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Cat Urbigkit: State Leaders Don’t Want to Hear From Public on Land Deal

in Cat Urbigkit/Column
Wyoming
3190

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

I’ve been critical of our state leaders for keeping the public in the dark about nearly anything to do with the proposed purchase of 1 million acres of surface and 4 million acres of mineral rights of the checkerboard lands in southern Wyoming – a deal these same leaders said is “the largest government purchase of private land since the United States purchased Alaska.”

Our state leaders keep telling us that what a unique opportunity this deal is, and that the deal could be a “strategic investment” to add income to state coffers, and “unprecedented multiple-use access for the public.” But when it comes to specifics, they aren’t sharing much.

The lands involved in the deal are the checkerboard properties that Occidental Petroleum got when it acquired them from Anadarko Petroleum. The need-to-be-secretive nonsense rose to a new level this week as one legislator on the House floor cautioned other legislators not to say the names of the companies involved, instead saying something like “a company that begins with the letter A, that sold its assets to a company that begins with the letter O.” I’m not kidding; that actually happened on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, when the substantially revised House Bill 249 enabling the State Loan and Investment Board to pursue the deal came up for second reading on the House floor, Representative Albert Sommers (R-Sublette) proposed an amendment that would require the SLIB to hold at least one public meeting in a county where the purchase is located “to gather input prior to the purchase” being finalized. Sommers suggested state officials should hear from the public in the affected neighborhoods where the land is located.

Representative Tom Crank (R-Lincoln, Sweetwater, Uinta) spoke in support of Sommers’s amendment, noting that the land deal involves three counties in which he represents, “all of which have expressed concerns” about the deal.

Representative David Miller (R-Fremont) If we’re negotiating on this and all the sudden, we come to terms, and then we have to go have public meetings – that kills it, in my book.”

Representative Dan Kirkbride (R-Platte, Converse) suggested that from his recollection of the map of the properties circulating around the state house, some of the land is located in Laramie County, so when SLIB meets in Cheyenne, it’s fulfilling the purpose of Sommers’s amendment.

Representative Bob Nicholas (R-Laramie) spoke against the amendment: “I don’t think it’s our directive to tell the SLIB Board where they need to meet. I think we can recommend it. And my guess is they’ll do what they need to do, what they think is politically appropriate.”

Representative David Northrup (R-Park) also spoke against the idea: “My experience with these kinds of land deals and schools is as soon as you breathe a breath of where it is, that land around it, and that land, also become significantly higher priced. A public meeting would do nothing but jack the price up if you ask me, so I’m against it.”

Sommers responded: “We know where the land is; it’s the checkerboard.” Sommers said his amendment didn’t specify when during the process the meeting would have to be held, other than before the deal was finalized.

“You could go out right now and simply ask the residents in those areas to comment on a proposed purchase, and what may needed to be in that purchase to satisfy their concerns or wants,” Sommers said, adding that hearing from the public should be part of the state’s due diligence, and noting that his amendment was not onerous.

Sommers’ amendment for a public meeting was then promptly defeated on the House floor, and the bill passed second reading.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

Cat Urbigkit: House Passes First Reading of Land Deal Bill

in Cat Urbigkit/Column
wild horses
3171

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

On Tuesday afternoon, it took 19 minutes for Representative Steve Harshman (R-Natrona County) to introduce and describe to fellow House members revamped House Bill 249 allowing the State Loan and Investment Board to investigate and pursue the purchase of 1 million acres of surface, and 4 million acres of mineral rights in southern Wyoming. It took House members about half an hour of asking questions before the bill was passed by the committee of the whole on first reading.

Representative Scott Clem (R-Campbell County) said he is struggling with the policy shift of state government taking over large properties instead of allowing private markets to take advantage of the land sale. “Why should this body entertain this policy shift?” he asked. Clem said he’s wrestling with the state acting as though it’s a private corporation.

Another representative suggested a map of the proposed land deal should be circulated, and it was also noted that there are numerous other entities that are interested in the same properties, so the state has competition in the deal.

Representative Chuck Gray (R-Natrona County) asked if legislators could have an idea of the range of possible purchase price, noting that he’d heard the range from $400 million on the low end, to $2 billion on the high end.

Harshman responded, “I really don’t know. I’ve heard that same range,” adding that the state won’t know until it has done more research. Larsen urged caution to the legislative body to “not let unanswered questions or speculation grow and rule the day.”

After listening to other legislators asking questions and getting few specific answers, Gray cautioned about “irrational exuberance” taking hold when so little is known about the deal.

Harshman responded that he is also cautious about “irrational exuberance,” but added that this legislation establishes sideboards for state action, asserting that the State Loan and Investment Board could examine the land purchase on its own – without the legislature acting.

“We don’t even need to do this,” Harshman said. “The SLIB could do this on its own.”

Representative Albert Sommers (R-Sublette County) said he still has three concerns that he intends to address via amendments in Wednesday’s floor session. Sommers wants an affirmative vote of the legislature before the deal could be finalized; the addition of a public participation process by requiring SLIB to hold a public meeting in an affected county; and some recognition of traditional uses of these lands, noting that some of the grazing lessees have used this landscape for more than 100 years.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

Cat Urbigkit: House Approps Reworks State Land Deal Bill

in Cat Urbigkit/Column
3169

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

On Monday the House Appropriations Committee worked until after 9 p.m. to make substantial revisions to House Bill 249 that enables Governor Mark Gordon and other members of the State Loan and Investment Board (SLIB) to examine and negotiate a deal for 1 million acres of surface and 4 million acres of mineral rights in southwestern Wyoming.

