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Guest Opinions

Wildlife Issues, Present and Future

Written by Scott Talbott

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in more 25 years with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, it’s that there is never a shortage of wildlife-related issues in this state.

And, as time goes on, those issues seem to become more numerous, more complicated, and more controversial than ever before. Since taking the reins of the Department last February, I am reminded every day of these realities and the fact that the future of Wyoming’s wildlife rests heavily on our abilities to face challenging issues.

Another fact that becomes more apparent all the time is that successful approaches to dealing with these challenges almost always involve Wyoming’s farmers and ranchers. From wolves to grizzly bears to brucellosis to hunting and fishing access, Wyoming’s agricultural industry is an invaluable partner. The department and Wyoming’s landowners have an impressive track record in working together to ensure a healthy state agriculture industry, the preservation of Wyoming’s western heritage and culture, and a rich wildlife resource.

Given the above, I would like to update you on some of the most important wildlife issues the department is working on, as well as some of our plans for making the department as responsive and effective as possible.

Wolves. There’s no arguing among wildlife managers and ranchers that wolves are fully recovered in the Northern Rocky Mountains. The original recovery criteria for wolves was 300 individuals. There are now more than 1,700 wolves in the ecosystem. But wolves remain on the Endangered Species List for a variety of political and legal reasons.

There is hope on the horizon. Late last summer, Governor Mead and Interior Secretary Salazar agreed on a plan to move forward with wolf delisting. The result is a revised wolf management plan for Wyoming and a proposed rule in the Federal Register to remove wolves from the Endangered Species List.
There are still a number of hurdles to clear before delisting can happen. The Wyoming Legislature will need to consider changing some state laws regarding wolf management. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will need to finalize their rule after the mandatory public comment period. Finally, all of this will have to survive inevitable legal challenges.

No matter how this works out, Wyoming is committed to managing wolves in a way that makes sense for the people that live, work, and recreate in Wyoming. This means maintaining a recovered population of wolves in areas of the state where there is adequate habitat while minimizing wolf conflicts with livestock and wildlife.

Grizzly Bears. Like wolves, grizzly bears are fully recovered in the Yellowstone Ecosystem, and, like wolves, political and legal issues are stalling the removal of grizzly bears from the Endangered Species List.

Many of you can relate to the fact that we are observing grizzly bears in new places and in higher numbers. We are also dealing with more grizzly bear conflicts than ever before. These conflicts include livestock killings, attacks on humans and property damage. One major difference here is that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has been a major player in the recovery of grizzly bears, and we are the major player in preventing and dealing with bear conflicts in Wyoming. The department is spending nearly $2 million every year on its grizzly bear program. This includes educating people on how to be safe in grizzly country; trapping and dealing with problem bears; and conducting numerous research projects to understand more about grizzly bear behavior, population levels, habitat use, and conflict prevention.

As with wolves, we are hopeful that delisting is on the horizon. We remain optimistic that pending legal decisions will result in favorable rulings that open the door for delisting. And, as with wolves, the department is committed to managing grizzlies in a way that makes the most sense for Wyoming while maintaining a recovered population.

Brucellosis. This disease and the many issues surrounding it have combined to create some of the most complicated wildlife and livestock management issues in the Rocky Mountain West. We remain committed to continuing our work with livestock producers, the Wyoming Livestock Board, and the Governor’s Brucellosis Coordination Team to minimize transmission risks and inform ranchers about wildlife prevalence levels.

To that end, there are several things we are doing to reduce the risk of transmission. First, when possible, we make every effort to haze elk away from livestock commingling situations in high risk areas during the periods of the year when transmission risks are high (February to June). Second, our personnel and hunters invest significant time and effort in collecting blood and tissue samples to monitor elk and bison seroprevalence levels. Third, our brucellosis biologists, veterinarians, and other field personnel conduct multiple research projects annually that reveal new methods and techniques that we can apply to our elk feeding operations to reduce the risks of wildlife-to-cattle brucellosis transmission. These are a few of many brucellosis monitoring and management actions that we intend to continue.

We are obviously very concerned about the increases over the past year of brucellosis seroprevalence in free-ranging elk in Park County and the resulting transmissions to livestock. We continue to work with ranchers to increase our abilities to increase hunter-harvested elk and monitor the disease in these areas. We share the sentiment of many brucellosis experts that the ultimate solution to Wyoming’s brucellosis problems rests with our ability to develop an effective and deliverable vaccine. I see this as another opportunity for the Department and the livestock industry to work together to reach a common goal.

Hunter Access. Every year, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission holds a joint meeting with the Wyoming Board of Agriculture to discuss items of mutual interest. One item that has been a point of discussion over the past few years has been hunter access to private lands.

In some areas, we are struggling to meet our big game harvest objectives because hunters don’t have access to the animals. In many cases, these access issues involve non-traditional and/or non-resident landowners who don’t understand or don’t care about the importance of managing our big game herds. The resulting overpopulation of big game can lead to damage on neighboring lands and damage to native habitats.

So we are working with our partners in agriculture to find some solutions. In the meantime, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and Board of Agriculture have released a joint statement concerning this critical issue and its importance for Wyoming’s wildlife and Wyoming’s ranchers. Following are some excerpts from that statement:

“In a time when we are seeing a decrease of hunters nationwide, access to land for hunting plays a crucial role in maintaining our hunting tradition in maintaining funding for wildlife management and conservation funded by sportsmen… Access to private land is equally important to maintain adequate habitat for livestock and wildlife… Maintaining and, in some areas, increasing hunter access to private and landlocked public lands is critical to the future of Wyoming’s wildlife, outdoor recreation, and rural lifestyle. The BOA and Commission are committed to the ideals and will continue cooperative efforts to provide public access to private land for the future.”

As mentioned above, solutions to all of these issues and many others would not be possible without significant participation from our partners in agriculture and from other stakeholders across the state. Given that, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is embarking on new efforts to better engage the public in its decision-making processes.

One example of this has been happening for the past two years in the Wyoming Range, where we have been working intensively with stakeholders to develop a new management plan for the region’s treasured deer herd. Through an extensive process of “collaborative learning,” we asked the public to help us establish priorities and goals for management of this herd, and to identify actions to help us reach these goals. We are currently involved in a similar process in the Platte Valley, which is home to another of the state’s most valuable deer herds.

Public involvement processes like these can be time consuming and resource intensive, but they are becoming more and more important in the modern world of wildlife management. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is committed to engaging our stakeholders in management decisions and to incorporating their thoughts and opinions into our management strategies.

In the near future, the department is going to be taking a wholesale look at its mission, priorities, and future direction. We want to make sure our priorities are in line with our stakeholders’ priorities, which will require help from you and all of our constituents. This project will include both internal and external evaluations of our future plans and extensive public involvement. We intend to inform you and all of our publics about this effort and about opportunities for you to get involved.

Approximately half of Wyoming’s land is privately owned, and much of that private land is being used for farming and ranching. Our wildlife depend on the habitats these lands provide throughout the year. And while we are facing some access issues on private lands, it’s important to recognize the many landowners who currently do provide access. Thank you for everything you do to make this land available for hunting and fishing and wildlife habitat.