Wildlife managers are proposing to revamp and revive special hunts that function independently from Wyoming’s normal game seasons in places where elk, pronghorn and other species are taking a toll on hayfields and crops.

A proposal emanating from the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association would update the regulations governing “depredation prevention” hunts — a management option the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has not used in nearly two decades. The rewrite rebrands those hunts as “auxiliary management” seasons and opens the possibility of using those special hunts for all big game and trophy game species, plus wild turkeys, so long as the chief game warden, one Game and Fish commissioner and a cooperating landowner agree to the idea. 

The proposed regulation has few parameters and on paper allows for unlimited culling of unwanted animals, but it does have a clear goal: addressing Wyoming’s elk overpopulation

“We have quite a few challenges right now, especially with elk from a damage perspective,” Game and Fish Chief Warden Rick King said. “We have a lot of places where we have a lot of elk, and it’s pretty tough to address in our current season framework.” 

By going outside of Game and Fish’s normal public season-setting processes, the department hopes to knock down elk populations that have ballooned against managers’ wishes in places like the Laramie Mountains and the Black Hills. In these predominantly eastern Wyoming areas, elk have learned to take shelter on private ranches where hunting pressure is diminished. The outcome is hundreds or thousands of hungry wapiti hunkered down on hayfields eating forage that livestock producers are growing for their cattle and their bottom lines.  

Although ranchers can be reimbursed for elk eating down hayfields, Wyoming Stockgrowers Executive Vice President Jim Magagna said it’s no longer a tenable situation for cattlemen where elk populations have exploded. The lifelong southwestern Wyoming sheep rancher and lobbyist sought relief, both advocating for action from the state wildlife agency’s commission and urging the Wyoming Legislature’s Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee to take up the issue as an interim topic. 

“These [changes] are the result of a series of meetings that we’ve been holding with Game and Fish,” Magagna said. “Whether we’ll agree on all the solutions, time will tell. But certainly they’ve been very receptive to understanding the problem.” 

Other options for hunting down Wyoming’s overpopulated elk herds are also on the table. The Wyoming Wildlife Taskforce, which makes recommendations about top-priority wildlife-policy issues, also examined changes to landowner licenses. Reforms, which look unlikely, would have addressed abuses of those tags, but potential changes could also increase the number of tags — currently two per species — that are available to eligible landowners. 

Elk dot a hillside on pasture land leased by Newcastle-area cattle rancher Bill Lambert. (Sierra LaCroix/Courtesy)

Ranchers who run cattle on country shared by an overabundance of elk, and the hunting outfitters who lease from elk-swarmed landowners, say they appreciate the tentative step Game and Fish is taking. 

Push for change 

“If they want productive agriculture in our area, there’s got to be a change,” Newcastle-area cattleman Bill Lambert said. “There are just too many elk.”

Lambert’s Double J Ranch cattle graze on leased land within the realm of the Black Hills Elk Herd, which does not have an official population estimate, but is hunted down aggressively. 

“The overall harvest strategy for this herd is aimed at removing as many elk as possible given very restricted private land access,” Game and Fish biologist Joe Sandrini wrote in the latest update on the Black Hills Elk Herd

For Lambert, living with the elk herd is a life changer, he said. An oat crop was discontinued because the wild herds hit the oats so hard. Fence damage is routine and grass management is influenced by the whereabouts of elk. Dealing with public hunters who seek permission to hunt his leased land — some respectful, others not — is a ton of work, he said.  

Lambert remembers depredation hunts from his youth and said he would welcome their return. “I think that’s probably the only way we’re going to get control of the numbers,” he said. Previously, Lambert lobbied the state to issue transferable landowner licenses — tags the landowner could  give to other hunters. 

“It must not have fallen on deaf ears if they’re moving forward,” Lambert said. “Maybe they listened better than I perceived.” 

