There are times the parking lot at the check station is overflowing with trucks with antlers peeking out of the beds of trucks and trailers carrying horses. Happy hunters show their harvests. But while the mood is usually light, this is serious business.
The station — at the corner of Wyo. Highway 291 (the South Fork Road) and U.S. Highway 14/16/20 in Cody — has been in operation for about 40 years. Hunters are required to stop on the way out from their hunts, whether having harvested game or not. It wasn’t that long ago that hunters heading into the wilderness had to sign in, both on the way in and on the way back out.
“Hunters were given a number when they checked in. It was good to know who was in there and that everyone made it out,” said Tony Mong, Cody Region wildlife biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Times have changed, yet the information still gathered at the check station is important and used in a variety of ways. Much of it is practical knowledge about migration of deer and elk. A running count of harvests is kept, among other things. By the time the check station closed for the season Saturday, it was obvious that numbers were down this year.
“It’s slower than normal due to a difficult winter last year and variable weather this year,” Mong said.
There were many reports of bears. On Friday evening, one archer practicing at the Cody Archery facility, just east of Cody, brought in photos of grizzly tracks. Grizzly bears close to town aren’t unusual, but still concerning.
John Baughman, a former director for the Game and Fish, stopped by the station with his golden lab pup after a chukar hunt on the North Fork. While he didn’t see any of the tasty birds, he did see signs of bear.
“We saw seven different sets of grizzly tracks made when the snow was soft,” Baughman said, adding, “And there are a lot of people hunting today. It’s like a super highway up there.”
Despite the law, not everyone stops at the check stations. The state also has several mobile stations in heavy hunting areas that can be quickly set up anywhere. The rules are the same no matter where they decide to open a station: All hunters must stop. At times, game wardens will watch for hunters passing in their vehicles wearing orange or carrying animals, pulling them over for a check if they pass the station.
Most times it’s up to the hunters to follow the regulations. Those caught failing to stop can be ticketed. Considering the importance of the check stations, all should want to stop. Information, even from those failed hunts, is an important tool for the Game and Fish.
“Talking to hunters about their experiences is one of the tools in the toolbox of how we set seasons,” Mong said. “Unfortunately, lots of folks haven’t been stopping.”
Hunter checks go fast. The Game and Fish is now using a proprietary app to scan tags and check in harvested animals. It saves on paperwork and time. Without banter, a check can be done in a matter of a few minutes. But the employees manning the check stations have a wealth of information and passing up the opportunity to pick their brains is rare.
Paul Cross, of Powell, has been working at the South Fork station for eight years. He doesn’t hunt anymore, but he has helped many who do by sharing information with hunters while doing his job.
“We’ve checked 31 deer today. They were coming in about four every half-hour earlier,” Cross said during a lull in the action.
When checking a antlered deer, elk or pronghorn, measurements are taken. Amanda Marsh stopped to check in a nice meat buck. The Cody resident’s round trip to harvest the mule deer was about 9 miles. Instead of dragging the deer out, she and her hunting partners butchered it on site.
Many harvested animals come to the station in the same manner. When an animal comes in that can be tested for chronic wasting disease (CWD) and brucellosis, the hunters have a choice if they want the tests done. If they consent to a test, scientists go to work.
There wasn’t enough of Marsh’s deer left to do a test. Samples of lymph nodes in the neck are collected, when possible. But often the head, minus the antlers, are left behind when hunting deep in the Washakie Wilderness or the Shoshone National Forest.
“It was too far back to drag the whole deer out,” Marsh said.
This year, Montana joined the list of states with CWD infecting its deer population. Wyoming has been dealing with the disease for decades, Mong said. But diseases are rare in the Cody Region. Those consenting for a CWD test are given a number to check online for test results. While the tests are considered a priority and can be done as quickly as a week, they can take up to three weeks to finish.
Hunters who’ve harvested a deer that tests positive can decide whether they want to keep the meat and they won’t be ticketed for wanton waste if they decide to throw it out. While there have been no direct links of humans contracting CWD, the Game and Fish does not recommend consuming deer that test positive.
Elk are tested for brucellosis by taking blood samples from the chest cavity. Again, there are many cases where the elk was quartered in the field and the tests are impossible to do at the check station. Brucellosis is a serious disease and it can be transferred to cattle.
“It’s something we’re trying to keep a close eye on, but there’s a very low prevalence in the Cody Region,” Mong said.
Pronghorn are also currently being tested. Samples of their DNA are being collected for a genetics survey.
A Missouri native with a master’s in wildlife biology from Kansas State University, Mong has been with the Game and Fish for eight years. He works with all wildlife — from carnivores to game birds.