Each year almost 60,000 people hunt for elk in Wyoming. It’s about one-tenth of the state’s population and about a third the total number of big game hunters in the state.

Some of them apply for and receive a hard-to-draw license, giving them the chance to stalk a trophy bull in the Red Desert or migratory herds west of Cody. But many of the applications are simple transactions – over-the-counter purchases by Wyoming resident elk hunters for general areas where licenses are unlimited.

For a resident hunter in a general area, how many tags are available and who gets them couldn’t be easier. For nonresident hunters, or a resident hunters with eyes on a special tag, who draws a tag gets complicated, and controversial – quick.

How many tags are available to nonresident hunters has been a sticking point in Wyoming for decades, leading to heated meetings and even lawsuits.

Nonresident hunters pay handsomely for their licenses and often hire local guides and outfitters to complete their trips, infusing cash in rural areas. Resident hunters, on the other hand, argue that by living, working and paying taxes in Wyoming, they have the right to hunt before someone from somewhere else. The end result is a complex formula created in the ‘80s that gives nonresident elk hunters a percentage of the overall special tags with a cap on the total number offered.

Now the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, the body charged with divvying up those licenses, plans to ask the public if that formula should change. No decisions have been made, but arguments are forming on either side. Wyoming’s outfitters say elk numbers have exploded in the last 30 years and they should have a bigger piece of the pie. Resident hunters say the system works, and the commission should simply leave it alone.

Growing herds

The Game and Fish Department began discussing how to divide up resident and nonresident elk tags in 1987, when elk numbers hovered around 65,000.

Wildlife officials decided then that nonresident elk hunters could receive 16 percent of the tags offered in limited quota areas – parts of the state where only certain numbers of bulls, cows and calves can be hunted. They also set a statewide nonresident license cap over the next couple years that settled at 7,250. That meant when the limited quota draw was over, the remaining available nonresident licenses went to hunters who applied for a general tag. That cap only applies to full-price licenses in the initial draw. Nonresidents can also receive leftover, less desirable licenses such as those for cows and calves, which generally often nearly doubles the number of elk licenses nonresidents receive each year.

And then elk numbers expanded. Herds have grown across Wyoming, hitting a high of about 114,000 in 2014. But that cap stayed the same.

Now about 2,700 nonresident elk hunters receive limited quota tags, meaning another roughly 4,500 hunters come to the state with general tags in their pockets. A general tag means a hunter can go to any general area from Jackson to Laramie to the Black Hills and hunt.

“The agency has been interested in this and identified this as an issue quite a long time ago,” said Doug Brimeyer, deputy chief of Game and Fish’s wildlife division. “We evaluated this in 1993 and again in 2013 and in the interim we had it as a topic.”

The result is a 120-page white paper detailing handfuls of options to change the way licenses are given with varying pros and cons.

When a group of outfitters came to Game and Fish Commission earlier in 2017 asking for the department to take another look, wildlife managers were ready with information.

Historic debate

Possibilities for changing how some of those roughly 60,000 elk licenses are distributed vary considerably, but a few themes run throughout.

The first is to raise the percentage of limited quota tags given to nonresidents from 16 to 20 percent in areas where there is not a high demand. The second is to divide the state into regions for nonresidents so general tags can only be used by nonresidents in certain places. The third is to get rid of the cap of 7,250 nonresident licenses.

The Wyoming Outfitters and Guide’s Association would like any of those, said Jeff Smith, president of the group and owner of Seven J Outfitters near Sundance.

“Whether people like it or not, it’s a huge economic boost for Wyoming Game and Fish selling tags and Wyoming as a whole,” Smith said. “I’m a big outfitter, we employ close to 30 people. I have 20 some guides, cooks and wranglers, I know I’m a big boost here, from the coop to grocery store to hardware store to NAPA parts store. Almost all my guides live around here and they’re spending money. It’s huge.”

While he supports raising the percentage from 16 to 20, he would mostly like to see Game and Fish get rid of the 7,250 cap and make regions. The regions would allow Game and Fish to spread out hunters where they want them, and re-evaluate every year.

More nonresident tags means more money for the department, since elk licenses cost between $577 and $1,000 for a nonresident and $52 for a resident.

“Most likely, when they look at it and review it, since there’s almost twice as many elk now, there will be more nonresident tags. That is a benefit. We’re not hiding that it is a benefit to us outfitters,” he said. “But it would have no ill effect on the resident hunter whatsoever.”

Some resident hunters, however, disagree.

More hunters in general areas will create overcrowding, said Rock Springs hunter Steve Gili.

“The lack of hunters you would encounter here is so vastly different than anywhere else,” he said. “Any additional tags diminish that tag, makes it less of a tag. You will encounter more hunters in the field, and they will kill more bulls.”

Gili has hunted in Wyoming as a resident and nonresident for the past 20 years. He lives in Wyoming now, but figures he’ll be a nonresident again as his job in the coal industry takes him somewhere else. Even then, he doesn’t want more general tags available.

While Smith argues that regions will allow local biologists to spread nonresident hunters around the state, Casper hunter Jeff Muratore countered that it could require Game and Fish to have quotas for every region, which would add more licenses and put more pressure on bull elk.

“As a resident I feel our wildlife has been put up for sale enough,” he said.

Can of worms

The Game and Fish Commission heard arguments from residents and outfitters at its November meeting in Lovell and decided the public should be allowed to formally weigh in.

“I apologize to our field people for what we’re doing to them, because this is really a volatile issue for a lot of people,” said Commission President Keith Culver. “We will have people upset at us for even looking at it. But that’s what this agency does best. We take public input before making decisions. This allows everyone to comment.”

The Wyoming Outfitters and Guide’s Association came to the commission asking for changes, Culver said. And Culver has already received emails from hunters on both sides of the issue.

He doesn’t know if the commission will make any changes. Meetings will likely be sometime in late spring.

No matter what path they go down, opinions will likely be strong. As part of the 120-page white paper analyzing the issue, wildlife managers talked to five former Game and Fish employees for their take:

“Historically, resident hunters have strongly opposed … the idea of increasing nonresident elk quotas. Public meetings often became very contentious when those proposals were presented,” the paper reads. “Any effort to increase nonresident elk quotas will fail without support from resident hunters.”

Follow managing editor Christine Peterson on Twitter @PetersonOutside

 

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