Act Now: Wyoming Bill Would Jeopardize State Game Funds

Act Now: Wyoming Bill Would Jeopardize State Game Funds

In the Saphire range of Western Montana, on bitter cold November nights, we’d eat dinner early, cut the stories short, and sneak out of the old outfitter’s house. Being careful that the pistonless screen door was hand-guided back into the jam, our boots squeaked quietly on the frost-furred porch.

My father, myself, and the occasional high school friend would sneak single file across the lawn, down the hedgerow, through old trucks and snowmobiles to a taxidermy-filled bunkhouse. We would lay in wool sheets, talk quietly in the dark, read under our headlamps, and guess at how many elk were jumping the barbed wire of the big “no hunting” ranch next door to enter the frozen alfalfa fields just behind the sawn log cabin. We’d fall asleep with fingers crossed that the now audible herd would be lingering in the farm fields at shooting light the next morning.

It is no secret that wildlife like elk, deer, and antelope are drawn to agriculture. Just as it is no secret that sanctuary properties are great for elk numbers but poor for neighborly relations. Our public wildlife can have significant impacts on the private cash crops of our local farmers and ranchers. The issue of private property damaged and eaten by publicly managed big game is not a new one. This is why states have systems in place to reimburse property owners when damage occurs.

In Wyoming, the funding mechanism set in place for landowner compensation is built into resident and nonresident application fees—$15 for nonresidents and $5 for residents. The current standard for damage claims in Wyoming is 100% of market value on private lands—the most robust compensation model in the country.

HB 60, an Agriculture Committee-sponsored bill, would include for the first time the ability to claim damages to grazing ground on both private pasture and state grazing leases. Additionally, the rate of compensation would increase from 100% to 150% of market value. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) estimates that this increased compensation rate, along with the additional grazing acres, would cost the department anywhere between $2 million and $12 million annually—more than 10% of the department’s yearly budget.

The USDA Wyoming Agriculture census in 2022 (comprised of participatory data) recorded 28.8 million acres of farmland. Of those 28.8 million acres, roughly only 3 million acres were planted for hay, corn, sugarbeets, and wheat. According to the state of Wyoming, there are just under 4 million acres of state grazing leases which would be added to the private acres of pasturage HB60 would add for potential compensation.

This bill would cause a major increase in funding from previous years. The pot of money to pay out damage claims is $500,000, but that fund has been insufficient for the last decade. In Fiscal Year 2023, just under two million dollars in damages were paid, meaning this bill could increase the burden on the WGFD by $10 million. That money would be taken from the WGFD Commission’s operating budget, meaning those funds would be unavailable for recreation and conservation work elsewhere in the state.

“This bill has the potential to drive a wedge deeper between sportsmen and landowners,” Wyoming Wildlife Federation’s Government Affairs Director Jess Johnson said. “The cost to the department alone will detract from other WGFD programs. So the question is…do we pay for the problem or do we pay for the solution.”

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) hosted multiple listening sessions about public land access last summer. At the Rock Springs listening session, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association stressed the importance of partnership across the state, highlighting how private landowners provide critical wildlife habitat, the WGFD provides coordination and science to back decision-making, and sportsmen provide population management. So, the conversations regarding this complicated collaboration are underway and ongoing.

“Wyoming has a proud tradition of partnership between private landowners, sportsmen, and WFGD working together to address wildlife management issues,” TRCP’s Wyoming Field Manager Josh Metten said. ”HB60 is an affront to this partnership; this disincentives collaboration.”

This bill is moving fast. It has already passed two House committees and could be voted on by the full House any day. Please contact your Wyoming legislators and ask them to table HB 60. This is not the right bill for right now. Landowners and cattle grazers are understandably frustrated by wildlife damage, but the solution isn’t to hamstring Wyoming’s wildlife agency. Five-year management plans are in place to specifically address these regions with over-objective elk populations. That’s the proper mechanism to address this issue.

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