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Range Writing

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

in Column/Range Writing
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 Column/Government spending/News/politics/Range Writing
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 Column/Range Writing
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 Column/Range Writing
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 Column/Range Writing
Grizzly Bear
2934

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 Column/Range Writing
2830

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.

Ignorant Food Zealots Reject Agriculture

in Column/Range Writing/Uncategorized
2749

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Hollywood’s Golden Globe Awards ceremony made the news for its climate-change awareness with much ado about its meat-free dinner.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), which organizes the event, made the decision to serve an entirely plant-based meal out of concern for climate change.

That was apparently the extent of the climate change concern, since thousands of flowers that decorated the ballroom were flown in by jet from Ecuador and Italy.

I haven’t seen an estimate of how many Italian flowers were used this year, but 10,000 blooms came from Ecuador, and last year, 20,000 tulips were flown in from Holland.

It seems odd that such extravagance is necessary when all the luxuries needed to stun attendees could be harvested right there in California.

Organic meats are raised in natural grazing systems throughout the state, and California also happens to be the largest cut-flower producing state in the nation. If HFPA wanted to have a positive impact on the environment and the climate, it could simply reduce its impact by buying local.

The awards came during the strange month of Veganuary, in which people are encouraged to go vegan for the month – omitting all animal products from their diets, as if animals are the worst things for the planet.

The Guardian columnist George Monbiot certainly thinks so. His view is that food farming and fishing “are the most environmentally damaging of all industries.”

He’s predicted the end of food farming (not just animal farming) within a few decades, claiming that the world’s population should soon be fed on food created in labs from bacteria, and all we would need to grow is some fruit and vegetables. He claims commercial fishing is a worse threat to the world’s oceans than plastics. And he gets paid to write this stuff.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s estimate of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions include agriculture’s 9% share. Of agriculture’s 9%, only one-third is due methane emissions from livestock.

Take a look at EPA’s emission’s pie-chart and then try to explain why animal agriculture is receiving so much negative attention as the cause of the climate crisis by the jet-setters.

Even on a global scale, agriculture (all agriculture, not just animal ag) is responsible for only 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, so the assault on ag seems all far of proportion to its impact.

Yet the notion that animal agriculture has a huge negative impact on climate has taken hold: Note the hypocrisy of an actor (Joaquin Phoenix) flying to the nation’s capital for one of Jane Fonda’s Friday climate change protests so he could urge people to not eat meat. He actually flew across the country to deliver the anti-meat message.

The New York Times recently published a column on Effortless Environmentalism, suggesting consumers should eat less meat and fewer dairy products, and that we can also pay for our sins by buying carbon offsets for air travel.

Curious about how one could pay money to offset air travel emissions, I found that the money goes to projects such as this one “by protecting land from conversion to agricultural, a rich ecological habitat is maintained.”

But the land is already agricultural: a working cattle ranch in Colorado. The money to “offset” emissions simply goes to fund a conservation easement so the land can continue to be operated as it has in the past.

Another project on the same site was also for a conservation easement – paying the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania to not allow commercial timber harvest within its confines.

Other projects simply provided further protection for land that was already under some level of protected status, or to fund monitoring and management of these protected areas, or to expand national park borders in other countries.

Since I have a few United Airlines flights in the coming weeks, I checked into buying carbon offsets for those flights directly from the airline. And learned that my sin-money would then be passed to Conservation International.

I checked out Delta’s program, and found: “Donations support forest conservation and restoration efforts while empowering local communities to transition to sustainable livelihoods.” Delta’s carbon offset funding apparently goes to The Nature Conservancy.

While many of these carbon-offset programs simply fund environmental groups, I suggest that if you really want to pay to offset your air travel emissions, you might want to examine where your money will be spent.

I found great projects coordinated by terrapass, including those that enable farms to make better use of animal waste, and landfill gas capture projects turning garbage into energy.

England’s vegan activist/columnist Monbiot fronted a show called Apocalypse Cow in which he put forth the argument that farming is the ruin of the world, and food farming needs to be replaced by factories producing food from bacteria. Yes, to save the world, food farming must be wiped from the face of the earth.

What these anti-animal-ag activists tend to ignore is that across large swaths of the world, livestock are grazed in areas that are otherwise unsuitable for food production; and all food production has an environmental impact. The planting of monocultures (row crops) for vegetable production is not really known an environmentally friendly method of food production.

They’ve also forgotten the precaution about not putting all your eggs in one basket. Centralizing food production into industrial settings is trending, but we know that disease outbreaks in such facilities can cause catastrophic loss.

Just look at China’s current pig crisis – the world’s largest animal disease outbreak. The same concern applies to food crops: Remember the Irish potato famine? The blight hitting potato crops ending up causing the death of about one million people.

Advocating the mass-production of food in laboratory or industrial settings is pushed by zealots who fail to recognize the tremendous risk to humanity’s food security. When we look at food production on a global scale, we find inequality, with food insecurity, hunger, and poverty. That we would take action to cause further harm is appalling.

Efforts to have giant food-technology businesses monopolize the world food supply should be rejected. Instead, grow local, buy local, eat local. Don’t adopt a system of industrial ag over regenerative farming techniques that sequester carbon and improve soil health.

In all our discussions about global meat production, we rarely mention the significant pillars of the foundation of animal agriculture. One is the religious beliefs that tie people to domestic animals, and the rich cultural heritage of tending to animals throughout human history (in various ethnic groups around the globe and over time).

We neglect the importance of the second part of the word: agriculture. Agriculture is based on culture, which means to cultivate or grow, but also includes “the concepts, habits, skills, art, instruments, institutions, etc. of given people in a given period; civilization.”

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.

Travel Troubles

in Column/Range Writing
2705

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

For all the international travel I’ve been fortunate to experience, I’ve had amazingly good luck. But that luck had to run out, and my trip to Canada last week was the time.

I started out by waking up too early in the morning, getting all the ranch work done and then heading to the Jackson airport. It was snowing and cold, but the plane took off for San Francisco without a hitch. I landed with a leisurely layover before my flight to Calgary and that’s when things started to go wrong.

I received a phone call that after 19 blissful wolf-free days on the ranch, a new pack had made its presence known and had scattered the elk from a nearby feedground. I relayed the information back to my family at home and tried not to worry.

The plane was delayed, first for a half-hour, then for another half-hour. By the time all the half-hours went by, it was three hours late and I landed in Canada about 1 a.m.

After being up for some 23 hours by then, I was exhausted and barely able to keep from arguing with the pushy car rental agent who wanted me to purchase insurance I didn’t need, and warned me I was personally responsible for the navigation system I’d rented as a backup (in case I found myself out of cell range in my drive to a rural area where I was slated to speak the next day).

Oops, by then it was already the next day. I went out into the -17° cold to meet my rental “smart car.” My family thinks it is hysterically funny to picture me driving such an advancement in technology, since my normal rig is a feed truck on the ranch.

I find a sleek car in the rental space and look down to see I’m holding a key fob with no key. I pushed the first button on the fob only to find it set off the blast of the car’s emergency alarm.

Although there was no other fool out in the dark and cold to hear the blast, I frantically pushed more buttons, finally shutting off the alarm and getting the danged vehicle unlocked. I hopped in and automatically moved to push the nonexistent key into the nonexistent key-starter – only to find a button. I look again at the key fob and realize my mistake. I push the button, but nothing happens.

After pushing it a few more times, a text appeared on the car’s dash instructing me that if I want to start the car I should push on the brake before hitting the starter button. Okay, done. Yaay, some heat to take off the chill as the car defrosts.

I got myself organized in the car and booted up the navigation system, plugging in the name of the hotel where I had a room waiting, but the system didn’t recognize it.

I then typed in the address, with the same result. I pulled out my cell phone and found that it had no service, and wasn’t able to roam on a Canadian provider. Great. Middle of the night, Calgary, no idea how to get where I need to be.

I headed south, finding the first flaw of the “smart” car: its lights don’t automatically turn on. I pulled over to find the lights on the steering column before continuing on my way, attempting and failing to find my hotel. After about 20 minutes, I gave up and I found another hotel with an available room.

After dropping $150 for three hours of hotel room rental, I was back on the road again (using an actual paper highway map), headed to a town two hours south – in a snow storm in my rented smart car.

The dashboard continually provided insights into my driving, contrasting whether my driving was “economical” or “aggressive.” So great, the car was “judgy” too, which probably made me slightly more aggressive as I engaged in war with the car.

After an hour, the car suggested I take a break, tempting me with an image of a steaming cup of coffee. I ignored it and drove on. It continued to make obnoxious suggestions as I drove, yet warning me about every slight curve in the wide, well-maintained, divided highway.

I arrived in the town where I was to join a rancher forum for the day, and stopped to search the rented navigation system for the location of the meeting. The navigation system had never heard of such a place, or such an address.

A helpful convenience store clerk explained that the place may have a new name on the building, but it was known as the Elks Lodge and that I would find it just past the local Dodge dealership. That’s the kind of navigation I could follow, and soon arrived at my destination. Only to find my cell phone (with my schedule and reservations detailed in its electronic calendar) was missing.

I raced back to the convenience store, where a nice passerby had found my phone where I had dropped it in the snow. It had been recently run over by a vehicle. Oh yes, another complication in my sleep-deprived travels.

Fortunately, the meeting went smoothly, and was well attended by ranchers throughout the region despite the snowstorm. I borrowed some internet time for a quick search of the location of the hotel I had failed to find during the night and headed back toward Calgary, reaching the city in time for rush-hour, stop-and-go traffic.

