Elk herd impacts private property rights and rangeland health
Torrington – “Elk cost me a lot of money,” Wheatland Rancher Juan Reyes told the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee on June 6. “I believe, if we are going to make Wyoming the playground of the world, it should not be at the cost of ranchers. We need to get a handle on elk numbers.”
The committee of the Wyoming Legislature met in Torrington on June 5-6 to discuss a wide array of topics, including elk populations in the Laramie Range, which have been steadily increasing over the past several decades.
Reyes, a longtime rancher in southeastern Wyoming, explained, “In every one of our ranches, we have an overpopulation of elk.”
Reyes noted elk overpopulation impacts private property rights and the health of the rangelands on his private lands.
History of elk in
Charlie Farthing from Iron Mountain said his family has ranched in Wyoming since 1886, and they have been on the same property since 1903.
As the third generation on the ranch, Charlie has both children and grandchildren who are interested in continuing the family legacy.
“My grandfather never saw any elk, and my father didn’t see elk until the mid-1970s,” Farthing said. “These elk were planted on the Plumbago Canyon Ranch in 1976. Elk were transplanted out of Yellowstone by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) to a ranch off of Highway 34.”
Farthing noted, “Elk didn’t stay on the Plumbago Canyon Ranch.”
The original herd objective was 150 head, which increased to 300, 500, 800, to 1,000 and now up to today’s levels of 1,800 head.
Reyes called WGFD’s model for managing elk a “failed model.”
“This is gross mismanagement by the WGFD,” Farthing said. “Instead of trying to manage or control the elk, the objective was raised. When we got to the next objective, the population objective was raised again.”
In Hunt Area Six, WGFD has stated their objective population for elk is 1,800 head. Hunt Area Six is west of Highway 35, from I-25 to I-80.
“We’ve been after WGFD for at least the last two years, trying to find out how many elk are actually in Hunt Area Six,” Reyes said. “The population objective has moved in the last several years.”
After recent flight counts, Hunt Area Six has between 4,500 and 5,000 elk, according to WGFD counts, which costs Reyes hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, as a result of purchasing hay and leasing additional ground.
“Elk are affecting not only our hay crops and grass, but they impact the carrying capacity we have for cattle,” Farthing said. “We have fences we fix every week to 10 days because of elk.”
Private property impacts
“I feel strongly about private property rights,” Reyes emphasized. “Every time we go over herd objectives, the WGFD is depriving landowners the opportunity of profitability.”
Over the last 20 years of drought, Reyes explained ranchers have been forced to make the choice of selling cows, leasing more land or buying more land.
“While we are taking these measures, elk populations keep increasing,” he said. “We’ve been taught to leave one-third of the grass behind and leave some aftermath in the meadows. Our practices have changed recently.”
Pastures set aside for calving or left with forage for the next year are destroyed by elk throughout the year.
“How can I manage a ranch if I don’t know how many animal units we have?” Reyes asked, noting each elk is approximately 0.6 animal units.
While Reyes noted some progress has been made in conversations with WGFD over the last several years, he believes more progress must be made to avoid further costs to landowners.
In addition, Farthing said numerous meetings over many years have resulted in conversations about what WGFD cannot do and where their hands are tied.
Increasing elk tags will never address the problem, Hicks explained, partially as a result of private lands which create refuges in hunt areas.
“Licensing is not going to be able to fix this problem,” Reyes said. “The problem is public access.”
“All the good, responsible hunters can come, but if they don’t know the area, all that happens is elk are chased around and fences are destroyed,” he explained.
“We have the longest hunting season in the state of Wyoming,” Farthing said. “There are a tremendous number of cow tags, and they can’t sell them all. We need something to reduce elk numbers.”
In an attempt to compensate, Hicks noted the task force looked at options like forage compensation.
“I think it was you, Mr. Reyes, who said, ‘I don’t want your money. I want to raise cows. Don’t pay me to raise elk when I want to raise cattle,’” Hicks commented. “We heard loud and clear we need to reduce the elk populations.”
Reyes commented compensation would be helpful, but it isn’t the solution or the end goal, saying, “Let’s just get numbers down to where we manage elk.”
Farthing continued, at the end of the day, “I’m a cattle rancher. I don’t want compensation for elk. I want to raise cattle. We need to get numbers under control.”
“If this isn’t addressed soon, we’re going to get to the point where it’ll be impossible to deal with elk,” he added.
Saige Zespy is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.