Every year, hunters set out in search of their quarry. Some will be successful, but inevitably, some will be unable to fill their tag, for a variety of possible reasons. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) is constantly striving to make sure that the number of tags they sold isn't one of those reasons.
"There's a lot of information that goes into the number of licenses that are available for a given species in a given area each year," said Laramie region wildlife coordinator Embere Hall. "The information that informs this process comes out of three buckets, if you will. So the first is information that the department has on the population itself."
This could be things like the estimated population size, the age structure of a given herd, or how many individuals survived from the year before.
"The second bucket is information on harvest, and all that information comes from our harvest survey," said Hall.
The harvest survey is emailed to license holders after their season has closed. This is where hunter success rate comes from, along with information like how long it took successful hunters to harvest.
"And then the third bucket is public input. So we spend a lot of time talking with landowners, sportspersons, outfitters, people that are on the ground, often in places that we can't be, to understand what they're seeing, what their hunting experience was like," said Hall. "You know, did they feel like they're seeing more animals and in new places or about the same as last year? We take all of those buckets and use that information to come up with a quota that we think will be reasonable for the next year."
Hunting is a management tool. The department not only sets seasons by species, but also by herd, which is why there can be different opening dates across the state for the same species of animal. This allows the number of licenses to reflect changes to individual populations. If a population is considered too large and there's enough land to hunt on, they can increase the number of tags to put pressure on the herd and shrink its size. But if something, like a particularly harsh winter, comes through and kills a lot of individuals, the department can decrease the number of tags available.
The wildfire season can also have an impact on hunting tags. When the Mullen Fire burned a large part of southwestern Wyoming in the summer of 2020, a large area of National Forest land was shut down to support firefighting efforts. This meant that many hunters were unable to access their hunt area. According to Game and Fish regulations, these hunters were offered a refund or to use their license in 2021. These carry-over licenses will have to be factored into the equation this year.
"Now in the case of a fire where, for example, we had a closure in place and hunters weren't able to access their area to be hunting, we also know that that success is going to be really different," said Hall. "And we can account for that, particularly as it relates to carry-over licenses or licenses that were put up for refunds."
Another piece of information that WGFD uses is the amount of private versus public land in an area. According to Hall, people are more likely to fill their tags on public land than on private.
"Land ownership can have a tremendous influence in terms of the amount of licenses that we may be able to offer. So say, for example, you have an area where there's a lot of animals and a lot of public access, there can be additional opportunities to harvest that we might not be able to see on a herd that's primarily a private land herd where landowners have been working really hard to maintain healthy populations," said Hall. "But we just may not be able to have as many hunters on the landscape in that place, because there just aren't as many opportunities or places for people to hunt."
WGFD starts to review license numbers around March of each year. By this time, most seasons have closed and they can gather information. This also gives them plenty of time to determine season dates and prepare and print new regulations.
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Ivy Engel, at firstname.lastname@example.org.