There are apparently too many elk, particularly in eastern and northeastern Wyoming, and lawmakers, ranchers, hunters and the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish are in a quandary over how to handle it.
“I always tell Game and Fish that elk are their wild horses,” Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association, said Friday.
He made his remarks during a meeting of the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Travel, Recreation Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee. His reference to wild horses was a comparison to the tenuous line the Bureau of Land Management walks in balancing various groups’ stakes in the management of Wyoming’s mustangs.
Magagna said that in places, elk populations are “three or four times” over the Wyoming Game and Fish department’s herd objective numbers, and some ranchers are starting to feel overrun.
The One Species That’s Thriving
Of Wyoming’s three prized big game species — antelope, mule deer and elk — elk are doing the best by far.
Mule deer and antelope herds took huge hits this year from massive winterkill and disease outbreaks, particularly in central and southwest Wyoming.
In response, Game and Fish made significant cuts to antelope and deer tags for this fall’s hunting season. Elk licenses were not cut.
Elk also died in some of the hardest-hit areas, but their losses weren’t nearly as bad as those among mule deer and antelope. Moreover, Game and Fish implemented emergency feeding for elk in some areas, but supplemental feed wasn’t given to deer and antelope.
The elk feeding program itself also recently became a source of controversy, while the agency drew some criticism for not feeding starving deer this winter.
However, Game and Fish biologists have stated that trying to feed deer could do more harm than good, because unlike elk, their digestive systems don’t adjust well supplementary feed. And they claim that elk are fed not only help them survive winter, but to keep them from raiding ranchers’ haystacks, tearing up fences and otherwise wreaking havoc on private property.
In eastern Wyoming, there’s more private ground than in western Wyoming, which can make access for hunters difficult. And elk in the eastern part of the state aren’t getting additional pressure from natural predators, such as wolves and grizzly bears.
That has added up to what some claim is a gross overabundance of elk, particularly in the Laramie and Black Hills regions.
Bringing In Hired Guns
Game and Fish Chief Game Warden Rick King told the committee that the agency has several “tools in its toolbox” for possibly dealing with an overabundance of elk.
That could include longer hunting seasons and, in some places, “lethal take permits” for elk on private property, either by game agents or private contractors.
Rancher Juan Reyes recently told Cowboy State Daily that a professional outfitter and his assistant last year were permitted to kill 129 elk from the Iron Mountain Herd, many of them on his ranchland near Laramie.
One of the carcasses tested positive for chronic wasting disease and couldn’t be used for food. The other 128 were donated to Wyoming first lady Jennie Gordon’s Food From the Field program through the Wyoming Hunger Initiative, Reyes said.
What About Landowner Tags?
The committee also discussed a draft bill that would allow Wyoming landowners to transfer their landowners’ hunting tags to other people. That bill aims to increase the number of elk shot on private property.
Landowner tags are available to people who own properties of 160 acres or more and have at least 2,000 animal use days, King said. A big game animal using the land for a day counts as one “animal use day.”
The tags currently can be used only by the tag holder or immediate family members. The draft bill would allow those tags to be transferred to others, if big game numbers in that hunt area are at least 125 percent of herd objectives.
Magagna said that might increase hunting on private property, but he questioned whether it would be enough to put a significant dent in the elk population.
Avid hunter Buzz Hettick of Laramie questioned whether the measure would fit the “North American model of wildlife conservation,” which is couched in equitable access to hunting.
Making landowner tags transferable might drive hunting in Wyoming further toward being exclusively for those who could pay landowners high fees for access, said Hettick, who is the board chairman for the Wyoming chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
Mark Heinz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.