Black Hills elk management and proposed season changes
March 18, 2021
In 1992, when I worked my first fall hunting season in the Black Hills, there were some elk around and the lucky folks who had tags could fill them with a little work. That has changed radically since, and now we have elk in numbers and places where we never thought we would. The population has been so successful, trying to manage their numbers has become very difficult and frustrating for a lot of folks.
The Black Hills provide excellent habitat for elk. Plus, unlike the western side of our state, the hills do not have a large suite of elk predators. Research on the South Dakota side of the hills has shown that once an elk makes it to a year and-a-half old, unless it is harvested by a hunter, it is likely to stay alive, maybe to the age of 20 plus.
Data I have collected over the years for Game and Fish suggests for every 100 cow elk on the ground, without hunting, 40 or more yearling elk are added to the population each year. This means, with only natural mortality, the population has the potential to double every three years. To temper that growth hunting with significant harvest is needed.
Wyoming follows the North American Model of Wildlife Management. Accordingly, hunting is the primary tool used to regulate big game populations. Hunting conducted by the public with equal opportunity for all to get a license.
However, while elk hunting seasons have been dramatically liberalized in the Black Hills over the last 20 years, the elk population has continued to increase and expand. In 1991, just over 100 head of elk were taken in the Black Hills by hunters, while the past two years that number has exceeded 700. But, even at that, it is not enough.
In response to the growing population, Game and Fish has tried a variety of hunting season formats and continued to increase license availability, but inadequate harvest has allowed elk numbers to continue to grow. The biggest problem isn’t selling hunting licenses or finding hunters to hunt.
The main problem is much of the area is private property, and to date a number of landowners have not allowed enough hunting to regulate the elk population. While this was especially true early on, recently things have improved a bit.
To increase harvest and assist landowners whose ranching operations have been negatively impacted by elk grazing and damage to fences and other improvements, the Department implemented a Hunter Management Access Program in 2017. This program has been run by a seasonal coordinator who works with landowners to help hunters access their properties and direct the hunting. Harvest in the program has been targeted almost exclusively on antlerless elk.
Overall, our hunt management coordinators have had pretty good success, taking on average somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 elk each year, and building bridges with landowners. The program has gained access for hunters to land that was previously off limits to them, and the landowners involved have been generally pleased with the results. However, even with more Game and Fish boots on the ground working closely with landowners and hunters, obstacles still remain.
One of the biggest challenges the program faces, and one that plagues hunters throughout the hills, is that elk are not dumb animals. When they are hunted or disturbed regularly, they learn where to go to get away from hunters and disturbance. Then, when they get someplace safer, they often remain there until something else moves them again.
It becomes very frustrating for game managers, hunters and some ranchers that a few landowners allow elk to congregate on their property. This results in reduced harvest and elk negatively impacting neighboring landowners, sometimes quite significantly. It would certainly improve the situation if a little hunting, or some other type of activity, would occur when elk get onto these refuges to get them to leave for a bit.
In response to my complaining about this problem, I have often heard it said that it is private property and owners can do with it what they want. However, I would suggest a comparison.
Granted, people don’t want to be told what they can and cannot do on their property, but almost every year the county enacts a fire ban or burn restrictions. People get it, and comply with it because they don’t want their neighbor accidentally burning their place down.
If you think about it, the situation is not much different with elk. If they are allowed to build up on one property, eventually they spill over on to another, hurting someone else’s land and livelihood.
It would help improve management and mitigate damage issues if landowners protecting elk now would allow more hunting, or some other activity to temporarily move elk to where they could be harvested. After all, wildlife is a public resource that takes all of us to manage.
Because wildlife is not owned by the government, but rather is a resource equally owned by all and managed by the state for everyone, public hunting, support and input are critical for good wildlife management. That is why each year before the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission sets hunting seasons, they solicit public comments. It is a chance for folks to review the recommendations put forth by the Department and express their support or desire for something different.
This year, local Game and Fish managers are proposing a few changes to the elk hunting regulations, notably in Hunt Area 117 to encourage more harvest. One proposed change is to create a Type 8 license with 100 permits available to take a cow or calf throughout Hunt Area 117 between October 15 and January 31.
The other proposed changes entail increasing the number of currently issued license types. Those increases raise last year’s quotas including: 50 more any elk tags (Type 1); 100 more spike or antlerless elk tags (Type 2); and 100 more cow/calf Type 7 licenses.
These changes are being proposed for three reasons. Demand for, and success on, any elk tags is high, plus our bull to cow ratio needs to be lowered. Also, to help lower this ratio and maintain trophy quality, the Type 2 license number is proposed to triple in hopes of harvesting more yearling bulls.
Finally, the increase in Type 7 licenses, along with the creation of the Type 8 tag are intended to meet resident and nonresident demand for cow/calf tags, and allow for more public land opportunity on cow/calf licenses outside of the archery season.
Comments on all of the proposed hunting seasons can be submitted to Game and Fish through their website, or by sending in a letter. Either way, comments need to be received by 5 p.m., April 2. If you decide to comment, be assured every comment submitted with the commenter’s name and received on time is passed on to each Wyoming Game and Fish Commissioner for consideration.