With only a few hours remaining for bills to be passed out of committee in their house of origin, in the end the committee gave the bill the green light on a 6-1 vote.

The revised bill bears little resemblance to the bill as originally filed. The ability for the legislature to tap into the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account for the purchase was removed, replaced with a provision for the state to issue special revenue bonds to fund the deal to purchase assets from Occidental Petroleum (among other possible funding sources).

The bill gives members of the SLIB, and three appointed members from each house of the legislature, the ability to investigate the possibility of purchasing the properties, to conduct due diligence on the deal, and to make arrangements to purchase the assets.

This group will be required to report their findings to the legislature, outlining the methods used in determining the market value of the properties, including evidence of marketable title and any title defects that exit.

The committee will report to the legislature its recommendations on where the funding for the deal should originate, any legislation needed to complete the deal, and any changes to laws that are needed to best manage the assets.

The Attorney General would have to approve the deal, and the bill now includes a provision that even if the committee comes to a purchase agreement, the legislature would have to convene and adjourn prior to the deal being finalized.

Although the bill does not require any action of the legislature for the deal to be finalized (no up-or-down vote is currently included in the language), should the legislature decide against the deal, the state would not be bound to the negotiated purchase agreement and the state would incur no liability for its efforts.

There is considerable conflict and interest in what would guide state management of the acquired lands, and currently it appears that how the lands will be managed depends on where the money to fund the deal comes from.

If part of the purchase comes from money in the Common School Permanent Land Fund, those lands must be identified and managed similar to the rest of state trust lands, with the top priority as generation of revenue, or maximizing the return on investment.

But one amendment to the bill calls for other surface use of land purchased via other funding mechanisms to be managed for multiple use under another provision of existing statute.

Whether the state can, or should, identify specific parcels for purchase with funding from a specific account is at issue, or whether the state should use a more “proportional” method is still being debated.

Although no official numbers have been released, when discussing the possibility of issuing special revenue bonds, the committee used a hypothetical number of a $1.2 billion purchase price, and one committee member noted that it has been represented to the legislature that the lands involved in the deal currently provide an annual revenue stream of $130-150 million.

Representative Albert Sommers, a Republican from Sublette County, noted the bill’s lack of inclusion of a process to gain public comment, calling it “a glaring omission,” but in the end supported the revised bill.

“I have a lot of misgivings,” Sommers said, “but probably the only thing scarier than purchasing this is not examining it. It’s a huge swath of land that is kind of the essence of southwest Wyoming. Not knowing where that may go, in the end, for good or evil – I think we owe it to that chunk of land to take a look at it.”

Representative Andy Schwartz, who noted that the bill being reviewed Monday evening was the third version of the bill he’d read in about four days, cast the lone vote against the bill.

“I still have concerns about the structure of the bill itself,” Schwartz said. “It’s a leap of faith on our part.” Schwartz said that he doesn’t feel like he has enough information at this point, and cautioned that “things like this have a way of gaining momentum, which really concerns me.”

Gordon’s energy advisor Randall Luthi addressed the committee in its final minutes of deliberations, noting that the House bill is now substantially different from the bill filed in the Senate, “and we have full confidence that you’ll work it out.”

Luthi said while he’s supportive of House efforts to ensure the SLIB works toward due diligence on the land purchase, he cautioned about “unnecessarily tying the hands” of the governor and SLIB to conduct negotiations, and that the legislature should allow SLIB to “manage the lands different than what we are used to.”

Luthi also noted the importance of the Senate’s version of the bill that allows the state to receive gifts or donations toward the land purchase, while noting that such gifts may have “some strings attached to them” that would have to be considered.

Other state agencies provided input to the committee Monday night, including Deputy State Treasurer Dawn Williams who took issue with the overall attempt to give SLIB the authority to oversee this investment when it’s the State Treasurer that is charged with investment of state funds.

She suggested that “some duties are best performed” by the State Treasurer’s office, and when it comes to the SLIB, “this isn’t their wheelhouse.” She said her office needs to be involved in the deal and pointed to the discussion segregation of assets via its funding source, noting that wouldn’t pass the “prudent investor rule” to which state investments are bound.

State Treasurer’s Office Chief Investment Officer Patrick Fleming agreed, noting “We are focused on maximizing return; that is what we do.”

With the exception of Schwartz, all other committee members voted to pass the revised bill, including Sommers, Bob Nicholas, Mark Kinner, Lloyd Larsen, Jared Olsen, and Tom Walters. The bill is expected to be subject to numerous amendments on the House floor on Tuesday.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Cat Urbigkit: State Trust Lands Aren’t “Public” Land

in Cat Urbigkit/Column
wild horses
3155

By Cat Urbigkit, Cowboy State Daily Columnist

I’ve written several columns about the proposal under consideration by the legislature that would have the State of Wyoming investigate purchasing 1 million acres of private surface and 4 million acres of mineral rights in the checkerboard country of southern Wyoming.

