In the Laramie Mountains, too many elk and no easy fixes

LARAMIE MOUNTAINS — Mark Grant recalls childhood days when seeing an elk pass through his family’s property was still rare enough that it was “neat.”

Now there are too many to count — hundreds, sometimes thousands of animals dwell on the Grant family’s Turtle Rock Ranch every day.

“At any given one time, there are more elk on our property than we own cattle,” Grant said from his kitchen table in mid-April. “There were elk this morning on this far meadow. They were down eating the green alfalfa starting to grow.”

For a cattle rancher, coexisting with an abundance of elk isn’t easy. For one thing, it creates competition for food. Cattle eat grass. So do elk. The accumulative loss of food for the species the Grants are intending to grow would be a big hit if not for a Wyoming Game and Fish Department compensation program. 

“Our total hay crop is usually around 800 tons of hay,” Grant said, “and with [Game and Fish’s] measurement technique, we’re losing at least 200, sometimes up to 270 tons of hay” to elk. 

It’s not cheap, he said. Last year the cost of getting replacement hay to the family’s remote central Wyoming ranch was $260 a ton. The state agency reimbursed them more than $70,000. 

That’s just the start of Turtle Rock Ranch’s elk problems. Fixing up fences used to take a day or two. Now it’s a two-week-long job. Elk are also a headache in less predictable ways. Tarps that the Grants use to dam up their ditches and flood-irrigate their fields are evidently attractive to the 400-plus pound native ungulates. For some reason the elk have a habit of tugging on the tarps with their mouth and flipping them into the air. In the Wyoming wind, the tarps take sail.

“Talk to a rancher, you’d think the welfare of their cattle, management of their grass and other natural resources would be at the top of their mind,” Grant said. “But now, almost every day, our top concern starts with elk.” 

Issues with overpopulated elk, of course, aren’t restricted to Turtle Rock Ranch. Across the West, state wildlife management agencies have struggled to knock back herd numbers, especially in places where the adaptable animals have learned to take refuge on private property, away from public lands hunters. 

In Wyoming, where elk are overpopulated statewide, the Laramie Mountains are the poster child. This swath of the Rockies’ eastern front reaches from Laramie to Casper, home to the Laramie Peak/Muddy Mountain Herd, which has averaged somewhere between double and triple Game and Fish’s 5,000-elk objective. 

Problems persist because of the patchwork of land ownership, wildlife managers say. The highest-elevation areas are generally part of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, state land and Bureau of Land Management property. But interwoven are traditional cattle ranches, mega ranches sprawling out over as many as hundreds of thousands of acres and properties that are bought and held mostly so they can be hunted for a couple weeks a year. When bow- and rifle-toting hunters hit the hills each fall, elk go where they’re most likely to stay alive. They find it on private properties, and now there’s too many of them. 

It’s enough of an issue that a statewide task force is exploring changes to how the Wyoming Game and Fish Department issues licenses that would increase hunting pressure on herds holed up on private land. 

Justin Binfet, who coordinates wildlife for Game and Fish’s Casper Region, has managed the Laramie Peak Herd for two decades. He knows the herd’s history well. Back in the 1960s, Binfet said, there were few enough elk in the region that managers even augmented numbers by releasing elk captured from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The herd grew, slowly at first, but that growth became exponential. 

“Sometime in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, there was certainly a recognition that elk numbers really took off,” Binfet said. 

Game and Fish responded at the time by more than doubling its population objective for the herd, from 2,250 to 5,000, Binfet said. The state agency also enabled more intensive hunting, doubling licenses doled out, and by 2009 distributed 5,000-plus tags for the zone, elk area seven, which treads into five counties: Albany, Carbon, Natrona, Converse and Platte. Now tags top 6,000. Managers also “dramatically liberalized” the seasons, letting hunters stay at it until the end of January. But there are practical limits and diminishing returns to dialing up the public land hunting pressure in an area with so much private land elk can flee to, he said. 

“We’ve really saturated public lands in the area” with hunters, Binfet said. “The hunting experience on public land has really deteriorated from where it was 10, 15 years ago.”

Nevertheless, the Laramie Mountains remain renowned for producing trophy-class bull elk. But sportspeople agree that there are problems. One hunt planning website geared toward public land hunters gave poor marks to ease of access in area seven and scored its “room to breathe” — i.e., competition with other hunters — just 10 out of 100.

“Area seven has a lot of public land. Access is miserable,” Adam Teten, a member of the Wyoming Wildlife Taskforce, said during a March public meeting. “Give out a million tags. You’re still not going to knock down the elk herd because there’s no way for hunters to get in there and be effective.” 

Down Highway 94 south of Douglas toward diminutive Esterbrook, Dax McCarty manages the hunting operations on the massive Wagonhound Ranch, owned by investment banker Art Nicholas. Wagonhound’s outfitting business takes pride in its resident elk population, he said, but the emphasis is on the quality of the hunting experience, not the quantity. Partly, that emphasis is because there are a limited number of hunters willing to fork over as much as $12,000 to $16,000 for five days of bull elk hunting. There are also limited licenses to go around. Only 15% of tags go to out-of-state hunters, who often wait more than a decade for the chance. 

