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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.

A 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 Pedrodiniz. “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: drought, disease 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 Pedrodiniz. “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/Pedrodiniz)

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 Pedrodiniz 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.

Mike Koshmrl reports on Wyoming's wildlife and natural resources. Prior to joining Pedrodiniz, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures for the Jackson...

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  1. The solution is right in front of the landowner. The property owners have a right to say no to allowing the public on their land. But if they choose to say no the State should not owe them anything for wildlife population increases on their land. They created the problem for themselves. Allowing the public to hunt is the best solution and the state can manage the numbers. I firmly believe that if there is no hunting then there should be no compensation. If they allow the public to hunt and still have a problem then the state should look harder at tag allotments.
    The same ridiculous thing is happening with wolves where the state is controlling them on private lands while the landowner won't allow the public to hunt them. The solution is right there by allowing the public in!

  2. There’s thousands of Colorado hunters that can get the job done in culling the herd without having to hire so called “technicians”! Given the proper access to these areas the state makes money on tag fees. It’s a win win for all sides!

  3. Any benefits for the hunter's to help with population control or landowners providing access for the hunter's?
    Where's RMEF?

  4. I think we've lost our minds if we think the stock growers association or any cattle rancher gives a damn about anything but getting richer of of federal and state lands feeding there cows for fraction of what fairmarket value i We just lost absurd amount of wildlife because a Wy game and fish leader determined that we shouldn't feed them for two weeks . Until the sun could melt some of those hilltops. I can't believe he's still employed for that decision . To tell us wyomingites that you can't feed deer and elk for couple weeks .fire this guy governor .How much was spent on that awesome!decision thanks sry butt cmon this state has always been run bye rich ranchers . Our wildlife needs to be left alone and not killed bye paid shooters that's insane you know how many Wyoming residents who would harvest free elk ,but honestly why are we talking about to many elk when we lost that many animals
    There's not to many elk that's stupid .

  5. Not complicated just open up more permits as you do deer and antelope. That should not take hiring more game wardens. Ranchers a l ready have this figured in there own herds.

  6. Ranching in wyoming !!! That is insane to try and raise cattle in a wilderness area where there is very little grass anyway . They didn't have much sense in the 20s 30s to come up here in the first place .
    There ain't enough grass up here to feed a cow on .
    Take 1000 acres to feed 1 cow from what I see of this place , and i moved here from cattle country Oklahoma where grass is abundant.
    I wouldn't compensate 1 rancher , they intruded on the wilderness wildlife habits years ago , some of them made it , some of them didnt , not our problem .
    I would suggest they find some hay down south and pay for it to be shipped up , that seems to be what it takes to ranch up here bc there is no grass for cows here .
    Takes 4 acres in Oklahoma to feed 1 cow on , and the grass here is dorment now so it aint worth crap.
    Ranchers won't open their place up to hunters thats insane for them to cry about it then .
    Distribute more tags out and do it at a reasonable price and have these ranchers open their place up to hunters and problem will soon work it self out , if the rancher dont want to participate then to bad for him .
    Seems selfish for class A ranchers to want a bag of gold for trying to raise cows in a not so cattle country environment.
    They choose to farm up here where grass is not , so let them buy what they got to have for their cows bc thats what it takes to farm here .
    As a retired farmer from Oklahoma , I wouldn't even think of rasing 2 cows in this wilderness habit , to bad for ranchers here that want a free meal ticket bc the grass isn't here to raise their cows .

  7. Well, I only have 10 acres but if a cow comes on there to eat my grass, I have to fence my property to keep the cows off so if the landowner does not allow elk hunting on his property or access to public property through his property, why in the hell does he not have to fence off the elk to keep them from eating his grass? It seems to me that what is good for the goose is also good for the gander, thank you very much

  8. why not open up hunting opportunities? I hunted deer on private land for years. open up cow elk hunts. The meat is the best. Let ranchers have land tags and hunters like me harvest.