Governor Mark Gordon and legislative leaders are pushing the idea to purchase the Anadarko assets now up for sale by Occidental Petroleum, and the two bills paving the way for the deal are House Bill 249 and Senate File 138. Both bills are winding their way through the legislature, with HB249 set to be heard by the Appropriations Committee on Monday Feb. 24th at noon. To listen to those deliberations, access the livestream here.

Most people I’ve talked to about this proposed land deal usually respond with “What the …” and “I thought the State was broke,” but some have expressed the view that it would be good to have more public land, more public access, more areas set aside for wildlife – as if state and federal lands are managed in the same way. They aren’t.

Trust Assets

When Wyoming became a state in 1890, the federal government granted it 4.2 million acres to be held in state trust to produce income to support public schools and other public institutions (such as the state hospital). The Wyoming Constitution and statutes require the State Board of Land Commissioners (the top five statewide elected officials) to manage trust assets for two purposes:

  1. Long-term growth in value; and
  2. Optimum, sustainable revenue production.

Management of state trust land is done in four primary ways (surface leasing, land transactions, mineral leasing, and royalty compliance) with the purpose of generating revenues in the form of rentals, royalties, and fees.

The land deal bills before the legislatures note that subject to exiting lease and contract rights (which the state can renegotiate), “all state laws governing the management of state lands shall be applicable to assets purchased” in this land deal. Let’s have a look at how state lands are managed.

Ag Use

For ag leases on state lands, grazing leases (for grazing livestock, raising crops, or other ag uses) are 10-year terms and are renewable. Existing state leases can be contested at the time of renewal.

Grazing rates are based on animal unit months and priced at a statewide 5-year average of private property leases less 20 percent (to reflect contributions typically provided as a part of a private land lease). State regulations set out the details of leases costs for crops and other agricultural uses.

Anyone proposing to enter state lands with an activity that will cause surface disturbance is required to contact the person holding the ag lease, and this lessee may negotiate a surface impact payment.

The state has a fee schedule for surface impact payments, and for the first $5,000, the lessee gets 40% and the state gets 60%. For the next $5,000, the lessee gets 30% and the state gets 70%. For everything over $10,000 the lessee gets 20% and the state gets 80%.

The public is not charged for recreational use of state trust lands, and likewise, holders of temporary use permits are not charged.

Not “public” lands

State trust lands are to be managed to produce revenue, so they aren’t comparable to federal “public” lands like that of the Bureau of Land Management that are to be managed under a multiple-use mandate. But the State Land Board has adopted rules allowing the “public the privilege of hunting, fishing, and general recreational use on state trust lands.”

Recreational privileges on state trust lands come with sideboards: the lands must be legally accessible, and off-road use, overnight camping, open fires, and anything else that would damage the property are prohibited on state trust lands.

So you can hike, fish, and play on state trust lands by day, but no camping, fire pits, or charcoal grills (except in camping areas established by State Land Board). Cultivated croplands on state trust lands are not open to public use.

The state may issue permits for furbearer trapping and outfitting/guiding on state trust lands, (either exclusive or nonexclusive), and outfitters may be allowed to establish camp sites on exclusive permits.

Some state trust parcels are closed to all public use, while others have seasonal restrictions on public use, or restrictions on the discharge of firearms, hunting, or the use of motorized vehicles.

Other Uses

About 1/3 of the 3.9 million acres of state trust land are leased for oil and gas development, and other acreages are subject to leasing for coal, uranium, trona, bentonite, precious minerals and stones, limestone, zeolite, and sand and gravel. The state also offers state trust land for commercial and scientific fossil exploration.

The Forestry Division of the Office of State Lands is responsible for managing about 263,000 acres of forested state trust land, including timber management and harvest on these properties.

With the dire lack of public information released about the proposed land deal, it’s no wonder the public is confused about what lands are included, and how it might be managed. If our state leaders have a vision for these lands, they certainly haven’t shared it with the public.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Cat Urbigkit: Why the Lack of Transparency with the State’s Million Acre Land Grab?

in Cat Urbigkit/Column
Wyoming
3138

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

After Casper Star-Tribune reporter Nick Reynolds broke the story Monday afternoon that the State of Wyoming wants to purchase 1 million acres of checkerboard land in southern Wyoming, as announced in a press conference in Cheyenne with Governor Mark Gordon and legislative leaders, I checked the governor’s press release page and found nothing about this subject.

When nothing had appeared there by Tuesday morning, I emailed the governor’s communications director requesting a press release, and was told that one would be issued that day.

I asked to be sent the press release and was instructed to sign up online for updates, which I did. When the press release was posted late that afternoon, I did not receive it.

I checked the website again and found the press release which noted support for the two bi-partisan bills that would allow Gordon, the Attorney General, and the State Loan and Investment Board (SLB) to evaluate a land purchase “that could bring new income to the state, while benefiting public access for hunting and outdoor recreation, wildlife, and other economic interests.”

The press release glowingly noted that Senate File 138 was passed unanimously out of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and the other bill received strong support from the House on introduction.

I had already posted a column critical of the secrecy and lack of information about this enormous proposal.

