100 years and counting

When he began responsibilities as the state’s seventh state game warden in 1921, a position that was recently renamed Game and Fish Commissioner, Bruce Nowlin inherited some difficult challenges. The winter of 1920-21 was, “one of the longest and hardest winters on the game of which I have ever known,” he said. Weather decimated elk calves near Jackson and providing hay for their feeding drained the “preservation of wild game” line-item of his budget. Nowlin estimated pronghorn numbers, which in some years can now rival Wyoming’s human population, at just 5,435 and only 10 men were employed to enforce game laws throughout the state.

Nowlin assumed the commissioner position due to a voluminous bill that was enacted by the Wyoming Legislature on Feb. 18, 1921 and created the committee Nowlin would answer to -- the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission. Fifty-three pages long, House Bill 0211 almost completely revamped existing game laws. In a half-page spread on Feb. 25, 1921 the Sheridan Enterprise noted, “The Wyoming sportsman who fondly imagines he has a working knowledge of the state game laws is mistaken, badly mistaken, unless he has studied House Bill 211 of the Sixteenth legislature … It would be easier to relate how House Bill 211 did not change the old game laws than to enumerate how it has changed them.”

In addition to outlining penalties for wildlife-related violations, prohibiting shooting any game animal or bird within 100 feet of a public road and oddly, charging a $5 fee to photograph Wyoming wildlife between January and April, the law created the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission. This group, consisting of the governor, secretary of state and auditor of state, would have “general supervision of the game animals, birds and fish of this State and the protection, propagation, distribution and disposition thereof.” Prior to this time fish and game management was separate. The first territorial fish commissioner, Henry Rumsey of Laramie, was appointed by Gov. John Hoyt in January 1880, with the charge of controlling fishing and fish stocking in Wyoming waters. Two years later the Territorial Legislature enabled the governor to appoint six members, one from each county, to a board of fish commissioners. The office of state fish warden was created in 1890, and in 1895 was given authority to enforce all fish and game laws in the state.

It was not until 1899 the separate office of state game warden was designated, and 1911 a game commission was formed. Upon the 1921 creation of the Game and Fish Commission, oversight of the two wildlife resources was combined. “Since this was a political body its chief function was essentially a supervisory role,” said Neal Blair in The History of Wildlife Management in Wyoming. “The closer coordination of the game and fish departments under the new office of commissioner promised more united effort and purpose.”

Four years later, the law was changed again and the Commission consisted of six citizen members appointed by the governor and approved by the senate. They served staggered two, four or six-year terms. No more than three members could be from one political party. In 1929 the Commission was given the authority to open and close seasons and in 1937, 11 general powers of the Commission were outlined, from setting seasons and bag limits to acquiring land and water for fish hatcheries and authorizing the capture and transport of animals from one area to another for release. In 1973 another overhaul of game and fish laws created the Wyoming Game and Fish. Until this time all personnel were considered employees of the Commission.

Today, the Commission has seven members, each representing three or four counties and are appointed by the governor. The governor serves as an ex-officio member. No more than five members can come from one political party. Commissioners serve six years and receive no salary, but are reimbursed for costs associated with travel and are paid $75 per day for attending Commission meetings and other events while serving in their official capacity. “Since wildlife in Wyoming is owned by the citizens of the state and managed in trust by the Department, it makes sense that a group of citizens have a role in overseeing the state’s wildlife management agency,” said Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik. “The primary roles for our Commission are to oversee the Department’s budget, set policy for the Department and to promulgate regulations to manage wildlife including setting hunting seasons.”




The role of the Commission is unique, providing citizen oversight of the conservation and management of more than 800 species of Wyoming’s wildlife. It creates policy for the Game and Fish Department and according to state statutes, “provides an adequate and flexible system of control, propagation, management and protection and regulation of all wildlife in Wyoming.”

“There were several reasons cited by early decision makers in the formation of game and fish commissions around the country,” Nesvik said. “At the core of those reasons was to create some buffer between politics and science. The way I think about roles between the Department and the Commission are fairly simple. Many of the roles and duties are spelled out in statute, but simplistically, the Department has a responsibility to do the technical and science-based parts of wildlife management and the Commission has a responsibility to consider both the Department’s science and the thoughts and objectives of the citizens of the state.” The governor makes appointments to the Commission. Over the past century commissioners have come to the board with a variety of backgrounds and experiences that ranged from livestock operators, teachers, lawyers, coal miners, dentists and even a former Hollywood stuntman in Rusty Holler, who represented Campbell, Johnson and Sheridan counties in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But they all share a willingness to be advocates for Wyoming’s wildlife.

