From upland birds to big game, I’ve hunted on private ranchlands in the West for over 20 years. Even before I was old enough to hunt, I would go out with my father and grandfather to learn, help find birds and spot deer. I can still remember the hunting stories from my grandfather when he was kid. Many of them involved an abundance of game and bountiful harvests. Since my grandfather’s childhood, a lot has changed in western landscapes. Much of the private land is under threat of rural residential development, which does not bode well for wildlife habitat, productive agricultural land, and the cultures that they support.
Much of Wyoming’s 26 million acres of private lands (approximately half of the state) are maintained as open spaces managed primarily for livestock and hay production. But these lands are disappearing at a rate that exceeds that of other western states, due to land conversion. If this trend continues, researchers at the American Farmland Trust estimate that Wyoming will lose another 2.6 million acres in the next 10 years. This is roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park.
Beyond providing food and fiber, private lands can produce public benefits like wildlife habitat, open space, connection between protected areas, the cultural landscape of rural life and many other ecological functions that many of us take for granted. In addition, these lands play a major and stable role in Wyoming’s economy.
Wyoming Governor, Matt Mead, recently acknowledged the importance of hunting and other recreational activities to the state’s economy by announcing a new initiative to promote the outdoor recreation industry. Governor Mead said, “Wyoming has world-class opportunities for hunting, fishing, photography and other recreation.” The hunting industry plays a key role in Wyoming tourism and the overall state economy. According to a study conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011, both resident and non-resident hunters spend close to $300 million in the state annually. The hunting industry and associated income would not exist without the natural habitats and open spaces provided by private agricultural lands.
Generations of Wyoming’s farmers and ranchers have been the primary stewards of the land, providing wildlife habitat and open spaces while maintaining their livelihoods. Many Wyomingites recognize the symbiotic relationship between agriculture and wildlife, but some may not. It is up to conservation and agricultural advocates to communicate this relationship to hunters and other interest groups that do not make this connection. If we don’t, the hallmarks of Wyoming will continue to disappear and the stories from our grandfathers will no longer sound real to our future generations.