The press release from the governor’s office provided few specifics: “The bills allow the State of Wyoming to enter negotiations for the purchase of a ‘checkerboard’ of 1 million surface acres of land in southern Wyoming that was part of the original land grant to Union Pacific when they built the railroad across the nation. In addition to grazing, hunting and outdoor recreation, the parcels include mineral development opportunities for coal, oil, gas, trona, and potentially some rare earth elements.”

The press release didn’t include a map, didn’t mention in what counties the land is located, and failed to mention that 4 million acres of mineral rights are part of the deal – including mineral rights in Colorado and Utah. The two bills that are receiving such wonderful support from our legislative leaders are even more vague.

The governor’s office press release notes that if the two bills are enacted by the legislature, state officials will be able to conduct a thorough vetting process on the and if the SLB approves the proposal as viable, the legislature would have 60 days to review the final package.

On Thursday, Feb. 20th,  WyoFile reporter Andrew Graham posted an article about the deal, “State could spend hundreds of millions on Occidental land.” The article was complemented with a map of the proposed land deal, provided to WyoFile from the governor’s office. That map still hasn’t been posted on the state website.

Graham’s reported that Gordon said he’s been talking with Occidental officials about the deal for six months, but Speaker of the House Steve Harshman said the talks began soon after Gordon was elected. Graham continued, “Even as the House and Senate voted to introduce the pair of bills last week, no word of the deal reached the public.

Some representatives told WyoFile that leadership discussed the House version during a closed door caucus last week without offering specifics, informing representatives details would emerge soon.”

Graham’s reporting was straight forward and provided a glimpse into the cost of the deal: hundreds of millions. But it failed to mention that two other bills have been filed that also directly apply to the deal.

As Reynolds reported on Monday, one of the bills would exempt the SLB from the state’s open meetings law, and another would expedite the process for state officials to conduct land swaps.

Governor Gordon had the opportunity to tell the people of Wyoming about this deal in his livestreamed State of the State address, but he didn’t. Two days later, the bills were filed.

Despite the near-unanimous support from legislative leaders, information about the specifics of the deal are being held close to the chest. The hypocrisy of Gordon mentioning his commitment to state government transparency in his State of the State address is not lost on me.

Gordon and his legislative enablers are controlling the narrative on this deal by controlling information. That may work in Cheyenne as state officials fast-track the legislation enabling the land negotiations through the 20-day legislative session. But out here in the rest of Wyoming, the lack of public information is accompanied by a stench of suspicion.

Want to get rid of the stink? Open the doors and operate in sunshine. The Wyoming public deserves far better than this.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Cat Urbigkit: Quickly and in Darkness, Wyo Gov’t Works to Buy 1 Million Acres

in Government spending/Cat Urbigkit/News/Column/politics
Wyoming
3103

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

I listened attentively to Governor Mark Gordon’s live-streamed State of the State address on Monday, Feb. 10. There was no mention of a proposal for our state government to purchase 1 million acres of private land in southern Wyoming in that address.

Two days later, on Feb. 12, two polished bills were filed in the Wyoming Legislature that would allow our state’s top officials to negotiate an undisclosed land deal, for an unknown price. 

Governor Gordon and our legislative leaders held a press conference on Monday, Feb. 17 in Cheyenne to announce the proposal – a full week after that live-streamed State of the State address.

Fortunately Casper Star-Tribune reporter Nick Reynolds was able to attend the press conference, because his breaking news article announcing the proposal is all we have to go on.

According to the article, the deal involves 1 million acres of private land and 4 million acres of mineral rights along the I-80 corridor that is held by Occidental Petroleum in an area of checkerboard land ownership.

This deal “would be part of an effort to improve public land access and generate revenues from its sale.”

Our state leaders called this a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity “to improve the state’s ability to raise revenues” according to the article.

For some, the thought of 1 million acres of private land being gobbled up by government – in a state that is already majority-owned by government – is a hard pill to swallow. Perhaps that’s why the legislation proposes to establish “payment in lieu of taxes” to local governments for loss of private lands from the tax rolls.

The proposed legislation also says “all state laws governing the management of state lands shall be applicable to assets purchased” so at least we know that the land could be subject to multiple uses. 

Another bill, House Bill 37, would expedite the process for the exchange of state lands for the purpose of public access to state lands, and this is also part of the legislative bundle to enable this land deal.

Reynold’s article also tells us that yet another bill, House Bill 222 would exempt members of the State Loan and Investment Board (SLIB) from provisions of the state’s public meetings law “which could be used to investigate details of the purchase prior to pursuing it.”

I’m glad Reynolds noted that because I had no idea that was the purpose when I read the bill itself. All the proposed bill says is that the SLIB board is exempt from the public meetings law “when meeting solely for the purpose of receiving education or training provided that the board shall take no action regarding public business during the meeting.”

Although this proposal has been worked on for months, according to Reynold’s article, the public became aware of it only yesterday.

The proposal, and the legislation enabling it, are being fast-tracked during this 20-day legislative session so that the deal can be negotiated this summer and perhaps completed by the end of the year. The Governor’s office has promised to issue a press release about the proposal later today.

I looked at the records on land parcels in Carbon and Sweetwater counties and when I searched for Occidental, got no results. Then I remembered that Occidental now owns Anadarko and that’s how the county GIS data lists the parcels.

