Landowners work with Wyo Game and Fish on plan to reduce elk populationsWritten by Saige Albert
Rawlins – In the sagebrush-covered desert north of Interstate 80 between Rock Springs and Rawlins, elk herds are thriving, and Rawlins rancher Niels Hansen says elk are creating a problem for those utilizing the area for livestock grazing.
“We’ve been working on this for a long time,” says Hansen. “Rawlins-area ranchers have had issues with Hunt Areas 100 and 118 for several years. It’s a combination of overpopulation and uneven distribution.”
Concerns over elk populations came to the forefront several years ago when funding was inadequate to conduct full population counts in the herd.
“I found it quite disturbing that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) admitted they had no idea how many elk were in Hunt Area 100 because the landowners had not brought it to their attention,” Hansen says.
Among their reasons for concern, Hansen notes that the risk of brucellosis transmission from the elk is a priority for ranchers in the area.
Elk populations are controlled throughout Wyoming through hunting, and in 2015, WGFD proposed that herd objectives be set by an opinion poll taken after hunting season.
“The plan was to poll landowners and hunters and set license numbers based off the comments. This system is in place in some areas of the state,” Hansen explains. “It was not accepted by landowners, and that probably set the stage for the effort we are working on right now.”
After the proposal was rejected, Hansen visited with the majority of grazing operations utilizing the land in the checkerboard north of Interstate 80 between Rawlins and Rock Springs.
“We asked for a meeting with WGFD to address the elk problem that we have out there,” he says. “We left that meeting with a set of proposed changes in the hunting seasons.”
The resulting changes were reached through cooperation between all parties, as well as flexibility in hunting regulations. Hansen explains that licenses were added, dates we extended and hunt areas were made more flexible. Changes were seen in Hunt Areas 21, 100, 108, 118 and 124.
“We’ve added quite a few new concepts,” he says. “Changes in these hunt areas reflect the communication we’ve had with WGFD over the last few years addressing elk herds around Interstate 80.”
He adds, “Seasons for 21 and 118 reflect an effort to address an out-of-control herd that summers heavily in the Medicine Bow National Forest and northern Colorado.”
The changes create increased flexibility in the areas to allow for more effective management of elk populations across the region.
Coming to a solution was far from an easy feat, notes Hansen, but it’s been worthwhile.
“We are looking at hunt areas across two WGFD regions,” he says. “It isn’t easy when we have to work with so many different people.”
In addition, Hansen says they took an approach that is seldom used in the state.
“In the conversations we had, we also used flex-areas,” he explains. “These are hunt areas that have flexible boundaries and allow hunters to cross area lines. Next year, we can also go in and shift the boundaries or rotate them as we need to for the best management.”
Despite the challenges in reaching a solution, Hansen adds, “Working together is the only way to address this issue. We’re talking about a large area, and we had to get as many of the ranchers together as we could who use the area.”
He also commends WGFD for their quick responses and willingness to work together.
“Within half an hour after I first reached out and asked for a meeting, I was contacted by our local game warden, and we started putting the meeting together,” he says. “We had some great conversations and worked together to get to this end result.”
The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission will meet in April to make the final decision on hunt areas across the state.
Hansen says, “We’ll know in April if all of our efforts were successful.”