Over 999,000 readers this year!

Hired guns? Unlimited tags? Wyoming levels up elk killing efforts

Wildlife managers are pulling out all the stops to reduce herd sizes in areas where access issues have stymied hunting and created chronically high numbers.

Two Wyoming Game and Fish Department staffers scan the rocky high prairie searching for elk in the Iron Mountain area. Herd numbers are more than double the 1,800-animal objective. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

by Mike Koshmrl, WyoFile

IRON MOUNTAIN—The professional elk killer can always find elk. 

Whether he can kill them depends on where they stand. 

“That’s kind of my limiting factor: Whether or not they’re on the property where we have permission,” the elk killer said from the rocky, snow-drifted slopes of Iron Mountain.

Prophetic.

The twenty-something aspiring wildlife professional, whose official title is technician, is being left nameless at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s request because of the sensitive nature of his job. 

In the Iron Mountain area of southeast Wyoming, a roughly 300-animal elk herd grazes on private ranch land in March 2024. (Mike Koshmrl)

Within hours of making the remark, he spotted his quarry. He and Matt Withroder, the wildlife management supervisor for the state agency’s Laramie Region, stood glassing a herd of about 300 animals through binoculars. But the big-bodied ungulates never strayed from a parcel of private property where the elk-killing crew lacked permission. Those elk lived to graze another day. 

Hiring someone whose whole gig is to kill elk for months at a time is a relative oddity in western big game wildlife management. Almost always it’s the other way around. Hunters pay the states often handsome sums for the privilege of killing an elk. In Wyoming, nonresidents can fork over well north of $1,000 for the opportunity. 

Such arrangements are foundational to the North American model of wildlife management: hunters fund management agencies through their license fees while helping those managers achieve their herd-size objectives. 

Hitting and maintaining those goal numbers can be a real challenge. With more sensitive species like pronghorn and mule deer, there often aren’t enough animals to reach the objective. But with elk, in many places, it’s the opposite: the hardy, adaptable ungulates reproduce unchecked by significant predation and run rampant for years with no easy way to bring herd numbers down. 

And so the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has resorted to measures like paying technicians to kill elk, among other unconventional methods. On a Friday in early March, Withroder and the elk-killing technician were doing their business on the historic Farthing Ranch, which falls within the state’s elk hunt area No. 6. The elk herd here, named after 7,408-foot-high Iron Mountain, was last estimated at 3,500 animals, which is roughly double the 1,800-elk goal for the herd.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s elk area No. 6 in the southeastern portion of the state. (WGFD)

“It’s kind of the ground zero for us in terms of how to come up with ways to manage these elk,” said Doug Brimeyer, Game and Fish’s deputy chief of wildlife. 

Uncapping the quota

Brimeyer delivered that description last week in Riverton while addressing the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission. He was presenting hunting season proposals that included a first for elk hunting in modern Wyoming: a new license for cows and calves that hunters, previously restricted to three elk, will be able to buy in unlimited quantities. The commission OK’d that plan, and the unlimited licenses will be debuted during the 2024-’25 hunting season in eastern Wyoming’s elk hunt areas 3, 6, 7, 8, 117, 122 and 126.

There’s more to the elk-reduction effort than paying technicians to kill elk and uncapping quotas. Facing legislative pressure to rein in elk numbers and radically change management regimes, the state agency has engaged in an informal 5-year plan. Part of that plan reinstated and rebranded special “depredation prevention” hunts that function independently from Wyoming’s normal game seasons and quotas. Statewide, there were “pretty close to 450” elk killed via the new “auxiliary management” hunts, Brimeyer told WyoFile. These hunts, which equip landowners and their friends and families with special licenses that cannot be purchased from local tag sellers or on Game and Fish’s website, did not take place in the Iron Mountain area where Withroder and the elk-killing technicians scanned for herds. 

