SHERIDAN — If you’ve ever walked an extra 10 miles just to access a piece of public land while hunting, Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Big Horn, feels your pain.
“There have been multiple instances in my hunting career where, say I’m on a piece of public land and not too far away — a mile or half mile — is another really good chunk of public land,” Western said. “I know there is high quality game, I see it through my hunting scope, I want to get over there. But obviously, I can’t walk in a straight line across private property. I can still access it by staying on public land, but I have to hike all the way around just to get where I want to go. One specific instance, I had to hike 10 extra miles — down a canyon, up a canyon, through some timber — just to get where I wanted to go because it was difficult to access.”
It can be hard for hunters to access public land even though 96% of them utilize it, Western said. More than three million acres in Wyoming are landlocked, making them either difficult or impossible to access.
“If you go up to a hunter on the streets of Sheridan and say ‘Name your top five issues for hunting,’ without exception, they’re going to say public access or a lack thereof,” Western said. “It’s a really big deal especially in the eastern half of the state, where it’s pretty rough.”
House Bill 122 — sponsored by Western and approved by the Wyoming Legislature’s House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee March 4 — looks to change that. If the bill moves forward, Western hopes millions of acres of new public lands will become available.
The bill gives Wyoming Game and Fish more financial leverage when negotiating with landowners to open their properties to hunters, Western said. It does this by fully funding the department’s AccessYes program, which works to develop walk-in areas and hunting management areas across the state.
“The whole missing link in this entire equation is adequate funding for it,” Western said. “I’ve talked to landowners on both ends of the spectrum and there are a lot more opportunities that would come online if we had the financial wherewithal to negotiate these types of agreements.”
The AccessYes program would be funded by a proposed increase in the cost of the state’s conservation stamp, which would jump in price from $12.50 to $21. The conservation stamp is required for each person licensed to hunt or fish in the state of Wyoming.
The Legislative Service Office anticipates the change would generate roughly $1.6 million a year with $1.4 million going to the AccessYes program to increase hunter access. The remainder would be used by WGFD to fund wildlife crossings for migratory species and wildlife.
The increase in the conservation stamp cost is steep, but the change is widely supported by hunters across the state, according to Rep. Chad Banks, D-Rock Springs, who has received numerous supportive emails about the bill from constituents.
“I just pulled up all the emails I’ve had on this bill, and every one of them… has been supportive of the bill and are not hesitant to pay the difference in wages,” Banks said.
Jessi Johnson with the sportsmen-focused Wyoming Wildlife Federation said 75% of their membership supported a conservation stamp price increase as long as the dollars went into improved access.
Still, the fee increase gave Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, a little heartburn.
“I agree with (Western) — access is a very good thing,” Jennings said. “And I get that we have a problem there. I’m not at all opposed to the notion that we have to solve that. Raising a (fee)….is not the answer to that… I’m all for having better access, but I just think, boy, this is a bridge too far.”
The committee made several amendments to Western’s bill before approval. Most notable was the elimination of language requiring WGFD to spend the dollars raised by the stamp within a year.
Rep. Pat Sweeney, R-Casper, said allowing WGFD to accumulate dollars could lead to increased access opportunities.
“By building up a little money, in my opinion, you might be able to get better access in parts of Wyoming that we’re after,” Sweeney said.
Although the amendment was approved, some legislators had concerns with it. Jennings argued the amendment created a “slush fund” instead of using dollars for timely access improvement. Western also had reservations with the amendment although he will work with the committee to determine an acceptable amount of time for Game and Fish to build up the funds.
“I don’t think hunters are interested in paying an extra nine bucks (to) just have it sit in a fund for however long,” Western said. “If they’re paying that money, they want to make sure they’re getting a return on it and doing so shortly.”
House Bill 122 was approved on a 6-3 vote by the Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee Thursday.