Wyoming’s wildlife, WGFD continues addressing wildlife challenges
Casper – While the past several years have been wrought with wildlife issues, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) continues to address budget challenges, endangered species and disease concerns across the state.
“One of the biggest issues the WGFD has been working on the last few years is our budget,” commented WGFD Director Scott Talbott at the 2013 Wyoming Stock Growers Association Winter Roundup. “We get about six percent of our budget from the general fund, and the rest of our budget is hunting and fishing dollars.”
Because of the strain on budgets, the WGFD has worked to make necessary cuts.
“Since 1937, the WGFD has been funded primarily through hunting and fishing license dollars,” Talbott said. “We have been funded through periodic license fee increases, and we have gone through some very significant cuts in the agency.”
When the license fee increase bill did not pass the legislature last year, Talbott noted that they have cut their budget by an additional $4.5 million. In total, he noted that approximately $8 million from the WGFD budget over the past 1.5 years.
“We have another $880,000 already identified for our 2015 budget,” Talbott said. “We have reversed our financial situation right now.”
The cuts have eliminated 18 positions, with 21 positions identified for restructuring.
Talbott also commented that two bills have been passed out of committee to improve the agency’s financial situation.
“There is a bill for a 10 percent license fee increase to generate about $3.3 million for the agency,” he explained. “In addition, there is a bill to provide the health insurance costs of WGFD employees from general fund dollars.”
The move would provide $4.5 million from the general fund for employee health insurance costs.
“The other program under consideration is our grizzly bear program,” Talbott commented. “That program costs about $2 million per year, including damage claims for livestock and property.”
Because grizzly bears are a sensitive species by definition, Talbott said, “It may be appropriate that the people of Wyoming step up and pay for that program.”
At the same time, the state of Wyoming is pursuing a delisting rule for the grizzly bear.
“We are seeing a good-news story with the grizzly bear,” said Brian Nesvik, chief of the WGFD Wildlife Division and chief game warden. “The most recent court decision regarding the delisting of the grizzly bear said we needed to describe what impact white bark pine production or its decline in Wyoming might have on the grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Area.”
Nesvik said that the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team has put significant efforts into synthesizing available literature and data to determine those impacts.
“As white bark pine has declined, the populations have continued to grow,” he said. “It has still slowed, but population growth is still positive.”
At the same time, Nesvik noted that populations may be growing more slowly because grizzly bears have saturated their suitable habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Area.
“We could be back to a delisted grizzly bear within the next two years,” Nesvik added. “I am optimistic that will happen.”
Up and coming
Currently, Talbott also noted that other endangered species may be coming down the line.
“We continue to comment pretty vocally on listing,” he said. “The wolverine is the latest issue that we have been vocal about.”
Because critical designations for habitat arise from data collected by WGFD employees, Talbott said the agency is very involved in endangered species issues and management.
“A lot of folks in Wyoming are unaware that we have any wolverine populations in the state,” said Nesvik. “There aren’t a lot of wolverines in the state, but we do have a few, almost exclusively located in the northwest portion of the state in high altitude places.”
However, the concern with wolverines isn’t that they may be listed, but rather how the listing decision may be made.
“When we look at the big picture, everyone ought to be concerned by the reasons they are using for potential listing,” Nesvik explained. “They are basing this listing on speculative models of what climate change will to do the deep snowpack in 40 or 50 years.”
Because models say that deep snowpack may be limited in the next 50 years, groups fighting to list the wolverine say that the reduced snowpack will reduce wolverine habitat across its range.
“We think it is significant that they want to list based on speculative models,” he said. “We, and other states, have articulated that concern.”
Wyoming Game and Fish Director Scott Talbott addressed issues concerning elk populations across the state.
“We manage wildlife populations by objective, and with the changing land ownership and changing values for landowners in Wyoming, we have areas where landowners have created significant refuges, especially for elk,” he explained.
However, the use of hunter management areas and land access programs has opened numerous acres and dramatically increased harvests.
In addition to excess elk populations, brucellosis continues to be concerning to livestock owners.
Brian Nesvik, chief of the WGFD Wildlife Division and chief game warden, said that in working with the Wyoming Livestock Board (WLSB), WLSB Director Leanne Correll and State Veterinarian Jim Logan, an enhanced surveillance program has been developed and was utilized this hunting season to collect additional blood samples from elk in Hunt Area 40, where two elk were found to be positive for brucellosis last year.
“We have tripled the number of blood samples we received this year to 677,” said Nesvik. “We also increased the number of useable samples from 86 in 2012 to 394.”
The increased sampling has led to identification of only one additional seropositive animal from the same area.
“It is hard to tell what that means right now,” Nesvik continued. “Right now, it tells us that we don’t have large-scale infection of brucellosis in elk across the Big Horns.”
He also noted that, while final decisions on the sampling procedures for next year haven’t been made, it is likely they will look at increased sampling for at least one more year.
“We need to finish up this year’s samples, look at the data, put our heads together and see what this means,” Nesvik said.