The 2023 Wyoming General legislative session ran for eight weeks this year, from early January until early March. With twenty-seven new House of Representatives and eight new State Senators, the early session ran slower than previous sessions due to a lot of education and discussion needed for the officials in new seats.
Hunters and anglers were crucial to these discussions with new members of the Wyoming Chambers. The intense engagement of lobbyists and general members of the public helped advocate strongly for wildlife and sporting-related issues. These advocates were critical because wildlife bills received more scrutiny than in past sessions. On the House and Senate floors, hunting-related bills were some of the only pieces of legislation that found a variety of votes from all elected officials, no matter the party or caucus association.
Wyoming Wildlife Natural Resource Trust Fund (WWNRT) Gained
The most critical factor impacting the future health of wildlife populations is the quality and connectivity of their habitat. The WWNRT is Wyoming’s best tool for managing and improving our open spaces by giving funds to much-needed private and public lands projects.
Thanks to universal support by the sporting community, landowners, and other stakeholders, the House and Senate chambers both had the information to become better educated about the positive benefits of the Trust. Though the WWNRT bills started off with a rocky, technical start, by the end of the session WWNRT bills passed by the largest vote margin since its creation in 2005.
One result of this strong support was a higher threshold for large project funding, reducing the red tape to get needed work done on the ground for Wyoming’s wildlife and wild places. Specifically, it increased the necessary threshold for approval by legislators from $200,000 to $400,000; the first increase since its inception 18 years ago. Additionally, all 9 projects in the said large project funding bill were approved by the chambers. Lastly, a budget amendment allowed for the final $10 million into WWNRT to reach its original intent of $200 million which was set nearly two decades ago.
Wildlife Taskforce Recommendations
The Federation and our members were encouraged to engage throughout the 18-month Wildlife Taskforce process. The result was the Taskforce putting forth a variety of bills found to be recommended solutions voted on within the process to address issues within the sporting community. The two recommendations receiving the most attention were: HB 200 – Non-resident hunting license application fees; and SF 88 – Hunting licenses weighted bonus points system.
These bill topics have always been incredibly controversial among hunters, despite being recommended by the Taskforce. Licensing bills tend to split the hunting community 50/50 and these have been no exception. Both of these bills garnered more public comment and work than other topics. The complexity of the licensing system is difficult for even the most dedicated hunter to understand. For these elected officials, it was clear more education was needed around them as debates often were pulled into factually incorrect discussions.
In the end, SF 88 died, and HB 200 passed, resulting in an increase in license fees for a portion of non-resident hunters in 2024.
State Lands Transfers In the Limelight
Bills involving the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments focused on adjustments to the rules governing the leasing of state lands as well as streamlining the process for selling or exchanging lands, especially those with no public access. Multiple bills were seen that would have opened up new recreational or residential opportunities for long-term leases on state lands, though none became law. There seems to be a growing push to find opportunities to fill state lands fiduciary duty to the state as well as streamline state land exchange processes.
Large Carnivore & Predator Bills Passed; Others Mired in Legislative Muck
The way we manage, perceive, and engage with large carnivores is an important conversation in this day and age. There were a handful of bills brought by elected officials who worked with the Wyoming Wildlife Federation to educate and advocate for their passing.
The biggest change to the large carnivore landscape came this session with the passing of the mountain lion pursuit seasons (SF0178). This bill allows the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission to create regulations around a pursuit season in the Cowboy State. The regulation ensures those houndsmen who have filled their mountain lion license, or those pursuing lions in areas with a filled quota, can continue to train their dogs. This creates greater opportunities for improving lion hunting effectiveness and will ensure mountain lion limits are hit in areas where there may have been mountain lion hunters “holding out” so they could continue working with their dogs.
Unfortunately, two large carnivore bills WWF and our partners worked hard to bring this year were never heard – 1)HB0247-Trophy game animal-wanton waste and 2) HB0217-Trophy game animal-change to large carnivore. The Federation and fourteen partner organizations strongly supported these changes as needed efforts to protect the future of carnivore hunting in the Cowboy State.
These bills will likely become drafts for the 2024 Session and will receive another strong push of support next year. If you would like to learn more, click here.
Trespass & Access Was Top of Mind For Elected Officials
Trespass and access bills were front and center this session within both the house and senate likely due to the heightened press cycle around corner crossings and interim committee topics centered around Chapter 6 (Criminal Trespass) and Chapter 23 (Hunting Trespass) statute amendments.
Criminal trespass discussions both on the floor and in committees tended to focus on the divide between hunters and landowners rather than criminal trespass as a whole. The important distinction between hunting trespass and criminal trespass was confused regularly. The sheer number of trespass bills discussed this session resulted in a legislature-wide burnout on the topic that resulted in less advancement in the statute than bills were logged.
The trespass and access bills that did pass in 2023 were: SF 32 Prohibiting drones over penal institutions; HB 147 – Allows WGFD wardens to site people who put no trespassing signs on public or state land to interfere with hunting; SF 31 – Repealed the data trespass statute found unconstitutional in a supreme court case; and SF 56 – Prohibiting travel across private land for hunting purposes. The SF 56 clarified Chapter 23’s hunting trespass statute, expanding the prohibition for entering private property without permission for hunting purposes as well as prohibiting traveling through the private property by touching the ground.
Other Important Topics Addressed
Other important topics addressed include – shed antler hunting for residents and non-residents, the authority to negotiate with willing tribes regarding hunting rights off the reservation, and commercial fishing guide bills.
It’s critical for those who are invested in Wyoming’s wildlife, wild places, and how we enjoy them to be engaged throughout the process and attentive to their elected officials at the Capitol in Cheyenne.
In Wyoming, we have a unique opportunity to get to know each of our elected officials personally because of the small communities we live in. Reach out to your local Senator and Representative this off-season to build a working relationship with them and get their perspective on issues. As their constituent, it’s important they know your priorities for the future of Wyoming’s lawmaking process, too.
In the meantime, stay tuned for information regarding interim meetings, where legislators will take up topics, like feral horses, commercial licenses for guiding anglers, and much more.
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