This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department Kerns Wildlife Habitat Management Area and the 75th anniversary of the Amsden Creek WHMA. These areas are popular with local residents for the many recreation opportunities they provide, but few people may know their history or the reason for their existence.
“The primary purpose of acquisition for both the Amsden and Kerns was to provide crucial winter range for elk,” said Sheridan Region Habitat and Access Coordinator Seth Roseberry, who oversees WGFD-managed lands in the Sheridan Region. “Within the boundaries of the WHMAs there is sufficient habitat to provide year round living for many species. But through the winter, these lands provide a secluded and protected area when wildlife survival is at its most fragile stage. All management decisions made on the areas, from habitat treatments to winter closures, stem from the primary goal of maintaining, and as much as possible improving, winter range for elk and other big game.”
Initial purchases of land for these areas were made in 1944 and 1949 and land acquisitions and swaps took place over several decades to compile them into the contiguous areas they are today — more than 9,000 acres in total. Creation of these areas was championed by the Game and Fish Commission, local residents and ranchers, the Sheridan County Sportsmen’s Association and other local outdoor organizations.
“The biggest thing that has ever come out of the efforts of the club was the purchase of the Kerns ranch for use as a winter pasture for the Big Horn mountain elk herd,” wrote The Sheridan Press outdoor columnist George Grunkemeyer in January 1950, about the Sheridan County Sportsmen’s Association. “The association was directly responsible for the promotion of this purchase…”
The club had been active and vocal in securing the Kerns property, calling multiple member meetings in 1949 to craft a resolution in support of the purchase. It was also instrumental in acquiring the first purchase of land for the Amsden WHMA, which is now part of the popular WGFD Tongue River Public Access Area at the entrance to Tongue River Canyon.
“The foresight of these Sheridan County residents made possible the creation of the Amsden and Kerns,” Roseberry said. “They knew the value these areas held for wildlife, particularly elk, and that by protecting them they could sustain wildlife populations far into the future. It seems every generation looks back and realizes how local habitat has been lost or altered in their lifetime and wishes more had been done to protect it. In this case, a group of devoted wildlife enthusiasts decided to act. More than seven decades later, wildlife and all of us who enjoy wildlife are still benefitting from their efforts.”
The majority of the money used to make land purchases for both areas came from the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration program, or Pittman Robertson Act. The program — created in 1937 and still in effect today — places a small federal excise tax on firearm and ammunition purchases. These taxes are then redistributed to state wildlife agencies for wildlife conservation.
Amsden and Kerns are owned by the Game and Fish Commission and managed by the Game and Fish Department, which pays local taxes on the properties. The land is therefore not “public land” in the traditional sense. However, as long as public recreation does not negatively impact the properties or resident wildlife, outdoor activities are allowed during open months. The units are closed to human presence during the winter and early spring to prevent unnecessary disturbance to wintering animals.
“Public users are able to hike, photograph, hunt, camp and simply enjoy a wide range of outdoor experiences as long as they are not detrimental to the original purchase of acquisition,” Roseberry said. “The Kerns WHMA is a great place to look for black bears foraging on the native plums that grow in the area and the Amsden WHMA has been an annual destination for many bird watchers. And both areas are popular with hunters in the fall.”
To celebrate the anniversaries, two events will be held at the Amsden WHMA this year. On Saturday, May 18, the Bighorn Native Plant Society will lead its annual wildflower hike with members of the society showing participants how to identify various wildflowers and other native plants. In addition, geoscientist Steve Stresky will provide information on the geology of the Amsden and eastern flank of the Bighorns. The hike will begin at 9:30 a.m. at the north Amsden gate. Anyone who wants to carpool or follow others to the unit can meet at the Sheridan Information Center on Fifth Street for a 9 a.m. departure. Please wear comfortable shoes for walking and bring a rain jacket or sunscreen, depending on the day’s weather. It is also recommended that participants bring water and snacks or a picnic lunch. The event is free and appropriate for all ages.
In early July, the Game and Fish will hold its annual day camp for kids at Amsden. The camp is for students entering fifth and sixth grades this fall and is limited to 25 participants. Registration is required and can be completed by visiting www.wgfd.wyo.gov and clicking on the ‘education’ tab.
A detailed history of the acquisition of both areas will be featured in the May issue of the Game and Fish Wyoming Wildlife magazine.
Christina Schmidt is a public information specialist with Wyoming Game and Fish Department — Sheridan Region.