Since we know very little about this whole deal, we can only assume it’s some of the parcels we’ve included in the screen captures accompanying this column. If you want a closer look, go to the GIS systems of Sweetwater County, and Carbon County and type “Anadarko” into the search engine.

It appears that some of the land in the deal is located in Colorado and Utah, and legislation allows for the sale of those parcels.

House Bill 249 would allow investment of unknown but substantial amounts of state funds for the deal, and Senate File 138 does the same. The fiscal notes for both bills are identical:

“The fiscal or personnel impact is not determinable due to insufficient time to complete the fiscal note process.

“This bill authorizes real property purchases from the following sources:

 The Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA)

The Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund

The Common School Permanent Land Fund and 

Other unobligated unencumbered funds to the State Loan and Investment Board or to the Board of Land Commissioners.

There is appropriated funds necessary from the State Building Commission Contingency Account.

There is appropriated funds necessary from the LSRA.”

I know that there needs to be some level of confidentiality in land purchases. But the State of Wyoming’s cavalier attitude that we the public should just trust our state leaders isn’t enough when it comes to this big of a deal. 

Let’s shine some light on our government. If the State wants us to go along on this land deal, then sell it to us.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Cat Urbigkit: The Fighter Leading the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

in Cat Urbigkit/Column
Aurelia Skipwith
3091

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Director (FWS) Aurelia Skipwith’s recent address at a meeting of the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) convention in Arizona gave reason for conservatives to cheer in hope – and for liberals to cringe in despair and send out fundraising letters in outrage.

Skipworth was confirmed as FWS Director in December 2019, and her unannounced visit to an ASI committee meeting has not been covered in depth by any media outlet. {It’s a sheep industry convention, so who would want to cover that? Answer: Yours truly, apparently the only media rep in that particular committee meeting.}

For a quick rundown on Skipwith’s bona fides, know that she got a bachelor’s degree in biology from Howard University before obtaining a master’s degree in molecular biology from Purdue, and a doctorate from the University of Kentucky’s College of Law.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Director Aurelia Skipwith

She’s been involved in using scientific advances to improve agricultural output and feed humans around the globe as co-founder of AVC Global (an agricultural value chain company), and in roles at Alltech, US Agency for International Development, Gage International, US Foreign Agricultural Service, and Monsanto (crop sciences).

Skipwith came to the Department of the Interior in the Trump Administration as deputy assistant secretary of fish, wildlife, and parks. Skipwith’s fiancé is a member of a longtime sheep-ranching family from the southeastern Montana’s metropolitan region of Alzada (population about 30).

Speaking to a group of our nation’s sheep producers, Skipwith focused on the importance of private lands, and working with landowners and state agencies in conservation efforts.

“We believe in property rights, and landowner rights,” she said. “We understand about keeping working lands working.” With 80 percent of the habitat for the nation’s 1,600 imperiled species found on private land, Skipwith noted that effective conservation comes from engaging with people who work the land and accommodating the needs of people while working to conserve wildlife.

FWS is the federal agency charged with conserving threatened and endangered species, but also manages the national wildlife refuge system, significant fisheries, and migratory birds.

Skipwith cited regulatory changes to the Endangered Species Act rolled out by her agency last year as part of an overall effort to provide regulatory predictability.

“We want to make sure that they are clear and effective, and that they do not impose undue burdens to people on the ground,” she said. Skipwith said that her agency’s decisions need to be based on sound science, the rule of law, and common sense.

“We are committed to strengthening and expanding our array of tools and incentives” for working with landowners, Skipwith said, including seeking out innovative partnerships for species conservation.

Last year’s regulatory changes were a start. “That was just the first traunch,” Skipwith said.“We have more that are coming.”

“I’ve been at the department for about three years now, and one thing that I can tell you I get tired of seeing on a regular, everyday basis, is the same cadre of environmental groups that come to say that we’re not doing something right,” Skipwith said. “They are constantly filing lawsuits – which does nothing but waste taxpayer dollars. They are making law firms rich, and they are funding these liberal extremist groups. And I will say that it does nothing for the environment, it does nothing to protect our species, and it does nothing to protect the habitat on which they depend.”

“When we make our announcement to delist, I know that in less than a day, there will be a lawsuit announced that the species needs to stay on the Endangered Species list,” she said. “That was not the intent of the Endangered Species Act. Getting a species off the list is something that should be celebrated, not something that should be followed with a lawsuit. I find that absolutely disgusting, at the end of the day.

“So I can assure you that we will fight the extremist groups that constantly file these lawsuits because the decisions that we make at the Department Of the Interior are based on sound science, and are based on the rule of law,” she said. “I know that’s one of the reasons that the president nominated me: because I am willing to fight.”

“I am keenly aware of the threats that is posed by extreme environmental groups, but I am also aware of the threats that large predators can pose to your livelihood as well,” she said. “I want to make sure that our position is clear: The grizzly bear has been recovered. The science shows that and we will fight to make sure that it’s delisted.

“We also believe that the gray wolf is biologically recovered and that is why it should also be removed from the list,” she said. “That is another success of the Endangered Species Act, but like the grizzly bear, due to litigation it still remains either federally listed as threatened or endangered, and so we are working really hard to make sure we can get it off the list.”

