Group wants reform of special hunting licenses

JACKSON — A new subsistence-hunting advocacy organization with Jackson Hole roots is asking the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to put a stop to alleged abuses of its commissioners’ complimentary license program.

The group, called Mountain Pursuit, recently unveiled a 16-page report about the fundraising program, which provides each of the Game and Fish Commission’s seven appointed members with eight complementary elk, deer or antelope licenses annually to donate to nonprofit charitable organizations, which then auction or sell them. Mountain Pursuit’s report shows that the program is being used as a platform for wealthy nonresident hunters to routinely acquire hard-to-draw licenses, in one case annually. The report also shows that the program is benefiting some poorly rated nonprofit organizations and other groups that have little or nothing to do with Wyoming wildlife.

“We don’t blame any of the nonprofits for asking for the tags, but we are concerned that the Game and Fish commissioners are giving them away to nonprofits that don’t have anything to do with conservation or wildlife,” Mountain Pursuit founder and board president Rob Shaul said. “There’s money that’s going to music festivals. One was donated for a Wyoming insurance agents association.”

Because the commissioners’ complimentary licenses bring in more than $1 million in a good year, Shaul says there needs to be more oversight.

“This is too much money to be thrown around like this,” he said. “Our recommendation is that the program be ended, the tags be auctioned off and the money go right back into Game and Fish’s general fund. A million dollars can buy a lot of biologists or game wardens.”

Game and Fish’s license manager, Jennifer Doering, said a state statute created the commissioners’ license program at least 22 years ago. A similar program exists for the sitting governor, who annually donates up to 25 licenses, including for bison, sheep and moose. In the commissioners’ program, a commissioner donates an open-slate license to an organization, which then auctions or sells it to a hunter, who designates the desired species, hunt area and type of license.

Shaul, a Jackson Hole resident and avid hunter, collaborated on the report with Jason Lapadula. The duo analyzed 10 years’ worth of license allocations from the program. The exercise, he said, taught him that many of the 56 licenses donated and auctioned annually end up being used in hunt units where people don’t have great odds of drawing licenses through the conventional lottery. Complimentary licenses are not subtracted from the number of licenses available to other hunters.

The most popular use of the complimentary commissioners license program, by far, was to pursue bull elk in Game and Fish’s Laramie Peak unit number 7. Some 96 tags — an average of nearly 10 a year — went toward hunting elk in the area southeast of Casper, where around one in four Wyoming residents had success securing a license during the 2017 season. Hunter success rates in this zone are unusually high, registering at 72 percent during the 2017 season.

The next most popular area targeted by the complimentary licenses, with 62 commissioners tags used, is the Crystal Peak deer hunt unit 82, a zone east of Jackson that’s popular for hunting trophy mule deer bucks. Resident hunters have easy access to this zone by using over-the-counter “general” deer tags.

Game and Fish specialists do not believe the complimentary license programs are large enough in scope to affect wildlife in any one area, spokeswoman Sara DiRienzo said.

“We have done a number of studies to look at ways the commissioners licenses impact the resource,” she said, “and that analysis has shown that the commissioners licenses have no biological impacts on any of the herds.”

Shaul and Lapadula found in their query that three dozen hunters have benefited from the complimentary commissioners licenses at least three times. One nonresident elk hunter, a man named John Morris, secured 10 of the licenses in the 10-year period that Mountain Pursuit assessed.

This use of the complimentary program is “not a concern” to Game and Fish, DiRienzo said.

The complimentary commissioner tags are an important source of funding for some Wyoming hook-and-bullet and conservation advocacy groups. Although the program benefited 170 registered nonprofit, social clubs and informal groups in total, a few well-established groups receive the tags routinely. The largest beneficiaries were the Wyoming Wildlife Foundation (61 tags, $561,000 in proceeds), Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (60, $464,000), Wyoming Wildlife Federation (29, $496,000), and Muley Fanatics Foundation (22, $486,000).

Some of the groups, Shaul said, are rated poorly by nonprofit evaluator services like Charity Navigator. Other entities that have received and sold the complimentary tags include churches and controversial organizations like the National Rifle Association.

“It’s nothing against those individual nonprofits, “ Shaul said, “but should they be getting public money, especially when the Game and Fish is facing budget cuts?”

Imperfect bookkeeping keeps track of what becomes of the commissioners tags.

Sale prices from 71 of the 709 commissioners licenses sold and raffled between 2008 and 2018 were not reported to Game and Fish. Some 125 of the complimentary licenses distributed by commissioners lacked species data indicating whether elk, deer or antelope were pursued, according to the Mountain Pursuit report.

“We asked the lady that we got stuff from and she said she didn’t know,” Shaul said. “The accounting is sloppy.”

Game and Fish’s Doering said that nonprofit groups are not legally required to report income they generate from donated tags, which explains the missing data.

DiRienzo said her agency stands behind the program, which provides resources for groups that reinvest in issues Game and Fish shares an interest in.

“It results in a lot of good projects for wildlife and conservation,” she said, “and projects that get people out hunting and fishing.”