Mike Koshmrl, WyoFile.com
Elk Hunting Area 124 south of Interstate 80 in the Red Desert is an example of what’s wrong with Wyoming’s way of issuing special hunting permits to landowners.
The hunting grounds extending from Rock Springs to Baggs are 70% public land, and the northern half is dominated by the chessboard-style land division, which hinders or prevents public access to federal lands.
Limited-quota licenses to hunt bull elk are hard to come by, especially for non-residents: 10 were available in 2021. And seven of those coveted tags — 70% — went to out-of-state hunters who qualified for special licenses available only to landowners, according to a breakdown prepared by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department of where those tags go.
Such landowner tags are deducted from an area’s total license quota and are awarded prior to the raffles that distribute hunting licenses to the general public. In other words, owning land gives future Red Desert moose hunters the clear upper hand in acquiring a label.
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There are other unintended consequences and even outright exploitation of Wyoming’s landowner tag system, some observers argue. Under Wyoming’s current statute, landowners cannot legally subdivide the land for the purpose of obtaining more hunting licenses. But in its public meetings, the Wyoming Wildlife Taskforce has heard stories of land being subdivided for the primary purpose of owners obtaining two more elk hunting permits for friends or family.
“You have outright violations of the landowner licensing system in several locations across the state,” said Adam Teten, a Buffalo resident and big game hunter who chairs a subcommittee on the task force investigating landowner licensing reforms. “That means you have wealthy individuals subdividing pieces of property to obtain highly sought-after licenses for limited-quote elk, deer and antelope.”
It is unclear how widespread and frequent these scenarios are. But there are real concerns, Teten said, that abuse could become a runaway problem, especially as the desirability of living in the West increases and competition for limited hunting licenses increases.
“If we don’t really address it — be it one or 50 abuse cases — it will be too late to put that genie back in the bottle,” Teten said.
Landowner licenses have significant commercial value in some states and can even be sold online for premium prices.
That is not the case in Wyoming, where landowner licenses can only be used by the applicant or an immediate family member. A successful applicant must own at least 160 contiguous acres that provide habitat for the appropriate species: elk, deer, pronghorn, or wild turkey. Landowner tag recipients — who can hold two permits for each species, good for the entire hunting area — must also be able to demonstrate 2,000 days of animal use, e.g. 2,000 elk on their property for a single day or 20 mule deer for 100 days.
“From the department’s perspective, it’s a really good way to thank the landowners for providing habitat,” said Brian Nesvik, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “Half of our land area is private land, and if we didn’t have private landowners, we wouldn’t have the abundance of wildlife.”
“I think it’s a good program,” he said, “but like any other facility, it needs to be evaluated periodically over time.”
The number of landowner permits issued in Wyoming has steadily increased in recent years. In a recent 7-year period, the statewide number of species increased by 26%, from 2,800 in 2014 to 3,518 in 2021, according to data from Jennifer Doering, game and fishing licenses section manager.
Doering pointed to two reasons for the increase. After 2019, Game and Fish has introduced an online application procedure for landowners, which has made the licenses more accessible. Second, organizations have recruited landowners to purchase licenses that can in turn be donated to disabled military veterans.
“That’s, I’d say, the biggest increase we’ve seen in landowner licenses,” Doering said.
Donated veteran tags account for 404 of the 718 landowner licenses added between 2014 and ’21, more than 56% of the increase, according to data provided by Doering.
To review the landowner licensing system, Game and Fish initially turned to the Wyoming Wildlife Taskforce, an 18-person agency appointed by leaders of the Wyoming Legislature, the governor’s office, and Game and Fish. The task force makes recommendations on top-priority wildlife policy issues, including hunting opportunities and athlete access, and its guidance has already shaped the state law that dictates the percentage of hunting permits for elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bison, and grizzly bears that go to Wyoming residents. and non-residents.
Changes to the landowner licensing system have been discussed at several Task Force meetings, but the proposed reforms have been divisive.
There have been discussions about limiting the percentage of limited-quota licenses that can go to landowners, in order to avoid scenarios like Wyoming’s Elk Hunting Area 124, where landowners claimed tags by 70% of non-residents. The task force has also gone through potential changes to the statute that would refine shareholders’ eligibility for landowner tags on company-owned land.
“I’ve heard specifically about places where coal mines own large tracts of land, and they’ve allowed their workers.” [to use landowner tags]’ said Nesvik.
When the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission first created special landowner licenses, it was an agricultural-focused program, Nesvik said. But growing crops, hay or livestock was not necessary, he said, and land tenure patterns have changed.
According to Game and Fish data, the vast majority of landowner license recipients had relatively tighter spreads of less than two square miles of ownership since 2018.
“It’s not cow-calf farms that get landowner licenses,” Teten said. The recipients are more likely to be landowners who own smaller parcels of land not typically associated with paying-bill farming, he said.
“They are playing completely within the current rules,” Teten said. “I think the consensus is to tighten up the rulebook.”
But in five meetings in 2022, the Wyoming Wildlife Taskforce failed to agree on the recommended changes.
“I don’t see anything wrong with the system as it is,” said Duaine Hagen, a cattle rancher from the Meeteetse area, who sits on the landowner licenses subcommittee with Teten. “For me it’s an excellent way to recognize landowners for their contribution, because without private landowners we’re in trouble.”
Hagen’s Fiddle Back Ranch, located between Upper and Lower Sunshine Reservoirs, is home to elk, pronghorn, mule deer, and whitetail deer. His property falls in areas where Game and Fish exceed the number of deer, elk and pronghorns that can be hunted, and without landowner tags, it would be “absolutely” difficult to hunt his own land for several years, he said.
“My kids hunt, and it’s a family deal,” Hagen said.
While Hagen believes the program is good overall, he spoke positively about some reforms. The state could require landowners to renew their applications, “every five years or something like that,” Hagen said, rather than having access to the program forever once they initially qualify.
People subdividing 160-acre parcels to qualify for more landowner licenses is without a doubt a loophole, Hagen said.
Nesvik, who is also a member of the task force, is looking at options to make that exploitation more difficult. While the Game and Fish Commission already has an ordinance banning subdivision for the purpose of getting more landowner licenses, it’s “very hard to enforce,” he said, especially if the licensing benefit isn’t advertised online or in print and is released sooner. transferred from mouth.
“One of the things the task force has been talking about is minimum acreage size,” Nesvik said. “So if you divide your ranch among the 500 acre lots, those lots, regardless of the… [animal] use days, would not qualify [for landowner licenses]†
Teten says he’s seen “a lot of selfishness from both sides of the aisle.” DIY resident hunters like himself without large tracts of land argue for equal access to licenses, while landowners fight to maintain their current level of access to two reliable tags for each eligible species.
“Those are the two hard lines in the sand I’ve heard from people,” Teten said. The status quo, he said, may well be “the best option we have”.
The Wyoming Wildlife Taskforce co-chair, Josh Coursey, said the drive for landowner licensing reforms has stalled, in part because his colleagues await an internal proposal being developed by Game and Fish. That proposal will be shared with the task force at its July 7 meeting and then discussed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission at its Sept. 13-14 meeting, he said.
“We’re going to see what that looks like first,” Coursey said of the state’s proposal, “and see if it removes some of the concerns that are shared and talked about.”
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