Wyoming Wildlife - May 2019

Lands of opportunity


Wyoming Game and Fish Department staff check snow conditions at Kerns Wildlife Habitat Management Area in February 1956. (WGFD photo)


The Kerns and Amsden Creek wildlife habitat management areas have provided outdoor opportunities and critical elk habitat for more than seven decades. This was made possible by those who recognized the value of the lands in the 1940s.


More than three dozen wildlife habitat management areas in Wyoming offer people outdoor opportunities while protecting the animals that call the land home. This year, the Kerns and Amsden Creek wildlife habitat management areas on the eastern slopes of the Bighorn Mountains turn 70 and 75 respectively. Managed for maximum wildlife benefit for more than seven decades, the units are premiere locations for wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts who benefit from the diverse recreation they provide.
“These wildlife habitat management areas are unique because they are specifically managed for the benefit of wildlife above all else, providing wildlife their own piece of the landscape pie,” said Seth Roseberry, Sheridan region habitat and access coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “Although these areas are privately owned by Game and Fish, with the department paying all required local taxes on the properties, they are open during part of the year to be utilized and enjoyed by the public while still providing the important habitat wildlife needs to flourish.”  
Totaling more than 9,000 acres, they offer hunting, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, bird watching and photography opportunities. And in recent years, the pastime of shed antler collecting at these areas has become increasingly popular. But these opportunities would not exist today if not for the foresight and advocacy of early Sheridan County residents.
“These areas were acquired and compiled into the assets they are today through the passion, interest and determination of local ranchers, sportsmen’s groups and the cooperation of the state and federal government in the 1940s,” said Roseberry. “These individuals and groups realized the importance of protecting these areas to provide essential habitat for the diverse range of wildlife species in the region.”

Wyoming Game and Fish Department staff installed this 8-foot elk fence in the Amsden Creek Wildlife Habitat Management Area in 1965 to prevent the elk on the WHMA from mingling with nearby livestock and eating ranchers' hay. (WGFD Photo)
Amsden Creek Wildlife Habitat Management Area
The need for acquiring elk habitat in the Bighorn Mountains was a priority for wildlife managers in Wyoming by the early 1940s. But areas for the animals to winter without negatively affecting landowners were in short supply.
“…Wyoming is now confronted with problems of management and distribution of wildlife resources more than with restoration,” said State Game Warden Lester Bagley in the 1941-42 biennial report of the Game and Fish Commission. “Wyoming’s most acute single game management problem is that of supplying adequate winter range for its game herds. Elk in particular have suffered from winter food shortage…”
In 1944, the purchase of 327 acres of land at the base of the Bighorns was a step toward providing that winter range. On Feb. 20, 1944, the Sheridan Press wrote the Game and Fish Commission purchased 295 acres and the Sheridan County Sportsmen’s Association purchased 31.89 acres from IXL Ranch owner William Henry Harrison III, the grandson of U.S. President Benjamin Harrison and great-great-grandson of U.S. President William Henry Harrison. The area, which would eventually become Amsden Creek WHMA, was known locally as “the Big Horn elk pasture” or the “Tongue River deer pasture.” The land cost $3,605.58 and would create, “one of the finest picnic areas in the entire nation,” said the newspaper.
Money to buy the land came through the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, or Pittman-Robertson Act, of 1937. The federal program, which remains in effect today, collects a small excise tax on firearms and ammunition and distributes the money to states for wildlife conservation. Through the program, federal funds paid for 75 percent of a project or purchase and the state wildlife agency paid for the remaining 25 percent. After the initial purchase of land in the Tongue River Canyon area, further land acquisition and swaps took place in 1951, 1961, 1965 and 1966 — bringing the total to more than 4,000 acres.  
With the expansion of the unit, management strategies were implemented to maximize the area’s function as crucial wildlife habitat, replacing livestock grazing with the natural foraging of native wildlife species. Current management still prioritizes wildlife habitat on the unit, but Game and Fish cooperates with neighboring ranches to allow for historic, seasonal movement of livestock between ranchland and mountain pastures.
Today, the Harrison purchase is part of the Game and Fish’s Tongue River Canyon Public Access Area. It spans both sides of Tongue Canyon Road along the river and offers several five-day camping spots, two restrooms and a parking area at the trailhead that links to the Bighorn National Forest on the west and south and to the rest of Amsden WHMA to the north.
The main portion of the Amsden features two gates allowing foot access and one gate allowing vehicle access to an upper hayfield with stunning views of the Bighorn foothills — an area popular with fall hunters.
“The wildlife habitat management areas on the east side of the Bighorn Mountains are special because they provide not only protection of crucial habitat for wildlife, but critical public access to the eastern face of the mountain,” said Roseberry. “Amsden is unique with its geology and topography, providing large, grassy, south-facing slopes that when combined with chinook winds, make an ideal location for wildlife to endure Wyoming winters.”