Skipwith received a standing ovation at the conclusion of her remarks.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Cat Urbigkit’s Legislative Preview: State Land Transfers, Wolves, Brucellosis

in Cat Urbigkit/Column
3007

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

The Wyoming Legislature is slated to begin its 2020 session on February 10. It’s a budget session, with a 24-day schedule and adjournment slated for March 12. With about 250 bills prefiled, readers are encouraged to browse the bills on the legislative website and contact their legislators to discuss their views.

Here’s a sample of what is being proposed.

House Bill 5 would give drivers the option of paying an additional $20 for a digital driver’s license and identification card. The applicant would be able to provide this digital license upon being stopped by an officer.

House Bill 13 would establish a sage grouse mitigation credit program to be administered by the state board of land commissioners.

House Bill 22 would prohibit counties, towns and cities from requiring allocations of affordable or workforce housing as a condition of development.

House Bill 28 would prohibit governmental entities from operating or participating in firearm buyback programs.

House Bill 33 would increase production requirements to $3,000 for land to be qualified as agricultural land for taxation purposes.

House Bill 35 would provide $90,000 for the Wyoming Department of Agriculture to develop a compensation program for wolf depredation on livestock in the area of the state where wolves as classified as a predatory animal.

House Bill 37 would allow the Wyoming State Land Board to develop an expedited process for the exchange of state lands (initiated by the lessee of the state lands) for private lands on a value-for-value basis, for the purpose of facilitating legal access to state or federal land.

House Bill 99 would allow livestock producers whose animals were quarantined for brucellosis containment efforts to submit a claim to the Wyoming Livestock Board for actual expenses related to the quarantine.

This bill is especially timely in that federal animal health officials switched their brucellosis testing protocols last fall, and the result was that producers in Montana and Wyoming experienced an elevated number of brucellosis reactor-level test results.

Of the 80,000 head of cattle tested for brucellosis in Wyoming’s fall run, there were 25 cattle in 16 total herds that were found to be “non-negative” for brucellosis. Those herds were then quarantined, but follow-up testing allowed quarantines to be lifted on 11 of the 16 herds.

According to Wyoming State Veterinarian Dr. Jim Logan, in late January there were still three Sublette County cattle herds, and two Park County cattle herds, remaining under quarantine.

A Senate bill (Senate File 6) proposes to allow state transportation officials to establish a tolling authority for Interstate 80 has been filed.

The Joint Judiciary Interim Committee has proposed putting some teeth into the state Ethics and Disclosure Act. Senate File 9 would expand the scope of the existing ethics law to cover local governmental entities and state employees, and substantially increase penalties for violation of this law.

Those convicted of using public office for private benefit, or of misusing the office, would be subject to penalties of up to fines of up to six months imprisonment and $750 for misdemeanor violations (where the total value of the benefit was less than $1,000), or imprisonment of up to 10 years and $10,000 for felony violations (wherein the total value of the benefit was $1,000 or more).

The Joint Education Interim Committee has proposed changes to the state law regarding student absenteeism and truancy. According to the revisions proposed under SF15, any parent, guardian, or custodian of a child violating compulsory attendance rules could be fined up to $150, and a child subjected to willful absenteeism is defined as a “neglected child” pursuant to the Child Protection Act.

Senate File 31 would require the University of Wyoming to prepare a yearly report on the land grant mission of the university, reviewing its ag department budget, accomplishments, and staffing and the benefits of the college to Wyoming’s agricultural economy.

Senate File 75, sponsored by the Select Water Committee, would change the process for applications for instream flows. Under the proposal, upon receiving an instream flow recommendation from the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, the Wyoming Water Development Commission (WWDC) would file for a permit for instream flow, to be followed by a public meeting in the local area. The WWDC could then select the instream flow segment for further study, or may disqualify that segment and withdraw the application. Interestingly, the bill notes that any selection or disqualification “shall be specifically exempt from all provisions of the Wyoming Administrative Procedures Act” so that the final WWDC is final and not subject to appeal.

Senate File 81 would allow for livestock brand renewal up to a period of 50 years (up from the current 10-year maximum).

Senate File 83 would amend existing law regarding budget and financial data reporting to require financial transaction information to be published on the internet – not just for state, county, and municipal governments, but for all special districts, airport boards, and any other political subdivisions.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Cat Urbigkit: Grizzly Bears, Cattle, and the Tangled Web of Activism

in Cat Urbigkit/Column
Grizzly Bear
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

In more of the same-old-predictable strategy, there have been two notices of intent to sue over conflicts between grizzly bears and cattle in the Upper Green River region of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Here’s a quick overview of that issue, then we’re taking a deep dive into who is threatening to sue.

Grizzly Decision

As the Forest Service authorized continued livestock grazing in the Upper Green, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Biological Opinion concluded: “In this biological opinion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) concludes that the anticipated adverse effects resulting from the issuance of grazing permits by the Forest for the Upper Green River Rangeland Project (the proposed action) for a period of 10 years (2019 through 2028) will not jeopardize the continued existence of the grizzly bear.

The Service reached this conclusion after reviewing the rangewide status of the species, the environmental baseline within the action area, and evaluating the effects of the proposed action and cumulative effects. The grizzly bear population within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has exceeded recovery goals and continues to expand into new locations, including into the Allotments.

