Mike Kuchmerle, WyoFile.com
Deer hunting area 124 south of Interstate 80 in the Red Desert has been held as a poster child for error in the way Wyoming distributes private hunting licenses to landowners.
The hunting ground extending from Rock Springs to Baggs is 70% public land, the northern half of which is dominated by chessboard-style land distribution which complicates or prevents the public from accessing federal lands.
Limited-quota licenses for elk bull hunting are hard to come by, especially for non-residents: 10 were available in 2021. And seven of those coveted marks — 70% — went to out-of-state hunters who were eligible for licenses available only to landowners, according to a breakdown by the department. Fish and game in Wyoming where those tags are placed.
These landowner marks are subtracted from the total licensing share of the area and are awarded prior to the lottery that distributes hunting licenses to the general public. In other words, owning the land gives the elk hunters of the red desert the upper hand in getting a mark.
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There are other unintended consequences and even outright exploitation of the Wyoming landowner’s marking system, some observers assert. Under current Wyoming law, landowners cannot legally subdivide land for the purpose of obtaining more hunting licenses. However, at its public meetings, the Wyoming Wildlife Brigade has heard stories of the land being divided for the primary purpose of having owners obtain two additional elk hunting licenses for friends or family.
“In various locations across the state, you have some outright violations of the landowner licensing system,” said Adam Teten, a Buffalo resident and big game hunter who chairs a subcommittee of the task force to explore landowner licensing reforms. “Meaning, you have wealthy individuals dividing pieces of property to earn highly desirable yet limited share licenses of elk, deer, and antelope.”
It is unclear how widespread and frequent these scenarios are. But Titin said there are real concerns that the abuse could become a wild problem, especially with the growing desire to live in the West and competition for limited fishing licenses.
“If we don’t really address it—whether it’s one time or 50 instances of abuse—it will be too late to put that genie back in the bottle,” Tetin said.
Landowner licenses have significant commercial value in some states, and can even be sold online at premium rates.
This is not the case in Wyoming, where landowner licenses can only be used by the applicant or an immediate family member. The successful applicant must own at least 160 contiguous acres that provide habitat for viable species: elk, deer, thistles or wild turkeys. The recipient of the Landowner Mark – who can have two licenses for each species, good throughout the hunting area – must also be able to show 2,000 days of animal use, for example, 2,000 elk on their property for one day or 20 mule deer for 100 days.
“From the department’s point of view, it’s a very good way to say thank you to landowners for providing housing,” said Brian Nesvik, director of the Wyoming Department of Fish and Game. “Half of our land is private land, and if we didn’t have private landowners, we wouldn’t have an abundance of wildlife.”
“I think it’s a good program,” he said, “but just as with any other item, it should be evaluated periodically over time.”
The number of landowner licenses issued in Wyoming has increased steadily in recent years. Over the last 7 years, the statewide count that includes all species has increased 26%, from 2,800 in 2014 to 3,518 in 2021, according to data provided by Jennifer Doering, director of game and fish licensing.
Doering cited two reasons for the increase. After 2019, Game and Fish adopted an online landowner application process, making licenses even easier. Second, the organizations recruited landowners for licenses that could in turn be donated to disabled military veterans.
“This is, I would say, the largest increase we are seeing in landowner licenses,” Doering said.
Donated veteran marks represent 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’s licensing system, Game and Fish initially turned to the Wyoming Wildlife Taskforce, an 18-member body appointed by leaders of the Wyoming legislature, the governor’s office, and Game and Fish. The task force makes recommendations on high-priority wildlife policy issues including hunting opportunities and access for athletes, and its guidance has already shaped state law that determines the percentage of hunting licenses for moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bison, and grizzly bears that go to Wyoming residents and non-residents.
Changes have been made to the landowners licensing system in several task force meetings, but the proposed reforms have proven divisive.
There have been discussions about determining what percentage of limited-stake licenses could go to landowners, in order to prevent scenarios such as Wyoming’s 124th elk hunting ground, where landowners demanded 70% of non-resident marks. The task force also made potential changes to the law that would improve the eligibility of shareholders to obtain land ownership marks on company-owned lands.
“I have specifically heard of places where coal miners have large plots of land, and they have let their employees [to use landowner tags]Nesvik said.
When the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission created special licenses for landowners, Nesvik said, it was a program focused on farming. But he said that growing crops, hay or livestock was not required, and land ownership patterns had changed.
As of 2018, the vast majority of landlord licenses had relatively smaller margins of less than two square miles of property, according to Game and Fish data.
“It’s not the cow-bringing operations that get licenses to landowners,” Tetten said. The recipients are more likely to be landowners who own smaller parcels not normally associated with farming similar to bill payments.
“They are playing entirely within the current set of rules,” Tetten said. “I think the consensus is to tighten up the rulebook.”
But through five meetings in 2022, the Wyoming Wildlife Task Force has been unable to reach agreement on recommended changes.
“I don’t see anything wrong with the system as it is,” said Duane Hagen, a Metitz area rancher who works with Tetten on the Landowner Licensing Subcommittee. “For me, it’s an excellent way to appreciate the contributions of landowners, because without private landowners we are in trouble.”
Hagen’s Fiddle Back Ranch, nestled between upper and lower sunrooms, features elk, thistles, mule deer, and white-tailed deer. His holdings are in areas where Game and Fish limits the number of deer, elk and thistles that can be hunted, and without the landowner’s tags it would be “absolutely” difficult to hunt on his land a few years, he said.
“My kids fish, and it’s a family deal,” Hagen said.
Although Hagen believed the software was sound overall, he spoke positively of some of the fixes. Hagen said the state could require landowner sign recipients to renew their applications, “every five years or something,” rather than having access to the program forever once they initially qualified.
Hagen said people splitting 160-acre parcels to qualify for more landowner licenses is a “loophole, no doubt.”
Nesvik, who is also a member of the task force, is looking at options to make these exploits more difficult. While the Game and Fish Commission already has a regulation that prohibits subdivision for the purpose of obtaining more landowner licenses, it is “really difficult to implement,” he said, especially if the licensing franchise was not announced online or in print but rather carried over. By word of mouth.
“One of the things the staff talked about was the minimal size of the space,” Nesvik said. “So if you divide your farm into less than 500 acres of parcels, those parcels, no matter what, [animal] Use days, will not qualify [for landowner licenses]. “
Titten says he saw “a lot of selfishness, from both sides of the aisle.” Do-it-yourself resident hunters like him who don’t have large tracts of land advocate equal access to licenses, while landowners fight to keep their current level of access to two trusted marks for each eligible species.
“These are the two hard lines in the sand that I heard from people,” Titin said. He said the status quo may be “our best option”.
Josh Corsi, co-chair of the Wyoming Wildlife Task Force, said the push for landowner licensing reforms has stalled, in part because his peers are waiting for an internal proposal being developed by Game and Fish. He said this proposal would be shared with the working group at its July 7 meeting and then considered by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission at its September 13-14 meeting.
“We’ll see what that looks like first, and see if it addresses some of the concerns that are being shared and talked about,” Corsi said of the state’s proposal.
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