The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is discussing possible changes to the number of elk licenses nonresidents can draw and the way they are issued.
History isn’t on the side of change: The limit of 16 percent of limited quota tags for nonresidents and a cap of 7,250 total elk tags still stands after numerous attempts at updates, two lawsuits and a near doubling in the size of Wyoming elk herds over the past few decades.
Now once again, the department is wondering whether it will find support for a change that will raise the percent of nonresident limited quota licenses up to 20 percent in some areas while also changing the way nonresidents buy general tags.
Previous attempts at change have all met the same doom — a lack of public support.
“This is going to be a highly charged issue,” Keith Culver, president of the Game and Fish Commission, said at a meeting in Lovell last week.
Many don’t like the idea of more nonresident hunters coming to Wyoming. Nonresident hunters typically hunt for bulls and that doesn’t sit well with many residents. And more hunters could mean crowding on public access land. Hunters and outfitters were at the meeting to lobby the commissioners.
“Any increase in the 7,250 quota, or even worse, an increase in the nonresident allocation from 16 to 20 [percent], all it does is diminish the elk hunting that we have here,” said Steve Gili, a resident elk hunter from Rock Springs who first came to the state to hunt as a nonresident.
Doug Brimeyer, deputy chief of the wildlife division, presented the commission with two options last week. The first is to leave everything as it is.
The second option is more complicated. It would give the department flexibility on the limited quota licenses, raising the percentage of nonresident licenses up to 20 percent in regions that show low resident demand.
“In a lot of regions where there’s high demand now it would likely stay at 16 percent,” said Brian Nesvik, chief of the wildlife division.
Under the option, the department would also change the nonresident general tag option to general elk regions, much like nonresident deer licenses. It would also do away with the statewide cap of 7,250 nonresident licenses. The number of nonresident general tags available would be set independently by regional managers, based primarily on a biological basis but could also include issues like resident tag requests and public opinion, Brimeyer said.
While the cap would be eliminated, it doesn’t necessarily mean the number of nonresident hunters would go up.
“If we went to independent regions that could set their own quota, the 7,250 cap wouldn’t be necessary,” Brimeyer said. “Potentially it could [increase], but it also could make it so the managers have the flexibility if they have winter severity — such as in western Wyoming, where they had the deer changes, they could modify their quotas to be on the lower side for a year or two depending on the biological needs of that population.”
Many outfitters would like to see the system change.
“The current system is antiquated,” said Lee Livingston, representing Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association. The Wapiti resident said he’d like to see the number of nonresident tags go up to correspond with the rising elk population.
According to the Game and Fish Department, the state’s elk population has increased substantially since 1980, when the post-hunting season number of elk was estimated at 65,000. The post-season population estimate first peaked at 110,000 in 1995, then declined to 89,000 in 2004. By 2014 it grew to an all-time high of 114,600 and has been stable since. The current rules were set in 1987.
However, commissioner Pat Crank wasn’t so keen on the idea of having nonresident tags rise with the elk population.
“What do you say to the resident hunter who has put in for 10 years in a limited quota area and can’t draw it because our Legislature will not adopt resident preference points? said Crank, a commissioner from Cheyenne. “Take myself; I love to hunt Green Mountain. They give out 100 elk tags there. I can only draw it every 10 years. What do you say to Pat Crank that says, ‘I’m opposed to giving four more of those tags to nonresident hunters? I live here. I pay taxes.’”
Yet the idea of the proposed changes, according to Brimeyer, is to leave decisions to regional managers and increases to 20 percent are unlikely in high demand areas. Areas with low demand from residents, such as the northeastern part of the state, where much of the land is private, or areas where elk populations negatively impact mule deer habitat, are likely to see the increased percentage. And breaking the state up in to nonresident hunt regions could help combat crowding issues.
Not all outfitters agree with the proposed changes, however. B.J. Hill, owner of Swift Creek Outfitters near Jackson, wants to keep the current system intact.
“I think we’re rushing this thing too fast,” Hill said. “Lets get our grizzlies and wolves on track completely and get our calf ratio on track and then come back and revisit this thing. I’d like to stay with the status quo until we get healed up.”
Ultimately, regardless of what the department proposes, the decision is in the hands of the commission.
“Everything that the department does with these allocations would simply be a recommendation to the commission and ultimately the commission would make the decision during the season-setting meetings,” Nesvik said.
David Rael, commissioner from Cowley, hopes all parties can come to a reasonable compromise on the issue.
“I do believe the 7,250 licenses is a small number, especially when compared to the current elk populations. It would be a win-win for us to side with the outfitters and also side with the residents,” Rael said. “There’s a compromise there. We’ll find it.”
Everyone will get a chance to voice their opinions. The commission plans to soon discuss the options with the public in a series of meetings throughout the state.
“I don’t know another entity that goes to such lengths to include the public in our decisions,” said commission president Culver.
No matter what comes of the discussion he said changes, if any, will not affect the 2018 season.
Editor's note: The original version of this story mischaracterized one possible option as a “proposal” that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is backing. Game and Fish staff did not propose changes to the regulations, but rather simply discussed possible options for changes, at the request of the Game and Fish commission. In planning to take the issue to the public in the form of scoping meetings, the department is not seeking support from either side of the debate, but rather wanting to gauge support for possible changes. Part of the commission's role is reviewing the processes by which hunting opportunity is allocated.