Elk bunch up on a flat pasture leased by Newcastle-area cattle rancher Bill Lambert. (Brad LaCroix/Courtesy)

Those who make their money on guiding elk hunters also like the arrangement Game and Fish is moving toward. Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association President Sy Gilliland, who runs the state’s largest outfitting business, said he’s watched eastern Wyoming’s elk herds grow unabated for years and they’re at the point where they’re causing havoc.

“Right now what we’re doing to these private landowners is atrocious,” Gilliland said. “We’re expecting them to feed thousands of elk that they didn’t have to feed 10 years ago.” 

Gilliland knows of landowners swamped with elk to a debilitating degree in several areas: the southern Bighorn Mountains, Iron Mountain near Cheyenne and in the vicinity of the Thunder Basin National Grassland. He leases hunting rights from some of them for his outfitting operation, but said the opportunities the rewrite could create for his guided hunters is only part of why he’s pleased with the proposal Game and Fish is pushing.

“We’re at the point where we have to do something different,” he said. “I’ve just watched this happen for the last 30 years. What we’ve done to these landowners is not right.”  

Been here before

Depredation hunts aren’t new to Wyoming, but wildlife managers haven’t employed the tool for nearly two decades. The last time one was implemented was 2004, when roughly 100 elk were targeted in the Rochelle Hills.

“We had really good success — I think we killed about 90 elk off that depredation season — but that’s probably the last time we’ve used a depredation season,” King, the chief warden, told Game and Fish commissioners in March

The agency moved away from the auxiliary seasons, which he described as a “surgical” option, because they were cumbersome to administer. Prospective hunters would apply in July, then get added to a waiting list. In its rewrite of the regulations, Game and Fish staff are looking to change how the licenses are distributed and employ the department’s electronic licensing system. 

As for who would be eligible to apply, that would be “case by case,” King told WyoFile. It would be up to himself, the Game and Fish commissioner representing the district where damage was occurring and the landowner to determine what the hunt looks like and who gets to partake.  

“There isn’t a spelled out process for bringing this forth,” King said. 

Game and Fish might have to recruit 100 hunters in some cases, he said. But where depredation hunts are smaller in scope, the landowner could also select participants directly. The overall intent of the revisions is to make the auxiliary hunting seasons more usable and nimble, King said. The rewrite goes before the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission at its September meeting, with the aim of hunters’ targeting elk this fall and winter to reduce depredations.

“I think we need this tool,” King said. “And I hope to be able to use it in that Iron Mountain/Laramie Peak country.” 

Some scrutiny

King does not anticipate a big fight to get the updated auxiliary hunting seasons OK’d. 

“Historically, this was a well accepted tool,” he said. “I think a lot of folks recognize the challenge the department faces maintaining quality elk-hunting experiences across the state while addressing significant real damage concerns on private land.”

There are some stakeholders asking questions, however. 

Kristin Combs, who directs the Jackson Hole-based Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, gets why Game and Fish seeks to relieve eastern Wyoming ranchers overrun with elk. But she has concerns about the broad parameters of the proposed regulations, which apply to a dozen species, from gray wolves to whitetail deer. According to the regulation, the depredation hunts could be pursued whenever those species cause damage or whenever killing them achieves the “purpose of meeting disease management objectives.”

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has added wild turkeys and trophy game species to its regulation governing depredation hunts, which are being rebranded as auxiliary hunts. (Mark Gocke/Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

“There’s no check and balance,” Combs said. “If anyone says, ‘Hey, we’re experiencing depredations, give me some hunting tags,’ that’s what could happen. It seems innocuous at first, but I could see somebody using it for a reason it wasn’t intended for.” 

King said there aren’t plans to use the auxiliary hunts for species other than elk. Trophy game species (black and grizzly bears, mountain lions and gray wolves) were added to regulation along with wild turkeys for “increased flexibility, should the need arise,” he said.  

