‘Mercy Killing’ Wyoming Big Game Is Illegal — Unless You Have A Hunting Tag

If you come across an injured or wounded big game animal in Wyoming, and you don’t have a valid tag for that sex and species – legally, you have to let it suffer until a game warden or law enforcement officer can come shoot it.

Mark Heinz

November 24, 20235 min read

Antelope caught in fence 11 18 23
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

It’s a situation nobody wants to be in – there’s a wounded or injured big game animal suffering in front of you, but unless you have a valid hunting tag for that species and sex, you can’t legally kill it.

Instead, you’ll have to wait for a game warden or law enforcement to come put it out of its misery, if it doesn’t linger and die in the meantime.

From an emotional standpoint, it’s a horrible situation, for Wyoming hunters. But creating a “mercy killing” exemption in game laws would probably open the floodgates to abuse and illegal poaching.

A Hard ‘No’

The laws regarding killing a big game animal in Wyoming are hard and fast, Wyoming Game and Fish Department Public Information Officer Breanna Ball told Cowboy State Daily.

“It is illegal to harvest an animal without the proper license,” she said. “Hunters must make a reasonable effort to retrieve their animal and can use blood-trailing dogs within 72 hours of shooting the animal to attempt to locate the animal. It is recommended that if hunters do come across a wounded animal they contact the local game warden, wildlife biologist or regional Game and Fish office as soon as possible.”

Recalling an incident this fall, elk hunter Patrick Sullivan of Casper told Cowboy State Daily that he watched a bull elk that had been shot by another hunter die slowly, because he only had a cow elk tag. He said he left voicemails for game wardens in the area. After the elk died, he said he left without approaching the carcass.

Avid hunter and wildlife photographer Tessa Fowler of Cody told Cowboy State Daily that she found herself in a similar situation when she saw a cow elk get hit by a vehicle.

“I once saw a cow elk get hit on the North Fork (highway) and it was badly injured but still alive,” she said. “I called the game warden and told him she was in a bad way, and can I put her out of her misery? He said no. I told him I had already called 911 because the car that hit her was totaled and the driver was OK, but in shock.

“He told me to wait until the sheriff or HP (Wyoming Highway Patrol) got there, and they can shoot the elk.”

As hard as such a situation is to take, it’s the way the law works, and game wardens respond as quickly as they can, Fowler said.

“Most game wardens may even come out and investigate the situation and they can make the decision whether to shoot the animal. It's not always the decision a person likes, but it's the law,” she said.

Suffering Bull Shot The Next Morning

Describing another incident, outdoorsman Paul Ulrich of Pinedale told Cowboy State Daily that when he was hunting with a cow/calf elk tag near Meeteetse this fall, he spotted a bull elk that he was pretty sure had been wounded.

“It was late in the day, and I spotted a bull elk in the next drainage over that was just mulling around,” Ulrich said. “He was in an area that just seemed odd for him to be in, and he hung around there for way too long.”

It was a troubling sight, but Ulrich left the bull alone and hiked back out for the day. The next morning, some hunters who had a bull tag found that elk and killed it. Ulrich said he spoke with a game warden later that day, and the warden confirmed that the bull had been previously wounded.

“It raises a very interesting ethical dilemma. Do I do the right thing, legally. Or do I do the right thing perhaps ethically, in my heart?” Ulrich said. “None of us want to see any animal suffer, and in particular needlessly suffer. However, if you don’t have the proper hunting tag, you’re not allowed, or would you – or should you – drop an animal you don’t have a tag for.”

‘Any Loophole They Can Find, People Will Find It’

Ulrich and avid hunter and mule deer conservationist Zachary Key of La Barge agreed that as tough as the regulation against mercy killing seems, they understand the reasoning behind it.

Poachers would take advantage of a mercy killing exemption, they said.

“People would take advantage of it,” Ulrich said. “How do you prove, without a lot of forensic analysis, that they didn’t just go out and shoot an animal to wound it first, and then drop it under the auspices of a mercy killing?”

Key agreed bad actors would abuse such a legal exception.

“I just know peoples’ nature. I just think some people would see a big buck and think, ‘Oh, I can just go ahead and shoot that without a tag, and then just say it was wounded,’” he said. “Human nature is just … I hate saying it, but any loophole people can find, they will find it.”

Social media technology could help hunters alert game wardens, or each other, about wounded critters, Ulrich said. But at least for now, many hunting areas are too remote for cellular service.

“I do think that, outside of a regulatory fix, it would be good to have some mechanism to report a wounded animal, and report it quickly. Not only to Game and Fish, but to other hunters in the area who do have a tag for that animal,” he said.

Mark Heinz can be reached at mark@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter