During the COVID-19 pandemic, many have turned to the great outdoors in an effort to get out of their house but still stay away from people. And with more people out of work, it also helps to be able to fill the freezer. For some, stocking up on food during the pandemic means buying extra meat. For others, it means buying a hunting license and heading into the field. For Tylynn Smith from Laramie, it's her first time going hunting.
"The idea of meat to me is far more appealing to me than having a mount or a trophy or anything like that. That is a huge aspect that I would like to do every year if my freezer starts getting empty," said Smith. "It would be nice to have it full and also have the satisfaction of you killed this animal and that you processed it and that you didn't waste it and it was all out of your own skill."
Smith has always been interested in the outdoors and tagged along on numerous hunts as a kid. This was the first year she applied for a hunting tag and she drew for two antelope and a deer.
Mason Lee, who also lives in Laramie, is a new hunter too, but she didn't draw for a tag this year. She was a vegetarian for 10 years but recently started eating meat again. Hunting is a way she plans to ethically provide her own meat. An added bonus during the pandemic is that hunting is inherently a distanced activity.
"When you're out hunting, and if you go by yourself or with someone in your family, you're in the middle of the woods, so you don't have to worry about social distancing," said Lee.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is expecting the hunting season to continue without any disruptions from the pandemic. And according to their spokesperson, Sara DiRienzo, most license applications seemed to reflect that expectation.
"There's an increasing interest in hunting in Wyoming. We see more and more applications each year and this year was the same, there's still really high demand for the high-quality wildlife that we have in the state," DiRienzo said. "The only applications that we saw decrease were with nonresident elk."
But the pandemic didn't dissuade residents from applying - in fact, according to Wyoming Game and Fish, all resident applications increased - some species up to 20 percent. But a lot of hunters were unsure if they would be hunting at all this year.
The application period for most big game hunting licenses opened in January before the pandemic hit, and remained open through the worst of the shutdowns, closing June first. But nonresident elk applications were due by January 31, before those hunters knew the extent of the situation. Both resident and nonresident hunters were able to withdraw by early summer, with more knowledge of the pandemic. But they still didn't know their draw results.
"The period to withdraw that license, the deadline was right in the middle of COVID-19 pandemic, and so lots of people were trying to decide what they want to do with the fall, what was happening then," said DiRienzo "So we think that the reason we saw a slight decrease in those nonresident applications for elk is because the uncertainty of the fall was still up in the air at that time."
According to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, hunters bring around $1 billion into the state each year, and elk are one of the more expensive animals to hunt. They support businesses like restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and outfitters. Fewer hunters can affect Wyoming's economy.
One reason the number of out of state applications dropped could be because the Game and Fish Department uses a preference point system to determine who successfully draws.
Randy Morrison owns Thunder Ridge Outfitters in Casper with his father. The combination of the point system and the timing of the withdrawal window had a huge effect on their booking numbers. They average up to 35 bookings a year. This year, they have 11.
"We had almost everybody back out of the draw," Morrison said.
All out of state licenses require preference points to successfully draw. After you apply for a license, you can also apply for a point for that species. Once you've accumulated enough, you can apply for more limited licenses, like in certain elk areas, and increase your odds of drawing.
"These guys get 10 or 12 preference points, so effectively, 10 years or more of trying to get a tag, building their points," said Morrison. "And if they draw a tag, and then their state closes them down, they're gonna lose 10 years of preference points and never get them back."
If you successfully draw a tag, you lose all of your points and have to start over from zero. And that's even if there are pandemic restrictions in place that prevent you from using that license.
There is one way that hunters can get their points back. They can submit a request to the License Review Board and if they decide to refund the license, hunters also get their points back. But not everybody is aware of this option.
"They're scared that they're going to lose those points and not get to hunt," said Morrison.
Some people applied anyway, choosing to take a chance on the fall pandemic situation and their points.
"Most of our people that are coming did draw elk and they just weren't worried about it. They were willing to take the risk and said 'Heck with it, we're gonna make this happen no matter what'," said Morrison. "So they went ahead and applied and a few of them drew."
It was easier for residents to decide to apply for hunting licenses this year because they don't have to deal with the point system as much. Unfortunately, residents don't tend to use outfitters.
But the outfitting business isn't Morrison's only source of income. With less bookings, he's looking forward to a full hunting season and a full freezer for himself.
"I just think that I have a unique situation where I had another business that allowed me to kind of recoup that difference, I guess. I drew a bunch of really good tags myself this year," said Morrison. "I have no idea what I did right to draw everything I drew. So it's actually going to work out great that I don't have that many clients - I've got lots of time to do what I drew."
The start of an unusual hunting season began in mid-August. Many are excited to get outside and away from people in the middle of this pandemic.
Correction 9/15/20: A previous version of this story incorrectly cited a PEW Research article stating that nonresident hunters bring approximately $3 billion to Wyoming each year. That number is for 11 western states and is, in fact, closer to $1 billion for Wyoming. It also stated that applying for a license and applying for a point can be done at the same time. Points are instead applied for in a later window after applying for a license. There is also an appeal process to receive a refund and reinstate their points if a hunter is unable to use their license that year. A previous version stated that there was no way to get points back.
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Ivy Engel, at email@example.com.