A Wyoming Game and Fish Department employee uses binoculars and a spotting scope to attempt to locate elk on the Farthing Ranch in March 2024. The goal was to harvest one or more elk and donate the meat to a local food pantry, but access issues prevented a kill on this day. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

In that swath of northern Laramie County, where land ownership is overwhelmingly private, the state employs another tool outside the normal hunting tag regime. By the time WyoFile rendezvoused with the elk-killing technician in early March he had taken down 13 animals, and every one of those animals was tagged with a “lethal take” permit authorized by Chapter 56 of the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission’s regulations. With these permits, the state gave itself the ability to kill up to 300 elk in hunt area 6 alone. Last September landowners in the unit received an additional 450 lethal take permits. They’ve put them to use, Withroder said.  

“I think we were at 160, 170 [elk killed beyond normal hunting] at the end of the calendar year,” he said at the time. “Those are still ongoing.” 

Rick King, chief warden for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, listens to a legislative committee meeting in the Wyoming Capitol in January 2023 (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Taken together, the array of unconventional methods has stretched modern Wyoming elk management beyond the bounds of what was. Whether the new regime can reduce populations to the objective within five years remains to be seen, but state officials like Game and Fish Chief Warden Rick King remain hopeful. 

“This is year two,” King said. “So three more years before you can tell me whether I was right or wrong.” 

There are some promising signs. The estimated population of the Iron Mountain Herd has fallen for five straight years, from a high of 4,600 in 2019 to 3,500 in 2023 — though that’s still double the goal. 

Bigger picture statewide, dynamics are reversed. There were 29,000 elk killed in the 2023-’24 season, an all-time high for the Equality State, home to some 109,000 wapiti — a population that keeps climbing, despite the high harvest. 

Wyoming isn’t alone in its too-many-elk predicament. Montana’s elk population has ballooned by 42% in less than two decades despite Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ efforts to hunt it down, leading to an all-new overarching plan. 

Some measures pursued in Montana to up the kill of ranchland elk have triggered huge pushback, including accusations that the state is privatizing the public’s elk.  

Any criticism out there? 

Like Montana, Wyoming’s elk-reduction plans have also given landowners and others with private land access a leg up, yet the shift has gone over much more smoothly with the hunting public here.

Jessi Johnson, government affairs director for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, says that the steps the state is taking to knock down elk numbers are “really widely accepted.” 

“In the wake of [House Bill] 60, I think everybody realizes that this is a problem that we need to get under control,” Johnson said. 

House Bill 60 – Excess wildlife population damage amendments, which died in the 11th hour of the Legislature’s 2024 budget session, was a bill born from ranchers outraged by the state’s ineffectiveness at achieving its elk population goals.  

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, listens to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission during a January 2023 meeting. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Jim Magagna, longtime lobbyist for the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association, architected the legislation, though it was reworked by a committee ahead of the session. Essentially, the bill proposed to compensate ranchers for grass eaten by elk — at one juncture proposing to pay more than the grass was worth on the open market. There were worries that the bill could have been a huge financial drain on the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, a largely self-supported state agency that funds itself through hunting and fishing license dollars. 

“I think it shook the Game and Fish and everybody to the core last year,” said Sy Gilliland, a past president of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association. “That [bill] had legs, and rightfully so.” 

Gilliland, who supports the state’s elk reduction efforts, is hopeful that the new unlimited cow-calf licenses could help wean Game and Fish off less desirable programs, like paying professionals to kill elk and the new auxiliary hunts.

Both Gilliland and Buzz Hettick, who co-chairs the Wyoming Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, have concerns with how the state has administered the auxiliary hunts. 

“It’s not very transparent,” Hettick said. “There should be a report [on the program] that’s presented to the commission and the public.” 

An inquisitive black cow strayed from its herd in the Laramie Mountains in April 2022. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Although HB 60 died last session, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is taking the initiative to rework its regulations concerning compensation for “extraordinary damage to rangeland” — perhaps to avert another run at legislation by making it easier for ranchers to dip into the pot. 

“The exact framework, I’m not sure what it’ll look like,” said King, the chief warden. “Our direction has been to take that [regulation change] in front of the commission in September.” 

