Graceful and majestic, elk are one of Wyoming’s icons. Large herds draw hunters, photographers and viewers from around the globe hoping to catch a glimpse of a bull’s huge rack and hear its roaring bugle.
But in many areas of the state, those herds have simply grown too large, said Brian Nesvik, chief of the wildlife division for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Game and Fish officials have tried recently to encourage hunting in the larger herds, even offering special elk hunts on private lands monitored by biologists. Department officials are going one step further this hunting season. Hunters can now buy three elk licenses in some areas.
Until this year, Wyoming state statute mandated each hunter could only hold two elk licenses. The Wyoming Legislature gave Game and Fish the ability to control elk license numbers during its last session. Wildlife officials made an emergency order in August offering an extra reduced-price cow and calf license in some of those overpopulated areas, Nesvik said.
“I think this adds one more tool that the department and [Game and Fish] Commission can use in areas where we have over-objective elk,” he said. “It’s similar to what we’ve done with deer and antelope populations.”
For Jason Thornock, a Cokeville area rancher, allowing hunters to kill one more elk might help ease his elk burden. He has lost some of his grazing leases recently because of too many hungry elk, he said.
His cattle are also in a brucellosis surveillance area where they have comingled with elk.
“With twice as many elk, we have a higher likelihood of contracting brucellosis,” he said. “Until they get that number back down to objective, I think giving more licenses is a good idea.”
Thornock allows hunting on his property, but the majority of the elk move on to other places before hunting season begins, he said.
Officials also worry about elk habitat. With some herds numbering nearly twice as many as Game and Fish would like, their range can degrade, Nesvik said.
The Iron Mountain elk herd near Cheyenne, for example, has 3,500 elk. Wildlife officials would like the herd to number 1,800.
Three elk is a lot of meat, unless it’s feeding a big family, said Brad Shirley, a Casper elk hunter.
He can see the use in providing an additional tag just in case a hunter doesn’t fill the first two.
The problem is, he said, that many of the large elk herds are on private land, making access an issue no matter how many licenses a hunter collects.
“It won’t be the silver bullet to elk issues across the state,” Nesvik said. “But it’s another tool.”