To say Casper angler Spencer Amend was sad when the Wyoming Hunting and Fishing Heritage Expo was canceled five years ago would be a bit of an understatement.“I was terribly disappointed,” he said. “It’s something I care a lot about.”
It was a way for youth across the state to learn about fish, wildlife, survival and other outdoor skills. It was a way to connect young people and adults with a world they may not always get to see. Amend wanted it to come back.
And this year he and dozens of other people, from sportsmen and conservationists to teachers and biologists, get their wish. The event, which has been rebranded the Wyoming Outdoor Expo, will return Thursday through Saturday at the Casper Events Center.
Thousands of students from elementary through high school are registered to attend, and all three days are open and free to the public, said Kathryn Boswell, hunter and angler participation coordinator for the department. It will feature about 90 educational booths with everything from spin fishing and fly casting to field dressing and horse packing.
Game and Fish was one of the first state agencies in the country to host its own fish and wildlife expo, fitting for a place where hunting and fishing is as much a pastime as a part of the state’s identity.
But budget cuts in 2012 meant the agency eliminated the expo after more than a decade in operation. Game and Fish Commissioner Pat Crank lead the charge to renew the event in 2016, and the Commission then decided to bring it back, with some tweaks.
“It’s something that I thought was really beneficial back when we were doing it,” Crank said at the time. “It was one of the things that got cut, and I believed we should start again.”
This year is in the spring to prepare people for an upcoming summer outside and fall hunting season. It’s also going to focus on all aspects of outdoor recreation, not just hunting and fishing, Boswell said.
“It’s really for the outdoor enthusiast or for the person who wants to learn about the outdoors and how to recreate safely,” she said. “There will be booth exhibits of all kinds of things from survival to snowshoeing, navigation with a map and compass or wayfinding with a string and landmark.”
While the event is geared largely to youth, it likely offers something for most adults, too.
Countless Game and Fish biologists and other staff members will be there, even offering those with questions a chance to sit down for a cup of coffee with top officials such as Chief Game Warden Brian Nesvik.
Mostly though, organizers want the event to be as hands-on as possible.
Groups like the Wyoming Fly Casters and the local Trout Unlimited and Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing chapters will teach fly fishing at a station complete with a 50-foot-long pond instead of casting into the parking lot like previous years.
“A casting pond will make it a little more exciting,” said Amend, a Flycasters trustee. “We will be doing demonstrations of fancy casting and will be giving folks hands on experience, too.”
Joshua Coursey, president and CEO of the Muley Fanatic Foundation will have a kiddy pool to help demonstrate carrying capacity of a landscape. If you put a brick in, water and fish lose habitat. It’s the same in Wyoming’s open spaces, he said.
They will also have a coloring sheet of the new wildlife license plate that the Wyoming Legislature approved this year.
“[The expo] will give a greater appreciation of how blessed we are to live in a state with fabulous resources,” Coursey said. “Our state is second to none and this is a way to showcase how wonderful those resources are. We take them for granted because we’re here and this is a great way to showcase it.”
The event still isn’t cheap for the department – it will likely run the state agency about $150,000. But organizers say it’s a critical piece of outreach, particularly for youth, that may ultimately boost interest in hunting and fishing and as a result Game and Fish coffers.
“Around the country, hunting and fishing in particular and wildlife and recreation in general is struggling a little bit because there is so much stuff available including the electronic gizmos and toys,” said Amend, whose 14-year-old granddaughter is also on the expo steering committee. “This thing makes it real. You can read about it and see something on TV about it, but when you can get out and touch stuff and connect with it, that’s long term what will sustain the wildlife-oriented recreational heritage in Wyoming.”
Wyoming’s numbers haven’t suffered quite as much as other states. Overall hunter and angler participation actually increased ever so slightly from 2008 to 2016. Youth numbers have also inched up from about 7,600 in 2008 to 8,700 in 2016.
But when the bulk of Game and Fish’s budget comes from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, numbers are important.
It’s a sentiment local hunters and anglers feel very acutely. Jerry Galles, a former Game and Fish Commissioner who is also involved in the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation, said Game and Fish and outdoor groups have to work to keep numbers up and increasing.
“If we don’t do that, pretty soon we won’t have outdoor sports because there won’t be enough people hunting and fishing to support wildlife,” he said. “This thing they are doing now, and that we did in the past, intertwines with so many things — keeping people occupied, feeding people, enjoying a sport, getting them outside and enjoying something we have in Wyoming that not many other states have.”