As for the name change — from “depredation prevention” to “auxiliary management” hunts — that’s another alteration being made in the name of flexibility, Game and Fish law enforcement supervisor Mike Choma told the Wyoming Wildlife Taskforce last week. 

“It’s not always a depredation purpose,” Choma said. “The regulation could be used in the past for disease management or wildlife management purposes.” 

Members of the taskforce, whose charter includes shaping policy around hunter opportunity, were not critical of the state agency’s proposal, which provides a new avenue for landowners to handpick the people who hunt their property. 

“If a landowner has a very limited number of animals and they have already identified people that they know and trust and so forth, we can work that through the Access Yes application process so that only those people are eligible to get a license,” Choma said.

Mike Koshmrl reports on Wyoming's wildlife and natural resources. Prior to joining WyoFile, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures for the Jackson...

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  1. Hello, kinda curious why the Stock Growers, the Outfitters, the Game and Fish and a rancher were the only ones allowed to comment in this article. The rest of Wyoming deserves to be heard as well. When landowners/outfitters started to sell wildlife via trespass fees in the 70s and the Game and Fish did nothing to stop it, this is the result. Wildlife became available to the highest bidder and priced the average hunter from Wyoming out. What that did was deny future generations of hunters their heritage. The royals in England owned all the wildlife for their personal benefit. When this country was founded that was a right conferred to EVERYONE. The last time a special hunt was used it was to control brucellosis, not landowners refusal to allow access, so this is alarming to me.

  2. Par for the course in backward Wyoming, where livestock contributes very little to the national meat supply…or the state domestic product. Listen to the little cowboys and cowgirls howl!

  3. Wyoming landowners block access to approximately 2.5 million acres of public land, far more than in any other state. If landowners would quit blocking so much access to Public Lands and allow controlled hunting on their private lands, this would not have become such a huge problem. Instead of the state giving landowners yet another subsidy, these unscrupulous landowners should be required to allow access to public lands and allow hunting on their deeded lands, you know, like it was only a few decades ago.

  4. The states must take back the control from the Feds and environmental arm in managing wildlife period. That includes those agencies to local states as well. If the feds do a depradaton hunt like the Department Of Interior conducted in the 70s at Yellowstone they will waste the meat and band the sportsman as well. A depradaton hunt with excess going to poor families and the hunter also adds the credibility back to the wildlife managers and a sense of pride for the state and sportsman alike. And Ranchers should feel that way too opening there doors to balance the herd.

  5. Give the tags to the citizens who need the meat, not to the ranchers and outfitters to sell to clients.They created the over populations because they will not give access to the elk.The elk are not dumb, they go where there is no pressure. The ranchers can oversee how many and when the hunters hunt.

    1. I totally agree with Mark.Let the local guy have 1st option for license. At today’s prices for meat at the store. I’m sure there would be lots of people glad to fill the freezer with Elk meat.

  6. Open up the properties to the public even if an outfitter has a claim. They are making big dollars on every one. The landowners what help!!!! Let the people that need the meat in to hunt. Some of the people can not afford what outfitters charge. I have seen alot of properties tied up by outfitters and then the crying for help. Let those property owners cry. They don’t need any help. They have already been paid by the outfitters. This also happens in all the states. THANK YOU Patrick Brannan

  7. Many solutions exist, unfortunately the landowners hold the key. Just let people hunt….
    Any more, most everything that is biological has the solution being made by the wealthy, and not so much for the good of the rest of the state.