“The majority of our outfitting revenue is driven by non-resident hunters,” McCarty said. “When it’s that hard to draw a tag, you almost have to keep your quality up or you’re not going to be able to convince guys to use 12-plus years of preference points, let alone pay the money.” 

That’s not to say Wagonhound Ranch-outfitted elk hunters only kill a few animals. During the fall 2021 hunt, hunters killed approximately 160 elk on the ranch. Of those, 36 were trophy bulls, 42 were smaller “raghorn” bulls and the balance were cows and calves. Many of the hunts were free of charge, especially for the non-trophies, McCarty said.

While that might sound like a lot of hunting pressure, relatively it’s not. The Wagonhound Ranch, at around 300,000 acres, is roughly the same size as Grand Teton National Park. 

The Wagonhound has played around with allowing more public hunters onto its land for free cow-calf hunts that would trim the herd, but those efforts backfired. 

“There were hundreds and hundreds of people coming in and out, and they did it dang near every day,” McCarty said. “It took a ton of resources from the ranch and manpower and fuel.” 

McCarty champions some changes to license issuance that could increase hunting pressure, like increasing numbers of landowner licenses and allowing Wagonhound to sell them. But he knows those options will never be popular. 

“I don’t know how you do it,” McCarty said. The only way to address the overpopulation issue, he said, is to figure out some ways to incentivize landowners to kill more elk. 

But even that may not be a silver bullet. 

Casper businessman Rick Bonander is an example of a landowner who bought up land in the Laramie Mountains so himself, friends and family have somewhere to hunt. He purchased roughly 3,500 acres southwest of Laramie Peak, dubbed the Windy Peaks Ranch, that entitles him to two landowner elk licenses a year. 

Elk herds bounce on and off Bonander’s property, but he agreed with the assessment that his land also provides them a place of sanctuary. There are “five to 10” elk killed each year on the remote ranch, he said. 

“I’m sure that [elk are] likely to hang there longer because they don’t get interacted with much,” he said. 

The current system, in Bonander’s view, is working. “I don’t think there’s an overpopulation at my place,” he said. “Sometimes they’re very hard to find. I’ve gone out some days and not seen an elk.” 

That’s not the prevailing viewpoint, however. 

Even some hunting outfitters have gone to bat trying to reduce elk herds in places like the Laramie Mountains. Sy Gilliland, president of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association, described overpopulated elk as “terrorists” destroying some ranches that his guides lead clients on. 

“The landowners out there that are really angry are really angry, and what we’ve done to them needs to be reconsidered,” Gilliland told fellow members of the Wyoming Wildlife Taskforce in March. “We’ve turned a species loose on them that is destroying their way of life, and we did it without asking them.” 

The 18-member task force, appointed by leaders of the Legislature, governor’s office and Game and Fish, was devised to study and identify solutions to top-priority wildlife policy issues Wyoming faces concerning hunting opportunity and sportsperson access. 

Recommendations that emerged from the task force in the first year changed state law, granting Wyoming residents a higher percentage of moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, bison and grizzly bear hunting licenses. That reform enjoyed unanimous support while it was being studied at the task-force level.

But changing how hunting licenses are issued to address the elk overpopulation problems on private land promises to be a heavier lift because it’s such a contentious issue. In Montana, efforts to increase landowner licenses were met with a “firestorm” of opposition and failed.

“If it were simple, it would already be fixed,” said Sweetwater County resident Josh Coursey, a professional mule deer advocate who co-chairs the Wyoming Wildlife Taskforce.

There are no perfect reforms and the group is yet to recommend a strategy, Coursey said. But the body, whose recommendations only require majority support, is “gaining some ground” on endorsing a new “type X” license, which would be valid only on private land, he said.

Grant of Turtle Rock Ranch, meanwhile, is doing what he can to withstand the routine tidal waves of elk damage on his family’s 136-year-old cattle operation. He takes a two-week reprieve from ranching to outfit hunters each fall, but interest is limited and he’s competing for oftentimes wealthy nonresident clients with more specialized outfitters like Wagonhound’s Dax McCarty. 

“They see the fee that I feel is realistic to charge and they go, ‘Oh, geez, that must not be a good product,’ so they go to Dax,” Grant said. 

Elk outfitting hasn’t been a moneymaker for Turtle Rock Ranch, he said, generating just a few thousand dollars in profit a year. 

Many more hunters get to go for free. About 100 a year get permission from the family, he said, and another 225 or so have access to certain parts of the ranch through a state-administered hunting management program. But that pressure hasn’t done much to dissuade herds from using the ranchland, where they still face fewer hunters than on adjoining state and federal lands. 

“It’s getting worse and worse,” Grant said. “The elk stay in these tremendously large herds almost year-round. The only time they break up is to calve, and then they join back up.”

The elk proliferation is not for lack of effort to push them away: “We’ve tried about everything,” he said. 

Game and Fish once gave the operation mountain lion skins to drape over fencelines in hopes of triggering the prey species’ natural aversion to the predator’s scent. Going for the same effect, workers once left out sacks of human hair gathered from the local barber shop. They’ve toyed with using “propane bombs” to spook off the herds, and have left radios playing by haystacks.

“They didn’t care about any of that,” Grant said. “They get used to it in no time.”

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