Hundreds Of Wyoming Hunters Turn In Tags To Save Devastated Deer Herds

Nearly 1,200 Wyoming deer will get to “walk” this hunting season. That’s how many hunters turned in their deer tags to help preserve struggling herds, and to get a chance at prize drawings.

Mark Heinz

September 01, 20238 min read

Richard Gunyan of Rock Springs, left, shot this huge mule deer buck last year. This year he turned deer tag in for the Let a Deer Walk program, and will have a taxidermist mount last year’s buck. Terri Elliott of Riverton, right, poses with a large antelope buck he bagged last year. He selected a commissioner’s hunting tag from the prize drawing and donated it.
Richard Gunyan of Rock Springs, left, shot this huge mule deer buck last year. This year he turned deer tag in for the Let a Deer Walk program, and will have a taxidermist mount last year’s buck. Terri Elliott of Riverton, right, poses with a large antelope buck he bagged last year. He selected a commissioner’s hunting tag from the prize drawing and donated it. (Photos Courtesy Richard Gunyan and Terri Elliot)

Nearly 1,200 Wyoming mule deer will have better odds of surviving another year, because that’s how many hunters turned their tags in for the Let a Deer Walk program.

Nearly $43,000 for wildlife conservation was also raised.

“It’s a fantastic program and these animals have been getting a butt-kicking. We ought to let them go,” Richard Gunyan of Rock Springs told Cowboy State Daily.

He’s one of the hunters who turned in their deer tags and won’t be hunting muleys this year. He also was one of 21 participants whose tags were drawn for a prize. He selected a professional taxidermy mount for the buck he shot last year.

Winter Shatters Prime Deer Herds

Zack Key of La Barge is an avid hunter. He has long appreciated the Wyoming Range mule deer herd, as well as neighboring herds in the Gro Ventre and Wind River ranges, widely considered one of the finest crop of muleys in the nation.

It’s the genetic line that produced Wyoming’s legendary trio of massive bucks Popeye, Morty and Goliath in the 1990s, and more recently another monster buck dubbed The King.

However, the winter of 2022-2023 absolutely devastated those prize herds. Temperatures plunged as one snowstorm after another buried forage on the winter range, and thousands of deer starved and froze to death. In some places, up to 80% of the adult deer and nearly all of the fawns died.  

In the wake of the devastation, Key came up with a plan he hoped would make a difference.

The concept behind Let a Deer Walk was simple. Hunters could buy their tags as usual during the spring and summer, with the revenue going toward the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for wildlife conservation.

But instead of using the tags to go hunting, they could turn them in to Key and let their deer “walk” during this fall’s hunting season. The deer tags could then be used essentially as raffle tickets for a prize drawing.

Key convinced businesses from Wyoming and some neighboring states to donate goods or services for prizes. Those prizes included such things as taxidermy work, an ATV, custom pickup improvements, a whole beef and more.

Taxidermist Rusty Bell of Gillette, newly appointed to the Game and Fish Commission, also agreed to put up his 2024 commissioner’s hunting tag for the drawing.

Commissioner’s tags can be put up for charitable auctions and have gone for as much as $30,000. The tag holder can select to hunt one of Wyoming’s three premier big game species — elk, deer or antelope — in the hunt area of their choosing.

Exceeded Expectations

Key told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday that the response to Let a Deer Walk exceeded his expectations.

He gave hunters until Aug. 1 to turn in their deer tags for a chance at the prize drawings this week, adding he was expecting to get “maybe a few hundred” deer tags.

Instead, 1,181 Wyoming residents and 15 nonresidents turned in their tags, he said.

The resident tags included 896 full-price deer tags, which are $42 each. There also were 211 reduced-price adult resident tags at $22 each and 89 $15 resident youth tags.

The nonresident tags ranged in price from $34-$374 each, Key said.

All told, $42,934 was raised for Game and Fish.

“Unfortunately, I did get some more tags in after I’d already had the prize drawings,” Key said.

He mailed those tags back to the hunters, each with a signed, personalized letter of thanks.

‘I Stuck My Deer Tag In The Shredder’

He conducted the prize drawings over Facebook livestream and made sure viewers knew he had a stake in the program.

“To open the ceremony, I took my own 2023 Wyoming resident deer tag and stuck it in the shredder on livestream,” Key said.

He then drew the winning tags and called the lucky hunters in order, asking them to select which prize they wanted.

“I thought the $30,000 commissioner’s tag would be the first prize picked. But the first two people selected the truck customization package and the ATV. The commissioner’s tag ended up being No. 3,” Key said.

‘It’s A Huge, Huge Area’

The commissioner’s tag went to Terri Elliot, a disabled hunter from Riverton.

He’s decided to use it for an elk hunt next fall in Area 100, which includes vast sections of the Red Desert.

“Area 100 has quite a few roads and is readily accessible. It’s just a huge, huge area,” Elliot, who is confined to a wheelchair, told Cowboy State Daily.

That works out perfectly for him, so he feels particularly fortunate for being able to choose the commissioner’s tag.

“There were two guys ahead of me in the drawing, and it just blew my mind that they didn’t pick that tag,” he said.

The red desert elk herd is also known to produce some exceptional bulls, which adds to his anticipation for the 2024 hunt.

“Yeah, there’s some huge ones out there,” he said. “I have friends and family members who’ve drawn elk tags there before.”

And even if he hadn’t been one of the lucky prize winners, Elliot said he was more than happy to participate in Let a Deer Walk.

“It’s an awesome thing that he (Key) did. I think it was just a great thing to do,” Elliot said.

Elliot shot a big antelope buck last year and drew an antelope tag this year as well. But that species also suffered horribly over the winter in parts of Wyoming, so he said he might let his antelope tag go unused this year as well.

The Most Coveted Hunting Tag

Key said getting a commissioner’s tag for the prize drawing was as huge boost for the program. If he runs it next year, he’d like to see the governor’s hunting tag donated. The governor’s tag allows the holder to hunt the species of their choice anywhere in the state.

“It’s even more coveted than a commissioner’s tag,” He said.

‘I’d Like This To Be My Last Deer’

Gunyan was hunter No. 18 in the prize drawing and also got exactly what he wanted.

Last year, he shot a big mule deer buck near Big Piney, but he’s never had the impressive deer made into a taxidermy mount for his wall. So, he didn’t hesitate to pick a professional taxidermy mounting as his prize.

“Well, I’m 71 and I’ve slowed down on my hunting. We hunt bear and I still hunt elk, but other than that, I’m slowing down,” he said.

Having that 2022 buck properly made into a trophy for his wall could be the perfect capper to decades of hunting Wyoming muleys.

“I’d like this to be my last deer,” he said.

‘The People Will Guide You’

As for what’s next, Key said he’s not sure.

It could take a couple more years of letting deer walk to “move the needle” toward the herd’s recovery, but he doesn’t know if he’ll repeat the program.

Many hunters he talked to seemed to be on the fence over whether to pursue deer this year, Key said. However, what they see in the field this year could convince them to sit out the next couple of years.

Some of the best hunters he knows are already reporting severely reduced numbers of deer, he said.

“I’ve talked to some really big-time mule deer hunters,” Key said. “I mean, these are guys who can find a mule deer in their sleep, and they decided to turn their tags in to me after scouting this summer. They weren’t seeing any bucks over about 140 inches (in antler size), and in some drainages they weren’t even seeing does.”

He added that he’ll listen to what hunters tell him about whether to continue the program based upon some wise words from his father-in-law.

“He told me, ‘Listen to what the people have to say. The people will guide you,’” Key said.

Mark Heinz can be reached at

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter