Ariel view of Whiskey Mountain Conservation Camp

About the Department

History of Fish Management in Wyoming

A combination of heavy fishing pressure and habitat loss had decimated native trout populations by the 1870’s. Henry B. Rumsey of Laramie, the first Fish Commissioner, was appointed in 1880 when Wyoming was still a territory. There were no hatcheries in Wyoming at this time so fish were brought in from out of state. For example, in 1880, 50,000 young rainbow trout and brook trout were shipped from Wisconsin in barrels and stocked directly into tributary streams of the North Platte River. The report of the Fish Commission in 1883 commented, “It is an admitted fact that a majority of our streams are sterile of good food fish, whilst a remainder in many places are nearly exhausted of a once bountiful supply.”

The first fish hatchery, Red Buttes, was built in 1883 in Albany County to help meet the need to stock fish. These pioneer fish culturists estimated the carrying capacity (how many fish can live there) of Wyoming waters and stocked fish accordingly. Fish were stocked by horseback, wagon, or rail. In 1884, the fist fishing season was set and by 1899 the first creel limit (then called a bag limit) was in place at 20 pounds of trout. A license to fish was not needed until 1920. By then, eight fish hatcheries were in production.

Over time, fish managers were introduced. Through the 1950’s, fisheries management grew from three crews to six crews across Wyoming. They began to study streams and their habitats and came to the realization that streams have natural limits for healthy fish populations (carrying capacity). They hoped to use this data to better utilize the hatchery fish. This early data on the environment, age and growth, fish life history, fish population, carrying capacity and fishing pressure has proven invaluable in determining the strategies used today.

In 1970, the first habitat biologist was hired by the Game and Fish. Their job is to study lake and stream habitats and determine if improvements are needed and can be made. It was during this time that rehabilitation projects to improve and restore the places fish originally called home began. Many anglers across the state have unknowingly enjoyed the fruits of their labor.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department currently has ten fish hatcheries, eight fisheries management crews, and six aquatic habitat biologists taking care of Wyoming waters and the fish that live in them. New positions have also been developed such as instream flow biologists who help assure that water flows remain at a level suitable for fish, fish passage habitat biologists who help fish navigate man-made hazards like dams, canals and diversions. Other positions to study nongame fish and native species of interest and concern have also been developed to meet changing needs.


History of Wildlife Management in Wyoming

In the early days of the Wyoming territory, the fur trade was in full swing. With Wyoming’s plethora of natural resources and wildlife, it was a hotspot for “western hunters” who harvested game animals solely for their fur and teeth. With the western expansion of fur traders, wildlife populations were decimated including bison, elk, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep. In 1881, 20,000 deer hides, 53,000 antelope hides and 5,000 elk hides were shipped down the Yellowstone River for sale in the Eastern part of the country. This created an uproar for the Commission of the Wyoming Territory which pushed for season date setting for big game hunting.

Wyoming passed a law in 1875 that set its first big game season, and in 1886 passed the first bag limit law restricting the taking of multiple big game in a single season. The same year Wyoming passed a license fee of $2 for residents and $50 for nonresidents. This costly nonresident fee put a limit on the number of animals that could be taken and provided a fund to provide an effective patrol which put an end to market hunting. In 1899, the Game and Fish created "wilderness areas” that required nonresidents to hunt with a resident or guide for a fee of $10. This resulted in more money to the fund for wildlife management in Wyoming and provided legislation to create the first office for the State Game Warden.

Another law that helped dwindling wildlife populations was the sale of game meat being outlawed altogether in Wyoming in 1895. In the same year, Wyoming declared its first state game preserve for the protection of wildlife from all hunters and fur traders as well as printed its first game and fish laws for the first time in Wyoming's history. In 1909, legislation was passed to make hunting big game for heads a felony. In 1921, the Wyoming Legislature creates the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, including the governor, secretary of state and state auditor. A few years later in 1927, a Game Division fund was created so the commission did not depend upon legislative appropriation. Ten years later, Wyoming agreed to participate in the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid, which was a tax on all firearms, hunting equipment, fishing equipment, and ammunition that went to Natural Resources Departments around the nation for fish and wildlife management. This allowed Wyoming to invest in new employees, equipment, and buildings for fish and wildlife management.

In 1937, the Wyoming Legislature granted the Commission authority over all wildlife matters and allowed financial independence. Since then, Wyoming Statute 23-1-103 has guided our work in stating, “It is the purpose of this act and policy of the state to provide an adequate and flexible system for control, propagation, management, protection and regulation of all Wyoming wildlife.”

Today, the Wildlife Division (formerly Game Division) is responsible for terrestrial wildlife management, human/wildlife conflicts, wildlife law enforcement, disease surveillance/management, research efforts and watercraft safety. Our goal is to manage wildlife in a way that consumptive and non-consumptive users may have an opportunity to interact with a variety of healthy populations - big game animals like moose, elk, deer, and antelope; nongame species such as songbirds, owls, falcons, eagles, and swift foxes; trophy game/large carnivores including grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions, black bear. Our two bird farms provide hunting opportunities for pheasants in parts of the state where these species were not available traditionally. As a tool to guide us in making policies and programs to accomplish our goals, we follow The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (see below).


The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation

As early settlers made their way West, North America's wildlife populations dwindled because of overexploitation (including market hunting) and habitat loss. Across the continent, many species - elk, pronghorn, bison, and waterfowl included - went from countless numbers to just a few thousand by the close of the 19th century.

Beginning in the late 1800s, hunters and anglers such as Teddy Roosevelt realized they needed to set limits to protect rapidly disappearing wildlife and to assume responsibility for managing wild country. They pushed to establish the first hunting regulations and organized many conservation groups to advocate for the protection of wildlife habitats.

These early efforts were essential to developing the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, the only system of its kind in the world. The model's two basic principles are that our fish and wildlife belong to all North American citizens and are to be managed so that their populations will be sustained forever. These basic beliefs are best explained through a set of foundational guidelines, best remembered as the Seven Sisters for Conservation.

The 7 basic Tenets (aka Sisters or Pillars) support the notion that wildlife is a public trust, an American birthright, and wildlife species need to be managed so that their populations will be sustained forever. These 7 tenets are:


The 7 Basic Tenets

1) Wildlife is a public resource and is held in public trust. In the United States, wildlife is considered a public resource, independent of the land or water where wildlife may live. Government at various levels have a role in managing that resource on behalf of all citizens and to ensure the long-term sustainability of wildlife populations.

2) Markets for game have been eliminated. Government actions making it illegal to buy and sell meat and parts of game and non-game species have removed a huge threat to the survival of those species. A market in furbearers continues as a highly regulated activity.

3) Allocation of wildlife by law. Wildlife is a public resource managed by government. As a result, access to wildlife for hunting is through legal mechanisms such as set hunting seasons, bag limits, license requirements, etc.

4) Wildlife can only be killed for a legitimate purpose. Wildlife is a shared resource that must not be wasted. The law prohibits killing wildlife for frivolous reasons.

5) Wildlife species are considered an international resource. Some species, such as migratory birds, cross national boundaries. Treaties such as the Migratory Bird Treaty and CITES recognize a shared responsibility to manage these species across national boundaries.

6) Science is the proper tool for discharge of wildlife policy. In order to manage wildlife as a shared resource fairly, objectively, and knowledgeably, decisions must be based on sound science such as annual waterfowl population surveys and the work of professional wildlife biologists.

7) The democracy of hunting and fishing. In keeping with democratic principles, government allocates access to wildlife without regard for wealth, prestige, or land ownership.


Department Fun Facts

  • The red shirt worn by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department employees is easily recognizable now, but the earliest wardens didn’t have a uniform at all. Wyoming’s first wildlife officer was hired in 1899, but it wasn’t until June 1941 that the Game and Fish Commission designated the first official uniform of Game and Fish. The first uniform policy specified that department employees wear a western-style hat, boots and a shirt with the embroidered running antelope insignia designed by Ten Sleep Game Warden Archie Pendergraft on the left sleeve. His antelope design is still used in the Game and Fish logo on uniforms, trucks and in publications. Today’s red Game and Fish uniform shirt promotes a professional appearance, helps protect employees from adverse weather conditions, identifies employees to the public, helps to deter wildlife violations, and generates respect for the Department and wildlife.
  • The Department's first Game Warden was Albert Nelson of Jackson. He was appointed by then-Governor Deforest Richards in 1899. Nelson patrolled the state and was an early pioneer in wildlife protection. Nelson was inducted into the Outdoor Hall of Fame in 2023.
  • The Wyoming Game and Fish Department stocked 6.54 million fish in 2021.
  • In Wyoming, hunters and anglers spend an estimated $752 million annually on travel and equipment.
  • The Wyoming Game and Fish Forensics Department completed 60 cases in 2022 for approximately 14 states.
  • The Department processed 4,653 big and trophy game teeth from 11 different species in 2022.
  • The Fish Health lab completed 98 cases consisting of inspections and diagnostic cases.