Wyoming Wildlife - January 2024

Changing of the Seasons




Big game season setting is a critical component of wildlife management in Wyoming. It is a year-round process that results in Wyoming Game and Fish Commission-approved hunting regulations each year.


1/1/2024 12:00:29 AM

The wildlife in Wyoming is iconic. People travel from across the world with hopes of seeing big game animals including elk, deer, pronghorn, moose, bighorn sheep and mountain goats in their natural habitats. That pull isn't just for visitors. Residents also enjoy seeing these animals so close to home. For many, it's why they live in the Cowboy State. 

Whether an interest stems from wildlife viewing and photography or sustenance and hunting, people want to see sustainable populations of healthy animals. When it comes to these big game animals, many people don't realize that maintaining thriving wildlife populations takes active management and that anyone interested in wildlife is invited to participate in that management process during key times of the year.

WHAT IS SEASON SETTING?

Season setting is a term commonly used by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to describe the process by which the hunting season regulations are determined. For big game, this is an annual process that establishes the length and time of each hunting season, number of licenses to be issued and additional restrictions or limitations. People often see the term around March when public meetings are held to gather input on proposed hunting seasons, but those meetings are only a small part of the year-round process of managing Wyoming's big game. 

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Game and Fish's mission is to conserve wildlife and serve people. Wildlife managers invest significant effort to understand the status of the state's big game populations and the perspectives of the public relative to herd-specific objectives. Changes are proposed as needed during season-setting, but a lack of changes is an equally deliberate decision.

Following a riorous internal and external review process, proposed seasons eventually become Wyoming Game and Fish Commission-approved regulations for the upcoming hunting season. But it's not just Game and Fish personnel that provide input on hunting regulations. Throughout the year, there are multiple opportunities for the public to participate — sometimes in ways people don't realize are part of the season-setting process.

HERD UNIT MANAGEMENT OBJECTIVES

When it comes to season-setting decisions, herd unit management objectives play an important role. Although most hunters think of big game in terms of hunt areas, where a given license is valid and specific regulations apply, wildlife managers assess management objectives at the herd unit level. Each herd unit represents a geographical area in which a population of a given species lives its life. 

"Herd units include where animals in a population are born, reporduce, face harvest pressure and die," said Embere Hall, supervisor of the Game and Fish science, research and analytical support unit. "Each herd unit should encompass a population that is largely distinct from the others around it, though this can be tricky given complicated animal movements in Wyoming's vast landscapes." 

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These elk are part of the South Wind River herd unit, which represents a geographical area in which a population of a given species lives its life. (Photo by Wes Uncapher)

Herd units often contain multiple hunt areas. Season proposals are designed to define the hunting regulations for each hunt area as a tool to manage the larger heard unit toward the management objective. Each herd unit management objective provides a measurable target that guides management recomendations and decisions. Objectives can be based on population numbers or other factors like hunter or landowner satisfaction. Game and Fish deternmines objectives based on herd ecology, available techniques to survey herds and public input. 

Herd unit objectives are reviewed every five years or sooner as needed. The review process considers the individual herd unit dynamics as well as the statewide context by maintaining continuity in management strategies for each species across the state. Public and landowner input is a critical component of proposed changes. Herd unit objective adjustments require Commission approval.

TYPES OF MANAGEMENT OBJECTIVES

Where possible, the objective for each big game herd unit is the number of individuals in the herd after the hunting season. The number of all indi- viduals is generally used for pronghorn and deer objectives. For elk, objectives often focus on the number of individuals counted along certain survey routes or at key wintering areas to look at population trends. Because population sizes can fluctuate from year to year due to variations in harvest success, weather, disease and other factors, and to acknowl- edge the margin of error in methods to estimate population size, Game and Fish considers a herd to be at objective if the population size is within 20 percent of the target. 
Alternative objectives are used when objectives based on population size are not practical. For example, the Beckton pronghorn herd in the Sheridan area is managed with a landowner and hunter satisfaction objective because of the constraints of conducting population surveys in and around the urban/suburban landscape. Additionally, many objectives for moose and bighorn sheep herds are based on hunter success rates and the ages of harvested animals.

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A group of pronghorn is spotted during an aerial survey in the Jackson Region. (Photo by Mark Gocke/WGFD)

“Given the diversity of species, varying life histories, landscapes and land ownership patterns in Wyoming as well as constraints on available survey techniques, having the flexibility to manage with alternative objectives is critically important,” said Tim Thomas, Sheridan wildlife management coordinator. “Having multiple management objective options to choose from allows managers to work with the public to determine the most appropriate objective at the local level.”
In managing herds toward their respective objectives, managers also ensure a variety of hunting opportunities are available to meet the interests of varied sportspersons. That way, a sportsperson who hopes for a limited-opportunity area with a chance at a big buck or bull and another sportsperson who values a high-opportunity area with generous license numbers and longer season lengths can each find what they’re looking for in Wyoming.

MONITORING BIG GAME POPULATIONS

Big game surveys are necessary to track population trends over time and measure population dynamics relative to management objectives. Survey methods are customized to the species and herd unit but adhere to statewide standards.
“When it comes to monitoring the status of wildlife populations relative to the objectives set for them, wildlife managers look at how big the population is and the rate at which the population is growing or shrinking,” Hall said. “Wildlife managers and scientists in Wyoming employ tried-and-true approaches and cutting-edge methods to help us answer those questions.”