The recovery and continued population expansion has occurred concurrent with the Forest implementing many of the actions described in the FEIS. This means historical activities, which are comparable to the proposed action, have had little to no discernible effect on the population’s trend toward recovery, and we do not expect continuation of these activities to reverse the trend.

“Based on population trends and the number of removals over the last nine years, the incidental take statement exempts a total of 72 grizzly bear mortalities over the 10-year timeframe of the proposed action. … Although we anticipate some level of take of grizzly bears primarily due to management removal within the allotments, it is our opinion that the proposed action will not appreciably reduce the likelihood of survival and recovery of grizzly bears.”

Grizzly Bears country

Notice to Sue

The first notice of intent to sue comes from the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Yellowstone to Uintas Connection, and Western Watersheds Project (WWP).

The second notice comes from the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club.

While most of these groups are familiar, a few aren’t so recognizable. The Alliance for the Wild Rockies is an admittedly small group based in Montana, with one staffer (Michael Garrity) and with a Board of Advisors that includes Earth First! co-founder Howie Wolke (who spent six months in a Sublette County jail a few decades ago after pulling up survey stakes for a drilling location in the Hoback), and anti-grazing activist and writer George Wuerthner. So that group is a good fit with their partners at WWP.

Y2U

The Yellowstone to Uintas Connection (Y2U) is a relatively new name, so I did a quick internet search that took me down a rabbit hole. Y2U opposes livestock grazing in the Upper Green.

According to an article, Jason Christensen is the Y2U director, and is the foster son of anti-grazing activist John Carter.

Carter served on the board of WWP for years, and is now part of an effort to get the US Forest Service to regulate the use of livestock guardian dogs as part of livestock grazing permits, and is pushing for state laws requiring working dogs be spayed, neutered, microchipped, undergo mandatory veterinary checks, etc. Considering Carter’s long-time activism against livestock grazing, some may hold skepticism for his motivations.

The article noted that Carter lives “with his dogs on a 824-acre conservation easement created by Y2U in Paris, Canyon Idaho. The property, dubbed Kiesha’s Preserve is explained on the website kieshapreserve.org.” That website notes: “Going forward, as we acquire additional funding, more land will be purchased and set aside in conservation easements. This will ensure permanent protection of the Preserve and enable it to continue to provide essential ecosystem services to the surrounding communities.”

The Preserve

The preserve appears to be mostly serving as a private preserve for Carter, but it accepts financial contributions which its website notes are not tax deductible. The preserve website adds, “You can also support our work with our partner Yellowstone to Uintas Connection, for example, our Forest and BLM road closure and fencing projects. These are tax-deductible.”

Thus,Y2U uses tax-deductible contributions to retrofit the preserve’s fences for Carter’s private playground. And one of the Y2U board members is a fencing contractor. According to the preserve’s website, they’ve spent about $150,000 on the preserve’s fences so far.

Who is on the board of Y2U? The eight-member board includes: John Carter; retired Florida real estate saleswoman Susan Warren; Warren’s Alaska-based son Guy Warren; retired Utah State University wildlife ecologist turned cattle-critic Barrie Gilbert of Canada; Paris, Idaho-based fencing company owner Jeremiah Mattson; political activist Jack Greene of Utah; and two other people who also serve on both the board and staff.

The Y2U six-member staff includes three people who also serve on the board. John Carter is listed as both a staff member and a board member. Carter’s foster son Jason Christensen, the director of the organization, is a staff member also, as is his wife Kandis.

According to Y2U’s 2018 tax filing (the most recent year available), Carter’s son and daughter-in-law were paid staff members for the organization, and of the organization’s $90,000 in revenue received that tax year, $70,000 went to salaries or other compensation for staff, while another $4,000 went to professional fees or payments to independent contractors.

Who owns the Preserve?

That Carter lives on a 824-acre preserve “created by Y2U” (a group that Carter founded, and for which he serves on both board and staff, and two of his family members are also listed as staff) was intriguing, so I searched further. Y2U claims that it “created” the preserve, and “manages” the reserve where Carter lives. But recent tax documents indicate Carter still owns the property.

I found a document that Carter had written that describes his purchasing a 20-acre rural subdivision parcel, then was disgruntled that other people could do the same, so he started buying more parcels.

The undated prospectus document explains “I am seeking funding to retire the development rights and place the property into a conservation easement.” Carter provided a sworn statement to a federal court about his ownership of the preserve last year.

In a 2017 letter to the U.S. Forest Service from the Yellowstone to Uintas Connection, Y2U noted it also represented “KM Ranch LLC, owner of 914 acres of private land along the Paris Canyon trailing route to the project area. Most of this property is set aside in a conservation easement to protect and restore the winter range and sage grouse habitat that occurs therein.”

According to Utah public records, KM Ranch, LLC was registered in Utah from 2007 through 2016, doing business as Kiesha’s Reserve, and was voluntarily dissolved at that time, at which point it became registered as a business entity in Idaho.

John Carter is the registered agent for KM Ranch, LLC in both states. While in Utah, the mailing address for this business entity was the same as Y2U’s address, and in Idaho, the address between the business entity, John Carter, Kiesha’s Preserve, and Y2U are all the same.

