- Associated Press - Thursday, January 15, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - A bill pending in the Wyoming Legislature would cut the percentage of hunting licenses set aside for nonresident hunters for coveted species such as bighorn sheep.

These licenses are extremely difficult to draw around the West and can sell for thousands of dollars when states occasionally offer them at auction to fund conservation programs.

Sponsor Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, said the bill would bring Wyoming in line with the limits that other states already impose on nonresident hunters.

“It just establishes parity between what we would do in Wyoming if the legislation passed and every other state that has moose, bighorn, mountain goat and bison permits,” Hicks said. “Right now, Wyoming issues, as a percentage of the permits, more of those permits to nonresidents than any other state in the nation. Period.”

The Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association, however, is gearing up to fight the bill. The association maintains that the change would threaten the state’s tourist industry and would pull the rug out from under nonresident hunters who have spent years purchasing preference points to increase their odds of drawing a Wyoming tag.

Outfitters commonly charge thousands of dollars to take hunters into the rugged mountain areas that support bighorn and mountain goats. Wyoming law requires nonresidents to hire outfitters when hunting in wilderness areas.

Wyoming currently sets aside 25 percent of tags for bighorn sheep and mountain goats and 20 percent of moose tags for nonresidents. Hicks’ bill would reduce that allocation to 10 percent for nonresidents for all three species.

Montana, Idaho and other states limit nonresident hunters to 10 percent of available bighorn tags. New Mexico sets aside just 6 percent of bighorn tags for nonresidents and 10 percent of tags for hunters who hire outfitters.

“These tend to be once-in-a-lifetime opportunities,” Hicks said. “Most residents are only going to get one chance to do this in their life, especially when it comes to things like bison, and mountain goats and bighorn sheep. So, it’s not an anti-outfitter bill, it’s not an anti-local business bill. It’s to establish parity for the people of Wyoming for some of the most of the coveted hunting opportunities that this state can afford.”

Hicks, himself a dedicated hunter, said that if other states were willing to offer 25 percent of their most exclusive hunting licenses to nonresidents, he might feel differently. But as things stand, he said, “I can’t with any good conscience say that we should tell the people that somehow they should be denied this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at the sake of somebody that doesn’t live in the state.”

Nonresident hunters pay more for licenses than resident hunters. Hicks said the bill would cost the Wyoming Game and Fish Department less than $170,000 a year in lost revenue.

Bob Wharff, executive director of Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, a lobbying group that works on wildlife issues, said Thursday his group supports the bill.

“The resident hunters here, I think they’re tired of giving such a high percentage of quality opportunity to nonresidents,” Wharff said. “And if some of the nonresidents may not like that, I guess all I can say is if they want to advocate for their states to give up 25 percent of their sheep licenses then maybe Wyoming would reconsider its position.”

Sy Gilliland of Casper, secretary and treasurer of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association, said Thursday his group is lobbying against the legislation, Senate File 69, which is pending in the Senate. He said nonresident sportsmen spend an estimated $150- to $200 million a year in Wyoming.

In response to the argument that Wyoming should set its nonresident quota at the same level as other states, Gilliland said states around the West have different game management laws.

Gilliland said the Wyoming Game and Fish Department started selling preference points to nonresident hunters 20 years ago. Although it’s possible to draw a tag with no points, they increase hunters’ odds of success. A nonresident point for bighorn sheep costs $100.

Nonresident hunters have relied on Wyoming’s promises that it would set aside 25 percent of sheep and goat licenses and 20 percent of moose licenses for them when they started buying the points, Gilliland said.

“What Sen. Hicks is asking us to do is to walk back on the promise we made to these nonresidents 20 years ago when they started investing heavily into our way of issuing licenses,” Gilliland said.

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