“The opportunity to Conserve Wildlife, Serve People (Game and Fish’s mission statement) was probably foremost on my mind,” said Bill Williams, a veterinarian from Thermopolis who served on the Commission from 2003-09. “It’s a simple but effective mission statement. In my mind, every issue had to be run through that statement before a decision could be made. I think the Commission and its mission gives additional credibility to the work of the department in the eyes of the citizens of the state.” Keith Culver said the opportunity to support wildlife conservation, hunting and fishing was key in his decision to pursue a commissioner position. Upon his retirement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Newcastle, Culver was appointed by Gov. Matt Mead to represent Weston, Crook and Niobrara counties from 2014-19. “Since I was a small boy, I have been passionate about fishing and wildlife,” he said. “I have a vivid childhood memory of Jack Newman, who was a game warden and close friend of our family, sitting at our kitchen table visiting with my dad about wildlife issues. I thought he had the best job in the world.”

Beyond bringing a passion and dedication to wildlife, commissioners agree to commit significant time and effort in learning about the role of the Commission and operations of Game and Fish. Commissioners must become familiar with current wildlife issues, which can vary from law enforcement and disease to migration and invasive plant management. “To be honest, I was a bit blindsided,” Culver said. “I thought I had a good understanding of the workings of the agency, but I soon found out I had no idea how broad and complex the responsibilities and duties are. Before each meeting, we would receive a notebook, sometimes two inches thick or more, which included information and public comments on each agenda item.” The Commission holds multi-day public meetings in rotating locations around the state seven times a year, and commitments to additional committees demand more time.

“In my final year I logged 500 hours of work,” said Hal Corbett, who served from 1993-98, representing Sheridan, Johnson and Campbell counties. “It is one of the best things I’ve done in my career. It was a tremendously valuable and rewarding thing.” Added Williams: “Over the six-year term I spent weeks away from my business, made decisions that didn’t ever please everyone, served with commissioners of a like-mind and wouldn’t trade those years for anything. We did some great things in those six years and I made lifetime friends along the way. If you take the appointment you have to be willing to give it your all for the term.”




Some of today’s wildlife management challenges would be familiar to Nowlin and early commissions. Drought, severe winters and late-spring snowstorms can substantially impact wildlife, particularly big game herds. The development of regulations and hunting seasons that ensure protection of wildlife populations still require annual revisions. Mitigating the sometimes conflicting needs of humans and wildlife requires near constant effort and compromise.

But novel issues continually surface. Invasive plants such as cheatgrass and ventenata can now devastate native-range diversity and health in a few short years. The potential for the establishment of aquatic invasive species such as zebra and quagga mussels in a Wyoming water is an ever-increasing threat that could have permanent repercussions for not only wildlife, but the agriculture industry and municipalities. New diseases such as chronic wasting disease in cervids and whirling disease in fish have appeared in recent decades. Habitat loss and alteration has accelerated. With these challenges comes opportunity for creative thinking and continued input from Wyoming residents. A 31-member CWD citizen working group, formed in 2018, met multiple times and held several public meetings around the state to educate attendees about the disease and solicit comments. The group’s work helped the department craft the CWD Management Plan that was approved by the Commission in 2020 and will guide the department’s management efforts in coming years.

Another new opportunity is the recently created Wyoming Wildlife Taskforce. The 18-member group of citizens and elected representatives, met for the first time in June 2021, and for the next 18 months will research, accept public comments and draft recommendations to provide to the Wyoming Legislature on several complex, high-priority wildlife topics. “The Wildlife Taskforce is a huge thing,” said current Commission President and taskforce member Pete Dube. “I think it’s going to be great and hopefully generate a wide variety of interests in the state and have discussion over some real difficult subjects — allocation of licenses among nonresidents and residents, along with preference points.”




One hundred years ago it was recognized that the citizens of Wyoming were key to conserving the state’s wildlife and rebuilding populations that had been depleted in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Since then hundreds of residents have volunteered to work on behalf of wildlife through service on the Commission -- making sometimes difficult decisions that impact people and wildlife, weathering public and media scrutiny and spending time away from family, jobs and personal pursuits. Though he could not have known the shape it would eventually take, Nowlin knew citizen involvement like this would be vital to the long-term protection and management of Wyoming’s wildlife.

“Without the cooperation of the citizens of this state the protection of our wild game would ultimately prove a failure,” wrote Nowlin in his 1921-22 biennial report. “I believe that the people have just begun to realize the importance of our wild game and fish, and it is high time that our game and fish should be recognized, as it is one of the greatest assets we have in the State of Wyoming.”


-- Christina Schmidt is the education and information specialist in the Sheridan region, and is a regular contributor to Wyoming Wildlife magazine.

Photographer Info
Mark Gocke

Want the latest updates?

Sign up to get the latest news and events sent directly to your inbox.