Magagna will be watching to see what changes in regulation as he weighs whether to bring back an HB 60 mirror bill. Overall, he’s “pleased” that Wyoming Game and Fish is now responding to ranchers who say they’re being overrun with elk, though he added a caveat: “A lot of us,” he said, “we don’t understand why it took the threat of legislation.”

Magagna is skeptical that the department’s goals are attainable. 

“They talk about a five-year plan and I welcome that, but I think in some of these areas it’s going to be a challenge to get it done,” he said. 

A Wyoming Game and Fish Department staffer captured this aerial photo of a herd of 1,700 elk in the Laramie Mountains in 2014. The area is prone to “superherds” forming early in the fall. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department/Courtesy)

He cited two reasons: elk numbers and access. The Iron Mountain Herd isn’t Wyoming’s only elk herd dramatically out of whack with the desired number. Just to the north, the Laramie Peak Herd is even more inflated — its 12,000-plus elk are nearly 2.5 times the herd’s 5,000-head goal. When elk in these areas get heavily hunted they form mega-herds, find safety and become increasingly difficult to hunt.  

Access woes

“One of the challenges to making hunting an effective tool is we have landowners who don’t allow access for hunting on their land,” Magagna said. 

That’s the case on Iron Mountain. Although cattleman Charlie Farthing gave the state the OK to dispatch its elk-killing technician on his family’s 121-year-old ranch, he knows from experience that elk learn fast and find places to hide out. 

“Part of the problem is that some of the land [in the area] has been sold in recent years,” Farthing told WyoFile, “and it’s gone to people that aren’t necessarily in the ranching business. They bought it for recreation — mainly for hunting and fishing — and they don’t allow any [public] hunting.” 

The elk find those places of refuge and hole up. The savvy behavior has made the elk-killing technician’s job much more difficult. In 2023, the first year that Game and Fish commissioned elk killers, the agency hired a couple of brothers who live in the area, and they were “very successful,” Farthing said. 

Elk populations have remained at more than double the state’s goal in two southcentral Wyoming herds — Laramie Peak and Iron Mountain — for many years, frustrating cattle ranchers. Here, a herd of about 300 elk grazes private land adjacent to the Farthing Ranch. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

At a cost of roughly $20,600, the two brothers took out 129 cows and calves. Save for one animal that tested positive for chronic wasting disease, all the meat — plus what’s been killed by the state’s new technician this year — has gone to good use. The elk get quartered and processed, and the finished product is distributed for free via First Lady Jennie Gordon’s Food from the Field program, Withroder said. 

This past winter the elk and the meat were tougher to come by. Partly it was because the brothers got busy and declined to take the gig again, turning over the duties to the elk-killing technician and whatever Game and Fish employee could accompany him on any given day.

“Not knowing the area, it was a pretty good learning curve for them,” Farthing said. “They did OK.” 

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Matt Withroder, right, talks with an agency technician whose day job in the winter is to kill elk on private land in overpopulated herd units. Because of the sensitive nature of the job, the state agency asked that the technician not be named. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

By the end of the season, the Game and Fish crew managed to kill only 23 elk, some 18% of what the elk-killing contractors achieved in 2023. Overall, however, landowners and the state agency managed to take down an estimated 250 elk in hunt area 6 using the “lethal take” permits.   

In Farthing’s view, everything the state’s doing, including hiring professional hunters, is a step in the right direction. But the Iron Mountain Herd grew to where it is today over decades, he said, and they’re not going to get it done “overnight.” 

“Whether or not they can do it, I don’t know,” Farthing said. “These elk never have a bad year.” 

“If I never see another elk, it’d be just great.” CHARLIE FARTHING

At 69 years old, Farthing is ready to be done dealing with elk, which have caused him “shock and awe” by the immense amount of work they create, like fixing fences. He’s come into pastures, where elk superherds moved through, to find 300 yards of barbed-wire twisted, tangled and on the ground. 

“It takes an hour or better to fix one little spot,” Farthing said. “If I never see another elk, it’d be just great.” 


This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.


Back

Related