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Game Warden Alex Poncelet, left, secures a GPS collar to a captured bighorn sheep while Danielle Dershem, right, helps keep its head still in Sybille Canyon near Wheatland. (Photo by Patrick Owen/WGFD)

Aerial surveys from an airplane or helicopter are the primary tool for assessing population size. The data collected during these surveys are coupled with modern statistical analysis to provide an estimate of the population size by accounting for the fact that not all animals can be observed during an aerial survey.
To determine the growth potential of a wildlife population, managers need information on two key metrics: the number of individuals entering the population (productivity rate) and the number of individuals leaving the population (mortality rate). A herd cannot grow if the mortality rate is greater than the productivity rate. Wildlife managers collect what are called “classification” or “composition” data by flying or driving through a herd unit and tallying the number of observed fawns, yearlings and adults. High numbers of fawns and yearlings relative to adult females is a sign of a population with high productivity and therefore high capacity to grow. Hunter harvest surveys are sent to a random sample of hunters each year, and information gathered from survey responses allows managers to estimate the number of animals harvested during the hunting season. Mortality rates from other causes, such as disease, predation or starvation, can be determined from animals wearing GPS collars that notify Game and Fish staff if the animal has died. Using state- of-the-art analytical tools, wildlife managers use estimates of population size, productivity rates and mortality rates to paint a picture of the herd’s status relative to its objective.

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Saratoga Wildlife Biologist Teal Cufaude uses a radio telemetry antenna to locate radio collars fastened to pronghorn during a pronghorn fawn survey in the Laramie Region. (Photo by Parker Loew/WGFD)

Game and Fish staff dedicate a lot of time and resources to learning as much as possible about the wildlife populations they manage. The size and trajectory of populations is just one important piece of the puzzle. In order to manage thriving wildlife populations, wildlife managers monitor and improve wildlife habitats, conduct disease surveillance, col- lect movement/migration data and implement and collaborate on research projects to inform wildlife management and conservation.
Anyone interested in learning more about a spe- cific herd can find detailed summaries of monitoring data, management objectives and other information compiled each year by a local wildlife biologist. These annual reports are called Job Completion Reports, or JCRs, and are available on the Game and Fish website, with new reports being posted in June.


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Cody Wildlife Biologist Sam Stephens checks in a mule deer at the Hyattville hunter check station. (Photo by Stephanie Estell/WGFD)

PUBLIC INPUT AND PARTICIPATION

There are many opportunities for Game and Fish to gather input from the public and for the public to participate in department processes.
Hunters often participate in the season-setting process without even realizing it when they stop at a check station or encounter a biologist or game warden during a field check. These in-the-field interactions directly contribute to disease surveillance, age structure, antler/horn size and research datasets. They also provide wildlife managers with general indications of hunter experiences and harvest patterns. In addition to helping managers estimate mortality rates, hunter harvest surveys provide another opportunity for the public to engage in the season-setting process. The survey asks basic questions about each hunter’s experience like if they hunted that year, how many days they hunted, how satisfied they were and information about the age and sex of their harvest if they were successful. Results from harvest surveys provide critical data that is not attainable without gathering it directly from hunters. Harvest survey data can directly inform population estimates and metrics tied to management objectives. These surveys also provide an opportunity for respondents to share comments with Game and Fish staff.
After all the biological and sociological data has been collected, regional wildlife managers determine how effective existing hunting season structures were at aligning each herd with its objectives. Changes are proposed as needed. Statewide internal review ensures season proposals are aimed at managing toward objectives and that consistency in statewide guidance and direction is maintained.

Once Game and Fish has finalized season proposals in March, the official public comment process begins. The proposed seasons are posted on the Game and Fish website, and public meetings are held in every region — generally in late March. Season proposals are presented under their affiliated regulation chapter number, for example elk regulations are Chapter 7. Comments can be submitted online, by mail or in person at a regional Game and Fish office.

Hunting is a primary tool Game and Fish uses to manage big game populations. All interested stakeholders, whether active hunters or not, are encouraged to participate, learn more and provide feedback.

“While we appreciate and consider all public input, we particularly encourage interested parties to submit formal comments on proposed regulations during the specified public comment period,” said Doug Brimeyer, Game and Fish deputy chief of wildlife. “These comments are reviewed directly by Game and Fish staff and the Commission when evaluating proposed regulations that govern big game hunting in Wyoming.”

Wildlife managers review public comments and make final adjustments as needed. They draft final season proposals that are reposted on the website for public viewing. In April they present the season proposals during the public Commission meeting. The Commission reviews the proposals, including the public comments submitted during the formal public comment period, and accepts additional public comments at that time. Chapter by chapter, the Commission votes to approve the regulations as presented or with revisions made during the meeting.

Once the Commission approves the seasons and they become updated regulations, regional biologists finalize the JCRs. This indicates the conclusion of the annual process of managing the harvest of Wyoming’s big game and immediately kicks off the beginning of the next year's cycle.
Managing Wyoming’s big game populations is a serious responsibility and a complicated task. It takes dedication from Game and Fish staff, partners, landowners and the public working together to ensure management decisions cultivate the long-term conservation of these important animals and their habitats. 

— Cheyenne Stewart is the Game and Fish wildlife manage- ment coordinator in Jackson and Jason Carlisle is the quanti- tative biologist for the Wildlife Division. Editor Tracie Binkerd also contributed to this article.

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