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Elk and cattle both eat grass, Lawmakers mull compensating ranchers, for more than the grass is worth

By
Mike Koshmrl with WyoFile, via the Wyoming News Exchange

Editors:  A photo to go with the following story may be found in today’s folder.  See cutline information below. 
 
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)
 
FROM WYOFILE: 
 
Proposed changes to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s damage program come at the behest of the livestock lobby and cattle ranchers who live in parts of Wyoming with far too many elk.
 
Wyoming wildlife managers worry that a proposed change to landowner compensation regulations could hurt efforts to get a handle on inflated elk populations. 
 
Legislation advancing in the statehouse, House Bill 60 – Excess wildlife population damage amendments, is intended to give the Wyoming Game and Fish Department more incentive to lower elk numbers in areas where wapiti are overpopulated. The statute change would do so by sweetening compensation entitlement for ranchers who lose grass on rangeland to wildlife, offering them 150% of the market value. 
 
But in Game and Fish Chief Warden Rick King’s view, that amount of compensation could perhaps have the opposite effect: encouraging landowners to host elk, while exacerbating overpopulation problems. 
 
“I do worry that paying such a high rate above fair market value can potentially be a disincentive for the landowner to want to help cooperate and get our elk herds to [the] objective,” King told members of the House Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee last week.
 
The livestock lobby disagrees. Testifying at the same meeting, Jim Magagna, longtime representative for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, pushed back on King’s contention. 
 
“Landowners and ranchers have told me repeatedly, ‘Even if this makes us more money, we’re not in the business to make money by growing elk,’” Magagna said. “We’re in the business to make money by raising sheep or cattle.” 
 
Magagna was instrumental in formulating the proposed reforms to Wyoming’s damage program. The legislation emerged from the Ag Committee, though it wasn’t an interim topic. The committee’s initial meeting yielded several radical proposals, like rounding up elk with helicopters, using drones to help hunters locate herds and suspending wanton waste rules so animals in overpopulated herds could be shot and left to rot. None of that came to fruition, but HB 60 emerged from the committee deliberations, which were precipitated by acute elk overpopulation problems in places like the Laramie Mountains and Iron Mountain north of Cheyenne.
 
The bill includes a presumption that landowners are eligible for 150% of market payments for “extraordinary damage to rangeland,” which is defined as loss of grass that exceeds 15% of the total estimated grass on a property or a state land grazing allotment. Alternatively, the presumption exists if a big game herd is overpopulated for two consecutive years. 
 
Wyoming Game and Fish wardens and biologists would have a chance to rebut those presumptions and investigate claims of damage. 
 
If the legislation leads to new statute, the rangeland compensation program could be a significant financial drain on the state agency. Already, Game and Fish spends an average of $1.25 million annually fulfilling claims for the damage that game species cause to cropland, livestock and rangeland that sustains “extraordinary damage.” 
 
The changes proposed by HB 60 would lead to an additional $1.68 million in payments, according to the bill’s fiscal note. But that’s the low end of the estimates, King told lawmakers.
 
Hunting and angling advocacy groups lobbying in Cheyenne haven’t received the proposed revisions to the state’s damage program warmly. 
 
“This policy would disincentivize cooperation between private landowners, sportsmen and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, worsening elk overpopulation issues not only in southeast Wyoming, but across the entire state,” said Josh Metten, who works as the Wyoming field manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
 
Jessi Johnson, with the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, took issue with such a large chunk of Game and Fish’s self-sustaining budget — which is funded by hunter and angler license dollars — being funneled toward private landowners. 
 
“A 150% of fair market value,” Johnson said, “that’s a really hard pill for sportsmen and sportswomen to swallow.” 
 
Magagna, however, says the legislation change is needed. While Wyoming’s damage program overall — how it addresses fence damage, crop damage and loss of livestock — has “worked well,” there’s “one place” where the program has failed, he said. 
 
“That’s where it talks about ‘extraordinary damage’ to grass,” Magagna told WyoFile. “I don’t even like that term. We’re not talking about damage to grass, we’re talking about consumption.”  
 
House Bill 60, he said, addresses that shortcoming. The legislation survived introduction on the House floor in a 54-6 vote, then passed the House Ag Committee 9-0, but was rereferred to the Appropriations Committee.
 
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.
 
This story was posted on February 21, 2024.  

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