  8. Permits based on ranch size with guaranteed public access along with private tags [based on GF recommendations for numbers] would have solved most of this

  9. Both Wyo Game & Fish and the Wyoming Stockgrowers — half brothers of different fathers — seem to have Halfheimers . The two landed oligarchists still have their longterm ( institutional) memory function , but selectively choose what to forget here and now. WyGFD did in fact instigate depredation hunts on behalf of the Stockgrowers in recent years, in the Shoshone and maybe Greybull River drainages near Cody . Anyone could first buy a cheapened after season General Elk License for extended early winter hunts of migratory Yellowstone cow elk … and a second cow license… even a third cow license that extended the depredation hunt on into FEBRUARY. The intent of the depredation was to cull the herds of Brucellosis that the Stockgrowers blamed on Yellowstone elk. It was one of those Hail Mary big game management schemes to nonscientifically mortify the Brucella abortus bacteria with projectile weaponry by providing the common folks a chance to overstock the freezers with elk meat along the migration corridors. Many thousands of Park elk , migrating weeks later than they used to due to Climate Change delaying full onset blizzard and bitter cold season , would leave the Thorofare for the foothills of Carter Mountain above Meeteetse and Cody , comprising a few of those deceptively named Super-Herds of wintering elk. Funny thing… the common folks of Wyoming were not all that enthusiastic about shooting then eating diseased elk. Imagine that . They may have Halfheimer’s , but they aren’t stupid. Our mammalogical scholars also chose to forget that Rocky Mountain Elk have always naturally formed so-called Super-Herds since the Ice Age glaciers retreated twelve milennia ago, and migrated from alpine tundra to the Sagebrush Sea a few thousand feet lower three days and three major river drainages away. It still resembles the Late Pleistocene in northwest Wyoming for much of the year. Wyoming Game and Fish at the ripe old age of 132 has still not learned the difference between Wildlife and Big Game. Truth be told, the Stockgrowers of only slightly older British Empire landed aristocratic bloodlines have done everything at their disposal to make sure the game managers don’t remember. The distinctions between native wildlife and alien exotic bovine crop animals remain myopically blurred, and always judged in favor of domestic livestock monied interests when necessary. Seems like it’s always necessary.

    The flip side of that coin has a Grey Wolf on it , by the way. Yup. ( My Halfheimers has conveniently clouded my memory on why Wyoming has a White Bison on its state flag …)

    I could go on , ad absurdum, but it would be futile. Let me just say the treatment for Halfheimers is to pull down the ancient scrolls from the dusty shelves and re-read them . Add to that the exponential growth in new data , field research on migration and landscape scale ecology , and by all means make Climate Change mitigation a mandatory discipline across the management spectrum . There really is so much to consider, especially that which has been conveniently forgotten. The Bottom Line is it shouldn’t be about the money. We have arrived at the point where Economics is in the back seat and Ecologics should be driving the bus…

    I also am afflicted with Halfheimers, of a different varietal. I’m probably missing a few things I used to know or believe. To busy unlearning the dangerous dogma I was taught by Mssrs. Boone and Crockett , whom never had the term Apex Predator in their lexicon. What I do remember compels me to say this much : Nowhere in this discussion do we see the phrase ” there might be too many cattle in the wrong place and they really never belonged here in the first place … “

  10. If we are forced to fence our land to keep their cattle and sheep of of it than why can’t ranchers fence their lands to keep wildlife off of their land?

  11. Boo HOO! Many of these same landowners with the large elk herds allowed exactly ‘zero’ access to their land, or would charge crazy high trespass fees. Many of these landowners also graze the public lands down to rock and dirt with their cattle which forces the elk onto the adjacent private ground. Hey G & F, quit handing out depredation payments to the above mentioned landowners, that’ll cure this situation pretty darn quick

  12. I am troubled by this article. I lived in Colorado and hunted elk there. I understand the depredation problem. It sounds bad. But calling large herds “super herds,” seems disingenuous to me. I’m guessing they are a normal occurrence in previous times if herds were larger then, but are causing problems. Using the phrase, “where elk strike pastureland,” makes it sound like they’re some sort of militant group aiming to do harm on purpose. I just looked up elk numbers in Colorado and there are more than twice the number living there. So I wonder how they are managing “the largest elk population in the world?” That’s all. Here’s their website: https://cpw.state.co.us/conservation/Pages/CON-Elk.aspx