Fish Commission-owned lands, Wyoming state land and Bureau of Land Management property located 19 miles west of Kaycee. To effectively manage the unique land matrix for the benefit of wildlife, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has a cooperative management agreement with the BLM and the area closes annually to human presence between Jan. 1 and May 14 to protect wintering wildlife from disturbance. The prior livestock grazing leases on state land have been converted to a wildlife habitat conservation use for which the Commission pays annual lease fees to the state. The Commission also pays all local taxes on the fee-deeded portions of the property.

The area is named for local rancher Edward O. Taylor who, along with his wife Ethel, operated the Blue Creek Ranch. The Game and Fish Commission discussed and approved purchase of the property at meetings in 1970. In early 1971 paperwork was finalized to secure the majority of funding for the property from federal Pittman-Robertson Act monies. The property is bisected by the Middle Fork of the Powder River, creating a north and a south portion of the WHMA. The main entry point on the south side takes you near Outlaw Cave, named for its reputed former use as a hideout for Butch Cassidy and members of his Wild Bunch during the late 1800s. Members of the group would occasionally use the canyon and surrounding Hole-in-the-Wall country to hide from law enforcement between bank robberies. The steep terrain and isolated location that made it an ideal spot for 19th century fugitives also makes it a tough place for modern-day users to access.

“The roads to access the Ed O. are rough and high clearance, 4-by-4 vehicles are highly recommended,” said Seth Roseberry, Game and Fish habitat and access coordinator in the Sheridan Region who maintains the area. “Whether entering the north side along Blue Creek or the south side near Outlaw Cave, most users do not drive vehicles with trailers or campers past the first mile or two. If you plan on driving into the Ed O. Taylor, plan for a short drive that takes a long time on a bumpy road.” The area also offers some challenges for Game and Fish managers. Fences need continual maintenance to exclude domestic livestock while also allowing movement of wildlife. Roads are susceptible to erosion due to the rocky nature and sparse soil in the area. Invasive weeds such as cheatgrass, knapweed, houndstongue and thistle brought to the area’s roads and trails on tires and feet are a constant menace, reducing rangeland productivity and diversity when they become established.


Mule deer and mahogany

Though it was purchased for the benefit of elk and deer, in recent years the improvement of critical habitat the WHMA offers mule deer has taken on more importance. Much of the area is used seasonally by the Upper Powder River mule deer herd which has been below population objectives since the early 2000s. An ongoing, intensive Mule Deer Initiative study by Game and Fish is trying to determine why. Though initial data indicates chronic wasting disease is a leading cause of documented mortalities, wildlife managers also have discovered does in the study are in poor body condition going into winter, indicating habitat conditions may be impacting the herd. Shortly after the property was purchased, former Habitat Biologist James Guest commenced a thorough evaluation of range conditions and existing plant communities on the property. He documented 91 species of grass, forbs and lichen and 29 tree species. Of particular importance was the presence of curl-leaf mountain mahogany.

“The very shallow sites of limestone bedrock generally produced nearly pure stands of mountain shrubs, usually dominated by curl-leaf mountain mahogany,” he wrote. “Evidence of deer use was found over the entire unit. Growth form and hedging scores indicated curl-leaf mountain mahogany and antelope bitterbrush were the most preferred species.”A quarter of a century later, Sheridan Region Habitat Biologist Bert Jellison documented that while curl-leaf mountain mahogany was found on only five percent of the area’s landscape, it accounted for 75 percent of identifiable fragments in mule deer fecal samples. Curl-leaf mountain mahogany is a slow-growing, long-lived evergreen shrub that prefers shallow, gravelly soils common on Ed O. It is well-adapted for areas with extreme temperatures and low annual precipitation, having thick bark on its trunk and a shallow root system.

“For mule deer, large swaths of curl-leaf mountain mahogany are key to their winter survival and a staple to their diets,” Roseberry said. “There is enough broken terrain and pockets of timber on Ed O. to provide some hiding cover and thermal break from the wind that can really blow, but the 2006 Outlaw Cave wildfire burned over 12,000 acres, including over 800 acres of mahogany.” Curl-leaf mountain mahogany stands do not usually accumulate large fuel loads to drive large, hot-burning fires. However, in recent decades the formerly pure stands Guest found in 1971 have been infiltrated by coniferous trees that create conditions for more severe and damaging fires.“Wildfire is a natural part of the ecosystem, but increased Ponderosa pine, Limber pine, and Rocky Mountain juniper encroachment into curl-leaf mountain mahogany stands in this area have boosted the fuel load,” said Sheridan Region Terrestrial Habitat Biologist Todd Caltrider, who is leading habitat improvement projects in the area.

“This increases the potential for high-intensity wildfires and protecting stands from these types of catastrophic wildfires is critical to sustaining winter deer habitat. The mahogany stands that burned in 2006 were heavily encroached with conifers, enabling the fire to increase in heat and intensity and destroy the mahogany stands. Curl-leaf mountain mahogany is a slow growing plant species, and we do not expect these burned stands to come back to their original density and size for at least another 100 years.” In response to the fire in 2006 Game and Fish, in partnership with the BLM, initiated fuel reduction projects on Ed O. in 2011 to eliminate conifers from mahogany stands. Removal is slow and laborious with hand crews using chainsaws to mechanically cut and scatter the trees. The work has expanded to neighboring BLM and private property. To date conifers have been eliminated from more than 3,500 acres in the southern Bighorn Mountains. But much remains to be done. Caltrider estimates 57,000 additional acres of crucial mule deer habitat in the region are threatened by conifer encroachment.


Fantastic fishing

The Ed O. is the domain of elk, deer and other wildlife in the winter. But when it opens annually to human presence in mid-May, it offers anglers a special experience. “Fishing the Middle Fork of the Powder River is undoubtedly an adventure,” said Gordon Edwards, a Sheridan Region fish biologist. “The upper reach is a very long drive from Kaycee or Buffalo into remote country. This stream gives you a place to get off the beaten path and fish somewhere wild, away from civilization.”The Middle Fork of the Powder River sustains wild brook, brown and rainbow trout populations and Game and Fish does not stock fish in this stretch of the river. Instead, fish managers aim to keep natural reproduction, rapid growth of trout and fishing pressure balanced.

“Overall trout density is on par with large, well-known rivers like the Bighorn and North Platte,” Edwards said. “The average trout is about 12 inches and fish in the 14-to-16-inch range are common. The occasional bruiser near 18-to-20 inches is out there”There are three BLM fishing access sites on the Outlaw Cave Road. On the south side of the WHMA you can find the rugged Miller Trail, which leads hikers and anglers down into the Middle Fork within the WHMA proper. Camping is allowed with a 14-day limit and certified weed-free hay is required if utilizing the unit with horses.“If you can visit the area when the grass greens up and just following a thunderstorm, it’s an amazing place to be,” Roseberry said. “It is full of history, lots of nooks, crannies, canyons and caves and is a pretty unique area to experience.”

— Christina Schmidt is the information and education specialist in the Sheridan region, and is a regular contributor to Wyoming Wildlife magazine.

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