Ranchers join forces to address wildlife concerns
Casper – On Jan. 25, the Wyoming Wildlife Taskforce met to discuss wildlife policy issues facing the state related to the allocation of hunting opportunities, sportsperson access and other issues.
Topics discussed included improving public access, private landowner issues and wildlife hunting.
Several Wyoming ranchers met to voice their concerns and impacts regarding an increase in wildlife elk populations. Juan D. Reyes, owner of M.R. Angus Ranch and Don Willis, both from Wheatland, and Charlie Farthing of Iron Mountain presented at the meeting. All three ranchers are located within Wyoming elk hunt area six, from the Wyoming/Colorado state line north to Wyoming Highway 34.
The Wyoming Wildlife Taskforce was convened by Gov. Mark Gordon, Wyoming legislative leadership and the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission. The first meeting was held June 16-17, 2021 in Casper.
At the meetings, public input is considered for studies completed over an 18-month period, with topics being identified and explored by taskforce members. From the topics discussed, the goal is to make necessary policy changes.
Though hunting licenses have increased for several hunting areas, elk management continues to be a concern for many landowners across the state.
Concerns with increased elk numbers
“In the 70s, we used to see 20 to 30 head of elk, and that was something,” said Farthing. “Now, we see anywhere between 400 to 2,000 head of elk.”
Reyes compared elk management practices to federal forest management by sharing, “We’re managing the elk herd the way the federal government manages the forest. There is no harvesting, no timber sales, no clear cutting, no cleaning up the forest. Dead forest and continual fires have plagued Wyoming. As a result, from not taking action, the state is now paying monetarily, recreationally and environmentally. We have lost our viewscape, wildlife habitat and our timber sales.”
Massive numbers and damages continue to be a major concern, but there are two unique things to Wyoming elk hunt area six where the ranchers reside according to Willis: The majority of the land in the area is private property and damage is occurring 12 months of the year.
“It sounds like from talking to different neighbors and our own experiences, and as we’ve watched this explosion of elk happen over the past 31 years, the elk don’t have somewhere else to go,” explained Farthing. “As a result, ranchers have lost a quarter of their ag production because they no longer have the grass to sustain the same cattle herd.”
“Elk are impossible to manage,” added Reyes. “We manage our cows, but thousands of elk are not manageable. Riparian areas are hard to control, as well as sensitive areas such as mule deer habitats.”
“When 50 elk are doubled to 100 elk, it’s not that big of a deal,” said Farthing. “But, when we’re talking about 5,000 elk and doubling this number every few years, now we’re talking about a lot of elk.”
WGFD proposed solution and concerns
In the spring of 2021, WGFD announced the commission approve the addition of 2,000 more licenses for the 2021 elk season. According to the WGFD, there is an estimated 110,200 elk roaming the state.
“Licensing is not going to fix the overpopulation problem the state of Wyoming has,” said Reyes. “The only real solution to stopping the problem is depredation – harvest the elk, give the meat to the needy and find companies that will utilize the animal’s byproducts.”
WGFD has been focused on providing more access to the public, but local ranchers take pride in private property rights.
Reyes believes private property rights should be taken to heart by both ranchers and the public, as private property rights are what sets the U.S. apart from other countries.
“Allowing folks to go across private land to access public lands is a big issue. To me, it is no different than permitting someone to walk through my living room so they can get to my backyard, enabling them to get to a public road,” Reyes says. “Corner crossing is also chipping and eroding away at our private property rights.”
Reyes encourages people to consider why Wyoming wildlife and state fisheries are doing so well. He notes it is important to remember the efforts of ranchers when it comes to habitat and wildlife populations. Sound management practices by ranchers and stockmen, which have been passed on for many generations, benefit both private and public lands.
“These management practices have proven to be good for both livestock and wildlife,” Reyes says. “As I have said before, I let responsible hunters hunt, and I also communicate with a local outfitter and allow them to hunt once my guests have completed their hunts.”
“Right now, in our neighborhood, the biggest and successful harvesting of these elk comes from three outfitters who harvest the elk properly,” continued Willis.
Per WGFD, elk belong to the state of Wyoming, which makes it tough to manage a productive cowherd, as well as wildlife, while proactively managing the land, added Willis.
“We try to save grass, but once you get these big groups of elk on your property, grass and fences are destroyed,” explained Willis.
Needed elk management plan
“What bothers me more than having the elk is losing the opportunity for profitability because the availability of my private land grass is taken away by these increased elk populations,” said Reyes.
During the meeting, the Wyoming Wildlife Taskforce suggested compensation for damages and funds to lease more grazing land to the cattle ranchers. Monetary compensation only alleviates the problem and does not fix the issue, noted Farthing.
“There are five things the WGFD can do to manage elk populations,” said Reyes. “They are extra licenses for landowners; change the statue from cropland compensation to also include grassland; compensate landowners for grass loss and fence damages; WGFD needs to initiate a pilot program to reduce elk populations; and depredation to get elk populations to a manageable number.”
“We’re cattle ranchers, not elk ranchers,” mentioned Farthing. “Raising cattle is what we know and what we do, and as these elk keeping doubling through the years, eventually all Wyoming will be is an elk country, rather than a cattle and cowboy country. Something needs to be done, instead of kicking the can down the road as they have done in the past.”
“Contrary to the information being fed to the public, the current overpopulation of elk is not the result of lack of access to and through private property,” said Reyes. “Ranchers typically allow responsible hunters access to or through their property. Not all hunters are responsible.”
“The real reason for the explosion in elk numbers is because of flawed management policies and a ‘bury your head in the sand’ mentality,” concluded Reyes. “It’s time the WGFD take responsibility for the current problem and institute mitigation management to address the real problem. We don’t need to make Wyoming a private playground at the expense of the local ranchers.”
In addition to attending the Wyoming Wildlife Taskforce meeting on Jan. 26, Reyes, Willis and Farthing met with the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission to voice their concerns. Also in attendance was Ray Garson, representing the Strong Creek Ranch outside of Bosler. These ranchers, along with others from across the state, are pleading for necessary policy change in regards to elk management.
Ranchers who have been impacted by expanding elk populations are encouraged to send written comments, concerns and contact information to Wyoming Stock Growers Association, 113 East 20th Street, P.O. Box 206, Cheyenne, WY 82003, or visit wysga.org.
Brittany Gunn is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.