Wildlife in Wyoming have had an extremely brutal winter. Some 50% of adult mule deer in the Wyoming Range died last season, as well as 95% of collard mule deer fawns in this area and 35% of collared mule does in the nearby Sublette Herd. Pronghorn herds in the Green River basin are at equally brutal death rates, and Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) just cut more than 10,000 hunting tags for the struggling antelope population.
And while a lot of hunters are saying they'll forgo buying even the limited tags this season to help, one conservationist hunter from Wyoming has a different idea: Zachary Key is asking people to still buy tags—just not fill them.
"Everybody's saying, 'I'm not even going to buy a deer tag, I'm just not going to buy one,'" Key told Cowboy State Daily. "And I'm saying, go ahead and still buy one."
Instead of filling it though, Key believes hunters should purchase available tags to ensure the state's conservation efforts, which depend on money from tag sales, stay optimally funded.
It's been dubbed the #LetaDeerWalk campaign.
And while they might not get a buck, Key has an idea of an alternative win: The tags could instead be entered in a statewide prize drawing, like raffle tickets, he suggests.
The #LetaDeerWalk Campaign
With a combination of a rough winter and a deadly pneumonia outbreak, the winter killed off so much game this year, Wyoming Game and Fish actually contemplated canceling hunting seasons.
"The mortalities are very visible as the carcasses are starting to melt out on our winter ranges," Brandon Scurlock, a wildlife biologist with WGFD told Field & Stream. "Anybody driving the highways around here is going to see dozens and dozens of dead pronghorn."
A lot of hunters are in support of canceling hunting season: Paul Ulrich, a Wyoming hunter that has enjoyed hunting with his family for decades, called for suspending or significantly curtailing hunting licenses for deer and antelope in some areas, Cowboy State Daily reported.
"We've never seen anything quite like this," Ulrich told the newspaper. "For Wyoming's wildlife populations, if that means taking a year or two off, that's the right thing to do."
The problem is that canceling the season means less revenue for state conservation efforts.
Key, who is the president of the Upper Green River chapter of the Muley Fanatic Foundation and an avid conservationist, saw an opportunity.
His proposed solution would allows hunters to take a year off while still contributing to conservation, and help incentivize other hunters to give up their tags with the shiny raffle prizes as consolation.
So, Key started approaching local business owners to donate prizes.
He secured a Polaris ATV from Basecamp and Evanston motorsports dealership, a new rifle from Weatherby of Sheridan, and a $5,000 cash prize from an anonymous donor. Key said even more businesses have shown interest in donating towards incentives. He anticipates there will be around $50,000 worth of prizes to win.
Game and Fish Commissioner Rusty Bell even agreed to donate his commissioner's hunting tag for the drawing. Commissioner tags sometimes garner up to $30,000 at auction.
"Making sure stable wildlife populations into the future for Wyoming is a priority," Bell told Cowboy State Daily. "Who better to work with than our resident hunters?"
Key is still smoothing out exact details for #LetADeerWalk, but plans for it to be a simple process: Hunters would purchase any Wyoming deer tag, either general tags over the counter or tags through limited quota drawings, then mail those tags into a designated address to be eligible for the drawing.
He expects the entry deadline to be Aug. 1 for prize drawings on Aug. 15.
In the meantime, Key suggests hunters still enjoy the great outdoors this year and shift hunting pressure to black bears, which have stable populations and kill fawn.