 
A two-track on the Kerns Wildlife Habitat Management Area heads east toward one of the area's many foothill benches. Vehicle access is limited on the WHMA with rough roads that are not suited for cars. (WGFD Photo)
Kerns Wildlife Habitat Management Area
In the spring of 1948, another opportunity arose to purchase land in northern Sheridan County near the Wyoming-Montana state line.
On May 14, 1948, John Kerns penned a letter to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission from his Double Rafter Ranch near Parkman to make an offer. He and his brother James were providing, for the next 30 days, the chance for the Commission to purchase 3,300 acres of their ranch at $26 per acre and another 1,400 acres for $36 per acre. The land was prime winter habitat for elk and Sheridan Commissioner Dr. O.R. Docekal, a local dentist, knew the value of this offer.
“I have this worked up to a place where it is up to the Commission to look it over and we must make our decision before June 15th,” he wrote to Bagley on May 19, 1948. “In so far as I am concerned this is a ‘must’ job and I am sending this letter registered mail so there can be no slip-up on my part. Mr. Allred (federal wildlife representative for Wyoming) informs me that he is sold on the deal and now it is up to us as to what price we can pay.”
A contract was drawn up on June 11, 1948, with the terms set at 4,540 acres for $121,000 and a second option was drawn up on Feb. 12, 1949, reducing the acreage to a little more than 4,445. However, by April 13, 1949, the Kerns brothers had reconsidered.
“After due consideration of details, we find it impossible for us to consider it,” wrote John Kerns to Bagley. “We desire that the deal be dropped. At some future date, when certain details in this deal are cleared up this land may be available.”
Further correspondence on the matter is missing, but an earlier letter by Docekal noted that in a chance meeting on a train, John Kerns had mentioned concerns about retaining mineral rights and the ability to trail their livestock across the property to and from summer pasture on the adjoining Bighorn National Forest. He also wanted to remove some acreage that housed a cabin from the sale.
But word about the possible acquisition had spread in the community and public support and pressure for the purchase was considerable.
At a meeting on April 28, 1949, the Big Horn Chapter of the conservation group the Izaak Walton League passed a resolution stating, “…the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and the Kerns brothers be urged to complete said transaction with all convenient speed.”
The Sheridan County Sportsmen’s Association followed on May 17, 1949, with their own resolution, “The state’s second largest elk herd makes the Big Horn mountains west of Sheridan one of the finest areas in Wyoming in which to hunt big game… Acquisition of this pasture will assure the maintenance of the present Big Horn elk herd for the sportsmen of Sheridan and the ranching area in this part of the state…Without this sort of protection of the winter feeding grounds and the prevention of damage to the ranches in this area, local sportsmen fear that this magnificent game animal before too many years will become nothing more than a park curiosity rather than one which may be hunted regularly as it has for many years.”
The sale was finalized on Dec. 20, 1949. With Pittman-Robertson money providing the bulk of the funding, the 4,445 acres were purchased for $119,221.04.
Additional land swaps and purchases were made in 1950, 1953, 1963, 1969 and 1970, bringing the total to 4,995 acres.
Elk make their way back into the Kerns Wildlife Habitat Management Area through an elk jump near Gay Creek. The jumps provide elk with an easy entrance point if they wander out of the open side of a 8-foot semi-cicle fence surrounding most of the property. (Photo by Seth Roseberry/WGFD)
Learning from the past, looking toward the future
The purchase of Kerns and Amsden not only created a dedicated space for approximately 1,000 elk each winter, but reduced conflict with area ranches that had experienced elk damaging haystacks and crops for years.
Ken Kerns, son of John Kerns, wrote a short history of the area and noted that as a young man he helped bale hay on part of the land that became the Kerns WHMA.
“I was part of the hay crew that stacked hay on the T.R. Bench, 1942 to 1949,” he wrote. “The loose hay was stacked in various locations and served as a winter cafeteria for the elk. Starting in 1945, the Kerns Bros. baled the hay (hand wire tie baler, a three-person operation) and stacked in a central location. Again, the elk won. I recall bob sledding by team to load hay from the stack yard and watched in amazement as a big bull trotted off to the canyon with a 110 (pound) bale of hay hooked in his antlers.”
Safeguarding haystacks from elk is a continuing challenge, as is preventing elk from mingling with domestic livestock.
“Depending on the length and severity of winter and the amount of forage production from the previous growing season, these two areas may not contain sufficient acres to sustain their respective elk herds through the entire winter,” said Roseberry. “The result is wildlife wintering on private lands and in some cases commingling or competing with domestic livestock for forage.”
To prevent these conflicts, there are eight miles of 8-foot woven and barbed wire fence on the Amsden and 10 miles of fence on the Kerns, arranged in a semi-circle shape to encourage elk to remain on the units. If they do circle around one end of the fence, several inlets and ‘elk jumps’ have been constructed at key locations to allow easy access back into the unit.
A second and increasing challenge is the threat to native habitat by invasive plant species.
“With a limited amount of habitat within the boundaries of these two WHMAs, any loss of native habitat to invasive plants that may not be utilized by wildlife for forage is a direct loss to the total carrying capacity of the area,” said Roseberry. “Noxious weeds such as spotted knapweed, houndstongue, common mullein, ventenata and medusahead are increasing in presence and distribution in Sheridan County. The challenge of locating invasive plants and the cost of treatment is a never ending issue.”
While adapting to new challenges and keeping ahead of old ones, Roseberry and Game and Fish personnel manage the areas for maximum wildlife benefit. Efforts include enforcing winter closures to protect elk from unnecessary human disturbance, implementing habitat projects and providing road, irrigation and other infrastructure maintenance and improvement.
“Each of these areas is perpetually managed for their original purpose of acquisition, which is protection of big game winter range,” said Roseberry. “This guides all management planning decisions on these areas. We ask ourselves annually, do the decisions and proposed projects on these units fit within the purpose of acquisition and how can we best direct our efforts to promote success of this goal.”
— Christina Schmidt is the Game and Fish public information specialist in the Sheridan region. She is a regular contributor to Wyoming Wildlife.
 

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