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Rancher compensation bill for hungry elk rises from ashes as proposed rule change

State agency proposes regulation change to address damage to dry rangelands in the wake of a controversial bill’s death.

A herd of about 300 elk grazes private land in the Iron Mountain area in February 2024. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

by Mike Koshmrl, WyoFile

When grass on private land intended for livestock gets munched first by elk — and other big game — wildlife managers are taking steps to better compensate ranchers left with hungry animals. 

proposed Wyoming Game and Fish Department regulation change came about because of elk populations that have exceeded state goals and caused landowners problems, said Craig Smith, the agency’s deputy chief of wildlife. 

“It’s reached a point where we do feel like we need to do something a little bit extra in order to … address the issue,” Smith told WyoFile. “We need to try to do what we can to alleviate that hit to those folks.”

Elk populations in Wyoming are most misaligned with wildlife goals in central and eastern Wyoming, where private land has stymied Game and Fish’s ability to control herd sizes through conventional hunting. Still, the state agency is taking a number of unconventional steps to shrink herds, like paying technicians to kill elk and opening up ‘auxiliary’ seasons for landowners. The goal is to drive numbers down to the goal within five years. 

Although the draft regulation isn’t specific to elk, that’s the species most likely to bring it into play, especially in the near term. Mule deer and pronghorn populations have consistently struggled in recent years from a variety of causes: droughtdisease and habitat loss, among others.

Largely, the planned update to Game and Fish policies mirrors language from an especially controversial bill that was making its way through the Legislature before the Wyoming Senate Majority Floor Leader Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) stepped in and killed it

“The language in the draft regulation is fairly similar to what was in House Bill 60,” Smith said. “It was fairly clear what the intent of that legislation was, and so we did use that as a basis on how to develop the draft [regulation].”

The legislation was set in motion by livestock lobbyists and upset ranchers who caught the ears of lawmakers between legislative sessions in 2023. 

Specifically, the updated regulations would make ranchers eligible for “extraordinary damage to grass” payments if their land is located in an area where big game herds exceed Game and Fish goals by 20% for three or more consecutive years. Overpopulated herds would have to consume more than 15% of the estimated grass that grows on a property — and only private land is eligible. 

Additionally, landowners who lose 30% of their lands’ forage to big game would be eligible regardless of whether the herd eating the grass is considered overpopulated. 

The Wyoming Stock Growers Association’s Jim Magagna — the face of the state’s livestock industry — is satisfied with the proposed changes. 

“This is more than we originally requested,” Magagna told WyoFile. “I think it makes sense. It’s very good.” 

Jim Magagna, longtime executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, pictured in 2023.(Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Magagna doesn’t expect to work behind the scenes to push through another bill on the issue, he said. 

“Assuming it’s adopted generally as it’s written, I wouldn’t foresee us coming back with any legislation,” he said. “That door is always open, but I think that we would want to give this the opportunity to function appropriately.” 

The bill that Game and Fish’s proposed regulation change was based on proved exceptionally controversial during the Legislature’s 2024 budget session. Partly, that was because the bill’s first iteration would have compensated ranchers for more than the grass was worth: 150% of the market value. Hook-and-bullet advocacy groups that lobby on behalf of Game and Fish also took issue with the projected cost of the legislation: $1.68 million, an amount Game and Fish would have to pay with hunter and angler dollars — and that was the low end of the estimate.

Chief Warden Rick King told WyoFile that it’s tough to predict what the Game and Fish regulation change would cost the agency. It’s dependent on how many landowners make claims and the investigations into those claims, he said.

“Just like with House Bill 60, there’s still a concern about workloads and additional workloads,” King said, “so we’ve taken some measures to address and prepare for that.” 

A large elk herd kicks up a cloud of dust as it evacuates a hillside on Little Mountain. (Steven Brutger)

Game and Fish, which has faced warden shortages, added four new positions — one each in Sheridan, Casper, Laramie and Green River — to mitigate and prevent damage and investigate claims. 

Claimants who’ve been found credible would be paid the “going market rate” for their lost grass, Smith said. 

There are several administrative steps remaining before Game and Fish’s draft regulation change would take effect. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission is expected to consider the change at its Sept. 10-11 meeting in Douglas. Gov. Mark Gordon would also need to sign the revised regulation. 

The public has the chance to weigh in, with comments due by Aug. 6

There are also a number of upcoming public meetings at Game and Fish’s respective regional offices: 

  • Green River meeting is planned for 6 p.m. July 17. 
  • Casper meeting 5 p.m. July 22. 
  • Pinedale meeting 6 p.m. July 25.
  • Cody meeting 6 p.m. July 29.

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.