Where elk strike pastureland, Wyoming seeks separate, special hunts

Wildlife managers are proposing to revamp and revive special hunts that function independently from Wyoming’s normal game seasons in places where elk, pronghorn and other species are taking a toll on hayfields and crops.

A proposal emanating from the Wyoming Stock Growers Association would update the regulations governing “depredation prevention” hunts — a management option the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has not used in nearly two decades. 

The rewrite rebrands those hunts as “auxiliary management” seasons and opens the possibility of using those special hunts for all big game and trophy game species, plus wild turkeys, so long as the chief game warden, one Game and Fish commissioner and a cooperating landowner agree to the idea. 

The proposed regulation has few parameters and on paper allows for unlimited culling of unwanted animals, but it does have a clear goal: addressing Wyoming’s elk overpopulation. 

“We have quite a few challenges right now, especially with elk from a damage perspective,” Game and Fish Chief Warden Rick King said. “We have a lot of places where we have a lot of elk, and it’s pretty tough to address in our current season framework.” 

By going outside of Game and Fish’s normal public season-setting processes, the department hopes to knock down elk populations that have ballooned against managers’ wishes in places like the Laramie Mountains and the Black Hills. In these predominantly eastern Wyoming areas, elk have learned to take shelter on private ranches where hunting pressure is diminished. The outcome is hundreds or thousands of hungry wapiti hunkered down on hayfields eating forage that livestock producers are growing for their cattle and their bottom lines.  

Although ranchers can be reimbursed for elk eating down hayfields, Wyoming Stock Growers Executive Vice President Jim Magagna said it’s no longer a tenable situation for cattlemen where elk populations have exploded. The lifelong southwestern Wyoming sheep rancher and lobbyist sought relief, both advocating for action from the state wildlife agency’s commission and urging the Wyoming Legislature’s Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee to take up the issue as an interim topic. 

“These [changes] are the result of a series of meetings that we’ve been holding with Game and Fish,” Magagna said. “Whether we’ll agree on all the solutions, time will tell. But certainly they’ve been very receptive to understanding the problem.” 

Other options for hunting down Wyoming’s overpopulated elk herds are also on the table. The Wyoming Wildlife Taskforce, which makes recommendations about top-priority wildlife-policy issues, also examined changes to landowner licenses. Reforms, which look unlikely, would have addressed abuses of those tags, but potential changes could also increase the number of tags — currently two per species — that are available to eligible landowners. 

Ranchers who run cattle on country shared by an overabundance of elk, and the hunting outfitters who lease from elk-swarmed landowners, say they appreciate the tentative step Game and Fish is taking. 

Push for change 

“If they want productive agriculture in our area, there’s got to be a change,” Newcastle-area cattleman Bill Lambert said. “There are just too many elk.”

Lambert’s Double J Ranch cattle graze on leased land within the realm of the Black Hills Elk Herd, which does not have an official population estimate, but is hunted down aggressively. 

“The overall harvest strategy for this herd is aimed at removing as many elk as possible given very restricted private land access,” Game and Fish biologist Joe Sandrini wrote in the latest update on the Black Hills Elk Herd. 

For Lambert, living with the elk herd is a life changer, he said. An oat crop was discontinued because the wild herds hit the oats so hard. Fence damage is routine and grass management is influenced by the whereabouts of elk. Dealing with public hunters who seek permission to hunt his leased land — some respectful, others not — is a ton of work, he said.  

Lambert remembers depredation hunts from his youth and said he would welcome their return. “I think that’s probably the only way we’re going to get control of the numbers,” he said. Previously, Lambert lobbied the state to issue transferable landowner licenses — tags the landowner could  give to other hunters. 

“It must not have fallen on deaf ears if they’re moving forward,” Lambert said. “Maybe they listened better than I perceived.” 

Those who make their money on guiding elk hunters also like the arrangement Game and Fish is moving toward. Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association President Sy Gilliland, who runs the state’s largest outfitting business, said he’s watched eastern Wyoming’s elk herds grow unabated for years and they’re at the point where they’re causing havoc.

