Wyoming’s wildlife, it’s bugling elk, epic mule deer herds and trophy fish have always been a point of pride. It’s a state that has, at times, housed more pronghorn than people. Wildlife is a unifying factor here – except when it’s not.
This year will likely be no exception. At a time when national politics could not seem more polarized, and state politicians are struggling with nearly unprecedented budget issues amid a global pandemic, Wyoming’s wildlife are also facing issues, some of which have been building for decades.
It is possible to find a solution, said Wyoming Wildlife Federation government affairs director Jess Johnson, but it will require sitting down, talking and working together.
“We get the best outcomes by having hard discussions in a civil way,” Johnson said. “Migration corridors, feedrounds, chronic wasting disease, predator management, everything like that, it takes effort and finesse to come at it with an open mind.
“If anyone can do it, it’s people in Wyoming. We’re small and local… that doesn’t mean we can’t disagree, but the way we do disagree is important.”
Johnson and Kristen Gunther, program director for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, lined out a few of the top issues for wildlife this year in Wyoming.
Feedgrounds and chronic wasting disease
Wyoming’s elk and mule deer have been facing something of a looming crisis for more than 30 years. Chronic wasting disease, an incurable, always fatal prion disease was discovered in the southeast corner of the state in the 1970s and has been slowly marching its way west toward the 22 feedgrounds run by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the National Elk Refuge operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Feedgrounds are controversial on their own — even the state of Montana once wrote Wyoming a letter asking the state to stop artificially feeding elk. Feedgrounds congregate elk, encouraging the spread of disease, critics say. But a solution to providing enough food for tens of thousands of elk in an area with hard winters and plenty of human development has been elusive for decades.
Conservation and environmental groups have been calling for the feedgrounds to be shuttered for years as chronic wasting disease has inched closer. Ranchers, on the other hand, worry about the possibility of brucellosis spreading from elk to cattle and sportsmen and women are concerned about diminished herd sizes.
Then in December, a cow elk shot near the National Elk Refuge tested positive for chronic wasting disease.
Game and Fish officials had already started a series of listening sessions for anyone interested in the history of the feedgrounds, why they exist and how they’re operated. From there, the conversations will likely focus more on what can be done.
Those are important conversations for the public to join, Johnson said.
“Coming to the table with an open mind and not just a position seems to be the beneficial way to approach something like this,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of hard opinions on both sides that have very little forced solution-based thinking in it. While I understand both sides, I wish we were seeing more collaborative mentalities.”
As far as chronic wasting disease, Johnson knows that wildlife officials may need to consider changes such as decreasing buck numbers in some herds with high rates of the disease to reduce transmission. Those changes will likely be controversial, but she also believes science should ultimately guide management decisions.
Gov. Mark Gordon signed an executive order in February 2020 finalizing three migration corridors and requiring the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and a local working group review all new designations before going to his office. Once a formal migration corridor is established, working groups gather to offer local thoughts and advice on the designation. A migration corridor designation can then be used to help guide development and other land uses.
The department is in the process of analyzing another two corridors. Public participation in pre- and post-working groups is critical, Gunther said.
“This is an important time to be engaged,” she said. “It’s a really important place to be plugged into if you care about big game, not just from a place of worry but because there’s a lot of opportunities.”
Wildlife crossings and access
Two other major issues Johnson and other sportsmen and women’s groups will be following are wildlife crossings and increasing access whenever possible.
The state, nonprofits and the federal government have poured millions of dollars into highway over and underpasses in the last decade as a way to prevent big game deaths and costly — and harmful — vehicle collisions.
“Until we find a final long-term sustaining source for wildlife crossings that will stay on WWF’s radar,” Johnson said. “Everyone needs something good to work for, and I feel like wildlife crossings is a solution-based nonpartisan thing.”
Lastly, she said, is the ever-present desire to increase access to areas for hunting and fishing. While no concrete plans are currently being discussed, “any opportunity we have to help sportsmen’s access, especially on the eastern side of the state, is something that’s always at the top of my mind.”