  9. Well, the chief of the Wyoming Welfare cowboy assoc. (Magagna) sure seems happy...another huge and undeserved subsidy for these ‘rugged individualists'

  10. There's a broader consideration here which goes far beyond elk damaging private grazing grass. That is, the District Court in Washakie County ruled that compensation must be paid whenever the publicly owned wildlife damages private property - a ruling which originally stemmed from mountain lions killing domestic sheep near Ten Sleep. Animal damage reimbursement extends to grizzly bears killing cattle and sheep, wolves killing cattle and sheep, large herds of antelope impacting hay and alfalfa fields, elk over grazing grass on private property, etc. The pity here is that animal damage payments currently are borne by hunters and anglers via license sales even though trout don't kill cattle. The law requires that damages must be paid - so the real issue is how much and how is that determined. With respect to cattle losses to grizzlies and wolves, a multiplier of something like 3 is used - that is, for each depredated carcass found, it is assumed that several more weren't found and market value of cattle is somewhat easy to determine. Loss of grass caused by the publicly owned wildlife eating privately owned grass certainly is harder to determine - however, the proposed legislation attempts to provide realistic provisions for calculating loss of grass which is an absolute requirement in order to clarify future animal damage payments. The problem is further complicated by land ownership wherein a ranch may only be 40% private land, 8% state and 52 % Federal - that is the damage to grass should only be calculated based on the percent of private land owned by a ranch. after all, elk eating grass on Federal surface is a situation whereby publicly owned wildlife are consuming publicly owned grass on public land. That's the way it should be. The legislature hopefully can sort through this and come up with a well defined compensation program which is fair - but as usual, there will be plenty of dissenting opinions.

  11. They could include language to charge “market rates” on Federally leased land rents to help offset costs.

  12. Times have changed and the old time ranchers that allowed hunting are for the most part gone, thanks so much to those that still allow hunting. Now it is millionaires and billionaires buying up Wyoming, locking us out of our public lands. The ranchers get numerous tax breaks from the federal and state governments as well as subsidized grazing on public lands. The State, BLM and Forest Service need to wake up to the land grab and remember they serve all Americans and not just ranchers. The land management agencies should require reasonable public access in exchange for grazing. The tail of the dog is wagging and running Wyoming, look at our elected officials most if not all own ranches, and most ranches have public grazing. How many support getting rid of public lands which will become private for the benefit of a few. Heck they even get free fire suppression on private land adjacent to public lands. Allow reasonable access the elk herds will be brought back into check the ranchers would all scream damage to property from hunters well compensate them for that. Its not right to get landowner tags, subsidized grazing ,get paid trespassing fees, get paid by outfitters and for the state to pay contract hunters for something the public can do.

  13. Wow! Yet another proposed welfare subsidy for ranchers, all of course, funded by the public. Ranchers and their livestock have been abusing public lands since the mid-1800s and now they are crying about an issue they caused and could easily fix themselves.
    The “problem” of high elk numbers in some areas is solely caused by ranchers blocking access to public land and the lack of access to private property by hunters. Ranchers could easily solve this issue by merely and rightfully allowing access to public land and opening their property to hunters.
    This proposed welfare scheme is unnecessary and should be promptly defeated.

  14. Do these ranchers that want compensation let people hunt on there land or let hunters cross there land to get to the hunting areas? If not they shouldn't receive any compensation. They are the ones that took away the wildlifes habitat and now cry about it.

  15. Where is it good practice to impose another tax on one man for the benefit of another ?

  16. Why are we compensating ranchers for this? Let us hunt the elk and this problem will go away, win win for all. Oh wait, the public gets screwed and ranchers get paid with tax payer money, the common sense solution fails.

  17. So tax payers dollars and hunter license fees will compensate private land owners for elk ‘damage' from grazing while they restrict access and outsource to outfitters... seems like there's a possibility to get paid both ways while residents suffer.

