Hunting group challenges charity hunting licenses

JACKSON — A lawsuit has been filed in Teton County District Court challenging whether the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association is eligible to receive complementary, open-slated hunting licenses to auction off for fundraising.

The litigation pits an advocacy group representing Wyoming resident hunters, an organization named Mountain Pursuit, against the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and its seven-person commission. Mountain Pursuit takes issue with how the trade association that represents Wyoming’s outfitters and guides is a regular beneficiary of complementary licenses that are donated by Wyoming Game and Fish commissioners.

“The plain language of the statute and the rules says that a ‘charitable nonprofit’ has to work for the general public, and Wyoming Outfitters and Guide Association has self-defined itself as not being a charitable nonprofit,” Mountain Pursuit founder Rob Shaul told the News&Guide. “They’re a nonprofit, but they work for the good of their business members — not the general public.”

Ahead of filing the lawsuit Shaul attempted an administrative appeal, but the Wyoming Game and Fish Department wrote him back that the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association had signed the necessary affidavit and did fit its definition of a “nonprofit charitable organization.”

The statewide association is registered as a 501©(6), which is a form of nonprofit the Internal Revenue Service recognizes that represents business leagues, trade organizations or chambers of commerce.

The Wyoming Legislature created the commissioners license program a quarter century ago. Each of the agency’s seven commissioners receive eight licenses to donate to an organization that auctions them off to raise money for wildlife research, management, community events or other causes. The licenses generate good sums of money because they’re convertible into any full-price elk, deer, or antelope license — and so wealthy non-residents can buy them via auctions or outright if they are seeking a tag for a hard-to-draw hunting area.

Game and Fish keeps an accounting of what becomes of its commissioners’ tags on its website. The licenses go to a wide array of organizations. This year recipients included the Niobrara Veterans Memorial Committee, Wyoming Fire Chiefs Fund L.A.S.T., the Wyoming Association of County Predatory Animal Boards, Shoshone Back Country Horsemen and many other groups.

Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association was awarded two of the licenses in 2021, one from former commissioner David Rael and one from Gay Lynn Byrd. Those two licenses were sold via a phone auction system and together they raised $51,000 for a purpose that the association had previously identified, president Sy Gilliland said.

“They were both solicited from the commissioners with the intent that 100 percent of the funds raised from those two licenses were to be used in the ongoing efforts to make sure that Wyoming keeps its feedgrounds open and functioning,” Gilliland said.

Litigation over feedgrounds — one lawsuit over the National Elk Refuge and another over Bridger-Teton National Forest-permitted feedgrounds — is the legal fight that the guides association is most concerned about, Gilliland said. His organization has joined both cases as an intervenor.

Comparatively, he was less concerned about the lawsuit that was recently filed by Mountain Pursuit.

“We’ll analyze it, and we’ll see where it goes,” Gilliland said. “I know the attorney general’s office is the one who has to defend it.”

That Shaul singled out Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association is not surprising given how Mountain Pursuit’s advocacy for resident hunters comes into some conflict with a trade group whose primary clientele is non-resident hunters. In the just-passed legislative session, Shaul was the primary advocate behind a failed bill that would have designated 90% of limited-quota big game licenses for Wyoming residents, up from 80% today. The Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association lobbied against that change.

“We’re the only state in the West that doesn’t have that,” Shaul said. “What we’ve asked for is what Montana has, and Idaho, and Utah and Arizona and all these other states.”

Shaul, who owns the Mountain Tactical Institute gym, wrote the legal complaint and intends to represent himself in Teton County District Court. Although not an attorney, in a past life he was a newspaper publisher in Pinedale who sued the Sublette County Board of County Commissioners and Sublette County School District No. 1 a number of times over public records access.

“I think I sued the county and school board five times,” Shaul said, “and I was three-and-two.”