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SHERIDAN — Good news, hunters.
In spite of depressed numbers of hunting licenses in other areas of Wyoming — and more so in surrounding states like Montana and Colorado — the Sheridan region is holding its own, especially in regards to elk, antelope and white-tailed deer.
While Type 1, any antelope licenses were originally reduced this year, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department Sheridan Regional Office recently announced license sale increases to try to further reduce overpopulation. Type 8 doe/fawn white-tailed deer licenses were also made unlimited in five hunt areas in the region recently.
As for elk?
“These are the glory years for elk,” Sheridan Regional Wildlife Supervisor Joe Gilbert said.
“I’ve been with the outfit for 33 years, and all that time you could only draw one elk license. I never dreamed you’d be able to get three licenses,” Gilbert continued.
In 2012, the Wyoming legislature removed the limit on elk tags, so the Sheridan region now allows up to three elk harvests with reduced price cow-calf licenses.
Overall, Sheridan reduced a few license types and increased others with the overall trend moving upward for the region.
In comparison, a recent article in Colorado’s 5280 Magazine noted that hunting and fishing license sales in Colorado are down approximately 18 percent since hunting’s heyday there in the early 1980s, falling from 657,333 in 1983 to 537,371 in 2013. The drop in sales has the potential to negatively impact wildlife health in Colorado since license fees primarily fund management efforts.
In 1982, Wyoming sold 644,946 hunting and fishing licenses. Thirty years later, in 2012, the department sold 871,434 hunting and fishing licenses, making it appear Wyoming has not followed quite the same trend.
Still, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department did have to cut its budget by 6.28 percent for fiscal year 2014, dropping nearly $5 million from $76 million to $71 million. A chunk of that cut came from projections that deer and antelope license sales would be down approximately $500,000 for the year for the state, Wyoming Game and Fish Department Fiscal Division Chief Jean Cole said.
License sales for deer and antelope both dropped by about 5,000 from 2011 to 2012.
However, numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Weather — be it droughts, floods or harsh winters — plays a significant role in license sales each year since big game herds live and die by how their forage is affected by weather conditions, Gilbert said. The drops in deer and antelope sales in Wyoming this year are likely the result of rotten weather in much of the state that has harmed herds.
The Sheridan region tends to face less adversity with its milder weather, but it does face another tricky balancing act that’s not as troublesome in the rest of the state: access.
“We have to keep the amount of licenses available in harmony with both the deer population and the amount of access available to hunters,” Gilbert said. “We could allow more licenses if we had access to get hunters on the landscape where they can hunt, but because of limited access we have to tailor the number of deer licenses that are available to that.”
A few decades ago, ranches in the area used to allow 25 to 30 bucks to be taken on their land, but now many are managing for trophy buck hunting and only allowing five or so to be harvested, turning away people who call to get access and even asking second and third generation hunters not to come some years if they perceive deer populations on their land to be down.
Gilbert understands that landowners grow weary of phone calls asking for access, but he said limited access does lend itself to hunter crowding on public land, which can potentially lead to over hunting, which can lead to restricting nonresident deer licenses and a loss of income.
Just this year, the Sheridan region lowered region C nonresident deer licenses by 200, which reduced income to the department by $65,200.
And, like the rest of the nation, the Sheridan region is concerned about the age gap in hunting.
“I relate it to the Sturgis crowd,” Gilbert said. “It seems every year they go through, their hair gets grayer. Likewise, the mean age of people who buy licenses is getting one year older each year.”
As society becomes more urban and people become less tied to the land, kids aren’t exposed to hunting as much, especially when lacking hunting mentors in their lives, Gilbert said. Also, kids are busy — almost too busy to spend time outdoors hunting.
Wyoming has lowered its hunting age from 14 to 12 to try to capture kids’ interest earlier and started hunting mentor programs that allow people to go hunting with a mentor without passing hunter’s education to “test drive” the sport before committing to the time and money to pass a class.
Overall, Gilbert said, those programs are working as more and more women and children enter the hunting force, but it will take vigilance to maintain hunter recruitment and adequate wildlife management.