As an avid hunter, Lander resident and Wyoming Wildlife Federation staffer Jessi Johnson finds dwindling tolerance for large carnivore hunting to be “scary.”
Squeamishness about humans preying on carnivores is evident in frequent headlines across the country, she said, whether it’s about bear hunting in Washington, cat hunting in Colorado or Vermont’s issues with bear hunting dogs.
In rural, conservative Wyoming, carnivore hunting opponents have made no real inroads affecting regulations, although there have been some creative attempts. Still, Johnson seeks to proactively disarm those who aim to disband seasons for toothy species.
“We have this unique ability, for once in our damn lives, to be ahead of the game on communications as hunters,” Johnson said. “People relate to things through language. And if we’re calling these animals trophies, we’re losing the game.”
To that end, Johnson conceived of and ferreted out sponsors and co-sponsors for complementary bills that change the language and regulations around hunting for Wyoming’s trophy game species: Wolves, mountain lions, grizzly and black bears.
One, House Bill 217 – Trophy game animal-change to large carnivore game animal, does just what its title says. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Sandy Newsome (R-Cody), is essentially a rebrand, scrubbing out the word “trophy” from 38 pages of statute and replacing it with “large carnivore.” The idea was born from Johnson’s experience working on the grizzly delisting issue, and listening to people’s comments.
“I was sitting there realizing how problematic trophy language has become,” Johnson said. “It detracts from constructive conversations, whether they’re for or against something, because it gets people’s hackles up on both sides.”
The proposed name-change spoke to Newsome, who’s not a hunter.
“When we call animals ‘trophy game,’” she said, “that’s not the connotation that we want.”
Sens. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) and Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer) and Reps. Donald Burkhart (R-Rawlins), Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland), J.T. Larson (R-Rock Springs), John Winter (R-Thermopolis) and Cody Wylie (R-Rock Springs) signed on as co-sponsors.
Notably, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has already drifted toward referring to the aforementioned species as large carnivores, not trophy game species.
The second Johnson-conceived bill Newsome sponsored is House Bill 247 – Trophy game animals-wanton waste. In essence, it would require hunters to haul meat out of the field after killing wolves, mountain lions or black bears. Those trophy game species (proposed via HB 217 to be “large carnivore” species) would then be under the umbrella of wanton waste laws already applied to other Wyoming wild game, be it birds, fish or ungulates.
Currently, trophy game hunters must take hides, but otherwise they can legally leave behind their quarry’s carcass and edible meat — and they do.
“There’s a lot of folks who are avid bear hunters who just will not take the meat out of the field,” said Joe Kondelis, a Cody resident who presides over the American Bear Foundation.
Even so, Kondelis eats his bear meat and he backs both HB 217 and HB 247. Partly, he said, it’s because of his board of directors, which is trying to take steps to “ensure that bear hunting is going to have a future.”
“We’re probably going to have some people that are upset with us,” he said.
Although roughly 80% of Americans approve of hunting to harvest meat, the citizenry at large finds killing only to retain a trophy portion of an animal much less palatable. That’s according to an Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ 2019 survey, which found that “less than a third” of Americans approve of trophy hunting.
Mountain lion meat is also consumed with some regularity. That’s less true of wolves, due partly to an American stigma against eating canines. Still, Johnson doesn’t think that it’s an unrealistic requirement. The wanton waste laws, she said, don’t require consumption, just meat retrieval from the field.
“You’re already skinning it,” Johnson said. “Also, if you can hike an elk out you can hike out any of these other animals.”
House Bill 247 also amassed several co-sponsors: Sen. Bill Landen (R-Casper) and Reps. Larson, Wylie and Western.
An array of hunting groups — 14 in all — support Newsome’s trophy hunting bills, according to a press release that Johnson and Kondelis distributed. It’s a diverse bunch, ranging from Backcountry Hunters and Anglers to the Boone and Crocket Club.
House Bill 217 has been referred to the Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources committee. House Bill 247, meanwhile, was just received for introduction Wednesday and has not yet been assigned to committee.