It is unclear what entity holds a conservation easement for the preserve property. Idaho tax records reveal tax assessments were issued to KM Ranch, LLC in 2018, covering about 12 parcels totaling 867 acres, and mailed to the Carter/Kiesha’s Preserve/Y2U address in Paris, Idaho.

Y2U’s website claims Kiesha’s Preserve totals 1,034 acres protected through conservation easements and “The preserve is now managed by Yellowstone to Uintas Connection.”

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Colorado Wolf Reintroduction: Why it Doesn’t Make Any Sense

in Cat Urbigkit/Column
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Wolf advocates are celebrating the 25-year anniversary of transplanting wolves into Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho, at the same time the campaign heats up for the ballot-box measure to conduct a similar transplant program on Colorado’s western slope.

It’s my view that to support such efforts requires either a blissful or willful ignorance of the Endangered Species Act and the science underlying its application.

I’ve long been a fan of the Endangered Species Act’s (ESA) purpose to provide programs for the conservation of imperiled species, just as I am also a critic of efforts that leave species under federal protection long after the biological justification for doing so has ended.

The ESA isn’t meant to be a popularity contest for charismatic species; science is to be the driving factor for conservation of truly imperiled species. The act defines species to include “any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature.”

It’s with the act’s noble goals in mind that I became fascinated with the distinction of unique ecological units, and how such units are defined and managed. We find these distinct ecological units in populations here in Wyoming, from the Kendall Warm Springs Dace (a fish), to the Big Piney Milkvetch (a beautiful high-elevation cushion plant).

But in terms of defining unique ecological units, definitions exist in two worlds – one in science, the other in policy. When it came to the wolf reintroduction program for Yellowstone, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service brazenly proclaimed “a wolf is a wolf” in selecting wolves from northern Canada to be placed in Yellowstone park.

The Canadian wolves came from packs located some 550-750 miles north of Yellowstone, and from a different subspecies of wolf than was native to the Yellowstone region. The National Park Service (the same agency now aerial gunning mountain goats in Grand Teton National Park because they are non-native) fully supported the move.

Wolf managers purposefully ignored the biological implications involved in selecting Canadian wolves. Since wolf reintroduction is now 25 years behind us, why should we care now? Because what comes next may have huge impacts.

There is no doubt that Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, is a distinct ecological unit. It primarily inhabits Mexico, but our nation’s recovery program is focused in Arizona and New Mexico.

Should voters force the release of northern gray wolves into Colorado, those transplanted wolves could pose a threat to the survival of the truly endangered Mexican wolves found to the south.

Female wolf with pups at a den in Sublette County, Wyoming in 1906. Photo by Vernon Bailey. Wyoming State Archives.

It’s a concern that scientists have written about long before the ballot measure became an issue: “Interbreeding of Northwestern wolves from Canadian sources and Mexican wolves does not represent the historical cline of body size and genetic diversity in the Southwest.

If Northwestern wolves come to occupy Mexican wolf recovery areas, these physically larger wolves are likely to dominate smaller Mexican wolves and quickly occupy breeding positions, as will their hybrid offspring. Hybrid population(s) thus derived will not contribute towards recovery because they will significantly threaten integrity of the listed entity.”

So if you are an animal advocate concerned about upholding the integrity of the ESA and actually conserving critically threatened species, you won’t be supporting the transplantation of northern wolves within such close range to Mexican wolves.

While I doubt that we will ever recover Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico (Mexico provides its habitat stronghold and that is where hope resides), I have no doubt that transplantation of a more abundant and widespread northern gray wolf type into Colorado will hasten the decline of the Mexican wolf population in America.

The Northern Rockies wolf reintroduction program has become so “successful” that the transplanted wolf population has expanded to other states in the northwest, including Washington and Oregon.

Wolf expansion into Washington has become complex in that the wolf population in Washington is now composed of a combination of two specific wolf ecotypes: the coastal rainforest wolf (from coastal British Columbia and southeastern Alaska), which is declining in numbers; and the more abundant Northern Rocky Mountain (interior forest) wolves resulting from the Yellowstone reintroduction program.

The coastal wolves (sometimes called the Pacific Northwest wolves, or Alexander Archipelago wolves) are known for behavioral, morphological, and genetic differences that separate them from inland wolves. The wolves have gained fame for their reliance on salmon as a primary food source.

To further complicate the plight of distinct wolf populations like that of the Mexican wolf are red wolves – a distinct wolf species more commonly known from the failing recovery program in North Carolina, but originating in Louisiana and Texas.

While red wolves were declared functionally extinct in the wild, there have been recent discoveries of red wolves surviving in wild enclaves in both Texas and Louisiana in the last few years – survivors of remnant populations.

As the researchers note, “rediscovery of red wolf ancestry after almost 40 years introduces both positive opportunities for additional conservation action and difficult policy challenges.” But we can’t even discuss those policy challenges while wolf advocates continue with the cavalier “a wolf is a wolf” policy in public discussions.

It is possible to support wolf conservation by opposing transplants of wolves without a full understanding of the complexities involved. To learn more about the intricacies of wolf subspecies and hybridization, don’t look to propaganda presented by advocates, but check out the work of the National Academies of Science Wolf Taxonomy Committee.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

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