A legislative committee is sponsoring a bill that would prohibit Game and Fish employees and Wyoming law enforcement from assisting federal officials investigating people who kill or injure grizzly bears or wolves.
The Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee sponsored HB-18 titled “Wolves and grizzly bears — limited state action.” The prohibition would apply only while wolves or grizzlies remain protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. It would prevent any “game and fish personnel or Wyoming law enforcement officer” from assisting any federal “official, agent or employee of the United States Government.”
The bill would prevent assistance while federal employees are “investigating, arresting and prosecuting persons taking or injuring gray wolves or grizzly bears.” It would apply “if the animal is a species listed as experimental nonessential population, endangered species or threatened species in the state.”
The investigations are a federal responsibility, Sen. Larry Hicks, (R-Baggs) said in an interview. “If it is going to be a federally listed species, I feel it is appropriate to use federal funds,” he said. “I just don’t feel it’s appropriate to be using sportsmen’s dollars to carry out law enforcement by state agencies.”
“Wyoming Game and Fish has a big job already,” Hicks said. “Clearly it’s the federal government’s responsibility.” Investigators are probing the deaths of 19 grizzly bears killed in the Yellowstone ecosystem in 2015.
Much of Wyoming Game and Fish revenue comes from sportsmen’s fees, including hunting licenses and taxes on firearms and other gear. But wolves and grizzly bears can’t be hunted in Wyoming while the federal government protects them.
“It’s just a way to say that’s an inappropriate use of those funds,” Hicks said.
He provided a spreadsheet that listed 1,581 hours Wyoming Game and Fish Department spent on gray wolf and grizzly bear enforcement in 2013, ’14 and ’15. During that same period, personnel drove 11,230 miles undertaking those tasks, the spreadsheet says, and logged 51 “horse days.”
In a fiscal note, the Wyoming Legislative Service Office says the bill would have “no significant fiscal or personnel impact.
“Currently all costs incurred by the Game and Fish Department related to the investigation of law enforcement incidents involving grizzly bears are paid for with federal restitution funds specifically earmarked for that purpose,” the note says. “The Department has not conducted any law enforcement investigations related to wolves since they were re-listed in September of 2014. The Department will not engage in law enforcement activities related to wolves until they are removed from the list of threatened and endangered species.”
Hicks’ spreadsheet shows Game and Fish personnel spending 46 hours on wolf investigations and enforcement in 2015 and driving 10 miles to do so.
Hicks said the fiscal note means “no increase or decrease in agency budgets,” Hicks said in an email. “It does not address misallocation or allocation of funds within the agency.”
Wyoming Game and Fish could, under the terms of HB-18, continue to work with federal and other partners on biological tasks and killing or removing wolves or grizzlies.
Game and Fish would not be stopped from “taking any action to facilitate the delisting of the gray wolf or grizzly bear under the Endangered Species Act,” the bill says. Nor would state employees be stopped from working with federal employees “in an effort to reduce the number of gray wolves or grizzly bears in any area in the state.”
“The state will be involved in all the biology, including damage payments and collaring,” Hicks said. “It’s not to rebuke the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service],” he said of the bill. “They delisted them.”
Both species remain under ESA protection because of successful lawsuits challenging federal delisting decisions. Hicks called that legal wrangling “intervention by a black-robed biologist.”
With committee sponsorship, the bill would have a leg up, but it still must earn a two-thirds vote for introduction when lawmakers convene starting Feb. 8.
Wolves in Bighorns, Laramie Range?
The bill comes as “wolves continue to expand in Wyoming,” Game and Fish Director Scott Talbott told the Joint Appropriations Committee Jan. 12. “This year will probably be the largest year we’ve had for livestock depredation.”
He estimated there were 17 to 20 breeding pairs and approximately 300 wolves in Wyoming, not counting Yellowstone National Park. Wyoming was managing for 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves before the court ruling in Sept. ‘14, wrested management — and a hunt — from state control.
“We certainly see them in the Bighorn Mountains,” Talbott said, and there are “pretty viable reports” in the Laramie Mountains. No packs have been documented, he said.
Under Wyoming’s management before 2014, wolves were classified as predators everywhere but the northwest corner of the state, limiting their spread.
“This appears that this will be a record year for wolf damage payments,” Talbott said. “Last year in FY ‘14 we paid roughly $150,000 to livestock producers.”
The amount Game and Fish allocated for wolves is about $250,000 annually, Sen. Drew Perkins (R-Casper) told the committee.
Payments for grizzly damage are expected to cost $750,000, Talbott said. The state pays those claims.
“We anticipate that grizzly bear damage this year could be in the neighborhood of three quarters of a million dollars — in FY ‘14 it was about $350,000,” Talbott said.
Overall, Game and Fish’s grizzly bear program cost about $2.2 million in 2015, Talbott told the joint committee. Hunting would not cover much of that expense, if it were allowed, as Wyoming is considering.
Wyoming grizzly licenses fees are set by legislation at $6,000 for nonresidents, $600 for residents, even though there is no hunt today.
A grizzly bear hunting program wouldn’t finance much of the grizzly bear program, Talbott said. “I anticipate we’d be very conservative in harvesting grizzly bears,” he said. If hunting were allowed, license sales would generate “a fairly small amount of revenue – in the tens of thousands of dollars,” he said.
Stopping state employees from helping aid in grizzly bear investigations would not save much, he said.
“Historically we have worked very closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife law enforcement officers to investigate both wolf and grizzly bear illegal mortalities,” he said. Wolf work stopped, but bear investigations have not. “I would say it’s a fairly minor portion of the program.”
A lot of grizzly program work goes into surveys. Game and Fish continues to investigate livestock depredation. The agency also is involved with nuisance and conflict situations — work the agency considers a public service, Talbott said.
Wyoming Game and Fish won’t see budget challenges this upcoming legislative session, Talbott said. A vigorous revenue flow comes from the Pittman-Robertson Act — an 11 percent federal tax on firearm and ammunition sales that goes to wildlife agencies.
“That revenue has expanded almost exponentially to us in the last couple of years,” Talbott told the committee. It has grown to the point it will cover the agency’s cost of health insurance, among other items this legislative session, Talbott said. Game and Fish thought it might need legislative help funding portions of its budget, but that’s not the case now.
Historically Pittman-Robertson has contributed $6 million to $9 million a year. Last year Game and Fish got almost $20 million.
Sen. Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan) said talk about background checks for gun dealers has contributed to the sales. “This is generated basically on pronouncements by the president,” Burns said.
Talbott agreed that President Obama’s executive order on background checks likely is a cause. “With the recent moves in Washington, I expect that flow will remain steady or increase.”