“Right now what we’re doing to these private landowners is atrocious,” Gilliland said. “We’re expecting them to feed thousands of elk that they didn’t have to feed 10 years ago.” 

Gilliland knows of landowners swamped with elk to a debilitating degree in several areas: the southern Bighorn Mountains, Iron Mountain near Cheyenne and in the vicinity of the Thunder Basin National Grassland. He leases hunting rights from some of them for his outfitting operation, but said the opportunities the rewrite could create for his guided hunters is only part of why he’s pleased with the proposal Game and Fish is pushing.

“We’re at the point where we have to do something different,” he said. “I’ve just watched this happen for the last 30 years. What we’ve done to these landowners is not right.”  

Been here before

Depredation hunts aren’t new to Wyoming, but wildlife managers haven’t employed the tool for nearly two decades. The last time one was implemented was 2004, when roughly 100 elk were targeted in the Rochelle Hills.

“We had really good success — I think we killed about 90 elk off that depredation season — but that’s probably the last time we’ve used a depredation season,” King, the chief warden, told Game and Fish commissioners in March. 

The agency moved away from the auxiliary seasons, which he described as a “surgical” option, because they were cumbersome to administer. Prospective hunters would apply in July, then get added to a waiting list. In its rewrite of the regulations, Game and Fish staff are looking to change how the licenses are distributed and employ the department’s electronic licensing system. 

As for who would be eligible to apply, that would be “case by case,” King told WyoFile. It would be up to himself, the Game and Fish commissioner representing the district where damage was occurring and the landowner to determine what the hunt looks like and who gets to partake.  

“There isn’t a spelled out process for bringing this forth,” King said. 

Game and Fish might have to recruit 100 hunters in some cases, he said. But where depredation hunts are smaller in scope, the landowner could also select participants directly. The overall intent of the revisions is to make the auxiliary hunting seasons more usable and nimble, King said. The rewrite goes before the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission at its September meeting, with the aim of hunters’ targeting elk this fall and winter to reduce depredations.

“I think we need this tool,” King said. “And I hope to be able to use it in that Iron Mountain/Laramie Peak country.” 

Some scrutiny

King does not anticipate a big fight to get the updated auxiliary hunting seasons OK’d. 

“Historically, this was a well-accepted tool,” he said. “I think a lot of folks recognize the challenge the department faces maintaining quality elk-hunting experiences across the state while addressing significant real damage concerns on private land.”

There are some stakeholders asking questions, however. 

Kristin Combs, who directs the Jackson Hole-based Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, gets why Game and Fish seeks to relieve eastern Wyoming ranchers overrun with elk. But she has concerns about the broad parameters of the proposed regulations, which apply to a dozen species, from gray wolves to whitetail deer. According to the regulation, the depredation hunts could be pursued whenever those species cause damage or whenever killing them achieves the “purpose of meeting disease management objectives.”

“There’s no check and balance,” Combs said. “If anyone says, ‘Hey, we’re experiencing depredations, give me some hunting tags,’ that’s what could happen. It seems innocuous at first, but I could see somebody using it for a reason it wasn’t intended for.” 

King said there aren’t plans to use the auxiliary hunts for species other than elk. Trophy game species (black and grizzly bears, mountain lions and gray wolves) were added to regulation along with wild turkeys for “increased flexibility, should the need arise,” he said.  

As for the name change — from “depredation prevention” to “auxiliary management” hunts — that’s another alteration being made in the name of flexibility, Game and Fish law enforcement supervisor Mike Choma told the Wyoming Wildlife Taskforce last week. 

“It’s not always a depredation purpose,” Choma said. “The regulation could be used in the past for disease management or wildlife management purposes.” 

Members of the task force, whose charter includes shaping policy around hunter opportunity, were not critical of the state agency’s proposal, which provides a new avenue for landowners to handpick the people who hunt their property. 

“If a landowner has a very limited number of animals and they have already identified people that they know and trust and so forth, we can work that through the Access Yes application process so that only those people are eligible to get a license,” Choma said.