The tipping point came two years ago for Rep. Albert Sommers.
Shortly after midnight, groups of people raced by his ranch house near Pinedale in buggies chasing deer through fences and over hills.
They were looking for shed antlers. In late winter conditions. In the middle of the night. Sommers, a longtime Republican representative, had had enough.
Many winter ranges close west of the Continental Divide from Jan. 1 until 12:01 a.m. May 1. That means no one is allowed to collect shed antlers in those areas until essentially midnight the day it opens.
That midnight opener has become an event at some forest entrances, and it’s big business, with shed antlers fetching more than $18 a pound.
People should still be able to collect them, Sommers said, but that midnight opener has to go.
“There have been horses drowned in the middle of the night in Jackson,” Sommers said. “There have been people going out with vehicles in this mad dash to get these horns in the middle of the night.”
Sommers is sponsoring a bill to allow Wyoming’s Game and Fish Commission to change the time and date shed hunters are allowed on winter ranges to anytime throughout the year.
Not only would it prevent chaos in the middle of the night, he said, but also give the Commission the ability to open the season later in the spring following particularly harsh winters.
Closing antler collecting on winter ranges is critical to keeping wildlife safe, said Brian Nesvik, Game and Fish’s chief game warden.
Elk and deer eke through winter using fat reserves and picking at minimal food left bare on the landscape. Humans often disrupt that balance, leaving wildlife too weak to make it until spring and summer.
Before the closures, “We had people that would literally chase the critter to try and get it to jump the fence and have them fall off. Those cases were not the norm but they were cases,” Nesvik said.
Sommers’ bill is HB0012, though the legislator is also listed as a co-sponsor on HB0028, which seeks to make the shed antler restrictions statewide instead of only west of the Continental Divide.
The second bill, sponsored by Rep. Bill Haley, R-Centennial, started when people in the Snowy Range area asked Haley for similar rules on the southeastern part of the state.
“There is an increased number of people that are spending an increased amount of time on these big game winter ranges, and you know every time someone shows up and runs elk and deer off the winter ranges it causes stress,” he said.
Haley was a game warden for more than 30 years, and witnessed firsthand some of the issues with more people near wildlife during a fragile time of the year.
As other states have begun prohibiting antler collecting on winter ranges, hunters from out of state are coming to areas like the Platte Valley near Saratoga, Nesvik said.
“The thing I like about [the bill] is it really leaves decisions on how to address issues in different parts of the state up to the commission, not have one cookie cutter approach in the rest of the state,” he said.
Legislature considers preference points
Wyoming lawmakers may once again consider instituting a preference point program for resident elk, deer and antelope hunters.
The proposed legislation, HB0042, is sponsored by Rep. Pat Sweeney, R-Casper, and would change Wyoming law to institute a preference point system similar to nonresidents.
The basic premise is that instead of all names entering a lottery system for limited quota areas – those where Game and Fish has capped the number of people allowed to hunt – applicants will earn points. Once applicants have enough points, they can receive licenses.
The idea offers a certain level of stability to planning a hunt, Nesvik said. If a hunt area has a 25 percent draw rate – which means 25 percent of applicants receive a tag each year – then theoretically under a preference point system a hunter would know he or she will draw a tag every four years.
On the other side, it eliminates the possibility for lucky hunters to draw two years in a row, for example, or even four out of four years.
The exact mechanics of how it would work could vary depending on a final version of the bill and the Game and Fish Commission.
The Wyoming Legislature has considered a handful of similar bills in the past decade or so, Nesvik said, and none have been successful. Annual polling shows about half of resident hunters support the idea and half do not.
Lawmakers consider hunting technology
Another wildlife bill before the Legislature this year would give the Game and Fish Commission authority to regulate all current and future hunting-related technology.
Current regulations only permit the Commission to regulate technology that is directly involved in killing wildlife, such as firearms, scopes or archery equipment.
Trail cameras, for example, that are used by hunters during the hunting season but aren’t part of the active kill, cannot be regulated by the Commission. This issue came up in 2018 when the Commission discussed regulating new hunting technologies such as smart rifles, GPS-tracking arrows and trail cameras that transmit live video feeds.
A 2018 survey showed that the majority of hunters supported regulating live trail cameras, but the Commission was not authorized to regulate them, Nesvik said.
The bill, HB0002, is being sponsored by the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Interim Committee.