  18. John Higgins is saying the right thinks I’m all in with what he had to say and hope all hunters stand with him he is so right we pay all the big property hi tax and have to put up with ham and fish that don’t give a dam about hunters that can’t hunt do to ranchers taking big bucks from game and fish and no hunting on ranchers land so This is what I have to say the Elk were there long before the ranchers got so dam greedy so Suck it up boys and send the greedy wealthy back we’re they came from

  19. Stop paying landowners for loss its their fault they are having problems if they dont want elk on their property build elk fence to keep them out i personally have been told that if i want to hunt private property i need to pay 2000 to 3000 for a cow or calf and 5000 and above for a bull so let the wild animals eat them out of house and home its because of greed that us the tax payers and license buyers are having to pay the price outfitters and landowners need to pay be paying for it all if they want to keep the game on their property and not let normal hard working people who dont just hunt for sport but for family food move the animals around i say if you charge a tresspass fee you get no money from the state ranchers,outfittersand legislature made hunting a rich mans game loose the greed and bring back the way it should be

  20. The problem is that this legislation appears to incentivize and compensate landowners for closing their properties to hunters...unless I misunderstand.
    The answer is for landowners to allow the harvest of over-objective elk herds. Further, if this bill passes, compensation should be paid at the going rate for AUMs on public land, currently $1.35 for a cow and calf. The Game and Fish cannot manage herds if landowners take away their management tools. This bill appears to encourage landowners to keep their land closed.

  21. Perhaps they could tie compensation to the willingness of the landowner to enroll their property with the Game and Fish and allow hunters in to harvest elk. There are a couple of different programs administered by the Game and Fish and created for just that purpose. If a landowner balks at allowing hunters on to reduce the wildlife then hunter dollars should not go to pay for the wildlife damage and if the legislature wants to earmark general funds to reimburse those welfare ranchers then well and good. Simple enough.

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

    When can taxpayers expect the “going market rate” for the leased land that welfare ranchers think is theirs?

  23. If ranchers want public elk to stop eating their private grass, reason would imply that they should open their lands to public hunters, who will remediate the problem.

    If public access causes problems, reimburse ranchers for those damages. Otherwise ranchers remain incentivized to keep big herds for their friends and paying customers and let the taxpayers pick up the tab for the elk’s private dining room.

  24. So,

    Ranchers, in particular, Billionaires that move to Wyoming and buy out small private families, can continue to lock out the public, and specifically hunters who cull the herds, and then charge the public for damage to grass on their private land? This does not make sense to me.... A so called rancher already pays ‘pennies' on the dollar to run livestock on Public Land and chew up that grass and compete with wildlife, and now I have to pay them with my tax dollars if the same wildlife eat grass on their private land that I have no access??

    Please, explain this one to me, again. I see plenty of Billionaires and Millionaires from out of state who buy up the land and keep cattle to maintain their tax subsidies and receive government compensation. They lock out the locals, and then raise our property taxes on top of us having to ‘pay them.'

    Dear Lord 🙏

    1. If they(rancher)don't allow hunters to enter the ranch to harvest elk,shouldn't be compensated for elk grazing. Why should they be compensated for a no hunting policy? They are the problem for the over objective herd size. Only compensate on each harvested elk,1 elk = compensation.

  25. I served with others in the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission way back in the 1990's - this issue was at the forefront even before that. This is a reasonable solution. The public does not want the game herds “diminished”, as in any form of “natural reduction” or extra hunting privileges, but no one wants them to starve, either. Feed grounds are not the best answer, except as a tourist attraction. It will take a tough effort to get this through our Legislature which primarily seems to vote down anything practical.

    1. Mary, I remember the 1990's as well. Back when people could express their differences and still respect each other. I agree about the practicality of the Legislature, but in this case it will be the Commission who votes on the regulations.

      Although the proposal has some good points, it may be useless in the long run. Currently (and it wouldn't change) the landowner must allow hunting during legal seasons, which is when the problem elk are either on public land that's locked up by private property or on some millionaire's land that thinks elk are part of the scenery.

      Maybe the PLPW program that you helped get started could be worked into the mix someway.

      The proposed regulation changes can be found on the G&F website along with an opportunity to comment.

  26. if this happens the ranchers should be compensated in the same amount that they pay to graze on public land $1.35 per aum.