Understaffed, overworked wardens leery of predator night hunting

CHEYENNE—An “unprecedented” shortage of Wyoming game wardens is adding to angst about a legislative proposal that would attract coyote hunters onto public land at night, adding to the thinned corps’ around-the-clock duties.

“Our folks are feeling the pressure of their significant workload that is not shared by as many people as it should be right now,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department Chief Warden Rick King testified last week. “Our folks work really hard and they’ll do the best they can, but that’s really one of the things I worry about: The workload on our existing personnel.”

King was addressing the Wyoming Legislature’s House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee, as it considered House Bill 104 – Hunting of predatory animals-amendments. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland), would make it legal to use thermal and infrared technology to hunt species Wyoming classifies as predators on public land: coyotes, red fox, skunks, stray domestic cats, raccoons and non-predatory porcupines and jackrabbits. Already, those light-amplifying technologies are legal to use for predator hunting on private land. So is hunting predators at night on public land using only moonlight.

Still, King and Game and Fish warden Bill Brinegar, who spoke on behalf of the Wyoming Game Wardens Association, were leery of the prospect of lawmakers adding another sporting pursuit to police in the dead of night.

Currently, around 20% of Wyoming game warden posts — 13 out of 65 field-level positions — are unfilled, King said. Seven of eight warden districts were recently vacant in the Laramie Region, he said.

“For our agency, it’s unprecedented,” King told WyoFile after the committee hearing.

The chief warden worried about adding to his overtaxed wardens’ already heaping workloads. Some wardens routinely put in the maximum number of hours the state allows: 259 hours a month, or about 65 hours a week.

“I worry about maintaining work-life balance,” King said. “It’s going to be a struggle.”

understaffed, overworked wardens leery of predator night hunting

Rick King, chief warden for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, listens to a legislative committee meeting in the Wyoming Capitol in January 2023 (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Brinegar, one of those wardens, said that he could recall only one instance in his career of checking a coyote hunter who was hunting by moonlight.

“Not many people do that,” Brinegar said. “And I don’t believe [artificial light devices] make it safer, you still don’t know what’s beyond your target.”

Coyote hunter Devan Reilly, who called in to testify, also expressed safety concerns. Even after spending $15,000 on a thermal scope there was a “heck of a learning curve”, he said, and it can be tough to distinguish coyotes from pronghorn fawns or domestic dogs.

“My biggest fear … is that one big accident happens and then no one gets to do it at all,” Reilly said. “One bad apple burns down the whole tree.”

At least one Wyoming hunter advocacy group was equally leery of the proposed reform. Jessi Johnson, Wyoming Wildlife Federation’s government affairs director, listed off worries: hunters’ misidentifying their targets, having to make “murky” ethical decisions and conflicts with different public land users.

“We’re pretty tentative on this bill,” Johnson said. “I would go so far as to say we would rather not see it pass.”

The gun lobby came out in support of HB 104.

“These restrictions make one half the state of Wyoming off-limits to this activity,” said Mark Jones, the national hunter outreach director with the Gun Owners of America. “And [public land] is the only place that many people have to hunt. Many people do not have the luxury of going on private ranches and hunting, so there is an issue with hunter opportunity.”

understaffed, overworked wardens leery of predator night hunting

Reps. Donald Burkhart (R-Rawlins), Daniel Singh (R-Cheyenne) and Cyrus Western (R-Big Horn) listen to testimony during a House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources committee meeting in January 2023 (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Nephi Cole, government affairs director for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, pushed for the bill to move forward and he applauded a provision that allows the Game and Fish Commission to regulate thermal or infrared hunting of predator species at night.

The House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee advanced HB 104 Tuesday with an 8-2 vote.

Committee members beefed up language enabling Game and Fish to regulate night hunting of public land-dwelling predators. An amendment worked into the bill would keep public land closed to light-enhanced predator hunting from Aug. 1 through Jan. 31 — when big game hunting seasons occur. The amended section also lets the state create zones and regulate methods for killing predators using artificial light or lighting devices.

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