My judgy rental car finally decided my driving was economical by the time I reached my long-lost hotel and I dropped into an exhausted sleep.

With an early morning flight, I returned the car to the rental lot and locked it. The placard outside the unmanned station instructed me to drop the keys and the rental agreement in the box provided. But the box was only large enough for the key fob.

I spoke with another befuddled car renter about what to do, and we decided to drop the keys in the box but take the agreements back to the rental desk inside the airport.

I had packed the worthless navigation system back into its carrying case and we ran through the cold to the rental desk. Which was unmanned. We tucked our rental agreements (detailing the mileage driven and proving we had returned the cars with full tanks) and the navigation system behind the desk and hurried through the terminal to begin the security process.

By the time I could check telephone messages on a layover back in America, I learned the car rental company was looking for me – something about a missing navigation system.

Although I tried to return the call numerous times, the rental company refused to answer the phone but had maxed out the available credit on my credit card.

The next flights went smoothly, and I landed back in Jackson to be met by Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce members welcoming travelers to the valley and handing out free mimosas near the luggage kiosk.

Mercifully I made it back to the ranch with no further mishaps, where I’ll be spending hours hounding the rental car company, talking to the credit card company, and ordering a new cell phone.

I’ll happily fire up my stupid, ugly, and unjudgy ranch truck that has manual windows and door locks, and that doesn’t try to convince me to take a break despite not getting out of four-wheel-drive for four months of the year.

We’ll be navigating around the ranch in the snow, searching for wolf tracks and escaping the advancements in technology that have made life so easy.

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@iclou

The Value of Rural Subdivisions

in Agriculture/Column/Range Writing
Sublette County
2649

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Private ranches help to preserve open space and wildlife habitat, while urban dwelling condenses the size of the human imprint on the landscape. These benefits are readily understood, but the importance of rural subdivisions to local communities is often overlooked.

Rural subdivisions suffer from love/hate status. While many residents hate to see fragmentation of rural land, many other people dream of living on a few acres outside of town. They love the freedom offered by rural living, including raising their children with more outdoor space, and having animals that would be prohibited by municipal living. The large percentage of government land ownership in Wyoming serves to make land use planning for private property all the more critical since energy development on public land can cause a large influx of people in need of housing, yet the burden for providing housing falls to the limited amount of private land available.

Nearly half of Wyoming is managed by the federal government, and Wyoming continues to maintain its status as having the lowest human population of any state in the union. With our traditional public lands-based boom-and-bust energy cycle comes tremendous ebbs and flows in our human population. Sublette County is a prime example. With less than 6,000 residents in the county in 2000, the county boomed to a high of 10,476 people by 2012, with most of this growth associated with net migration due to energy development. With the energy bust, the county population declined more than 6 percent by 2019, to just over 9,800 people.

With the bust, Sublette County lost about 663 residents from its peak population. By 2017, 46 percent of Sublette County’s housing units were classified as vacant. That’s a startlingly high vacancy rate, but Sublette County has long been known for its hosting of “second” homes to people living outside the county. About 68 percent of the county’s vacant units are for seasonal, recreational, or occasional use (second homes), and 15 percent of the county’s vacant units are for rent or sale. But another 15 percent (428 homes) are classified as “other” vacant, which means they are not for sale or rent, or otherwise available to the marketplace. According to the Wyoming Community Development Authority, “These units may be problematic if concentrated in certain areas, and may create a ‘blighting’ effect.”

Although we lost more than 660 residents, what we see now is that some of the people who moved to Sublette County to work in the gas fields have decided to stay; either hanging on to what energy jobs are available, or finding other ways to make a living. They may have moved here for the boom, but have determined to stay for other reasons, despite the economic downturn. While some of these residents live in town, and some have constructed homes on large acreages, most often I see their presence reflected in rural subdivisions. They have greenhouses, art studios, vegetable gardens, and chicken coops. The kids learn to ride bicycles on dirt driveways; they construct primitive forts in their yards; and they go out into the pasture to “camp” in the summer. They wade in irrigation ditches on hot days, ride incessant laps on snow machines and dirt bikes, and feed calves, pigs, and lambs for show at the county fair.

Most of these families have animals – cats and dogs, chickens and other fowl, small and large livestock, and horses – and all of these animals require both space and food. Since the acreages are too small to be self-sustaining for their domestic animals, animal feedstuffs must be purchased and brought in, which adds to the local economy. I drive by a busy feedstore across from a rural subdivision every time I drive to town.

Although some decry rural subdivision of land for its scarring of the landscape and harm to nature, I maintain that for these rural residents, they are living as close to nature (blemished though it may be) as they possibly can. Their animals are what connect them to the land, and when the jobs that brought them here may go elsewhere, it is the land and animals that keep them here.

While some may notice the horses standing in a dirt-packed corral, I see that the horse owners have corralled the horses to give their limited pasture time to rest and grow. I see those horses loaded for roping competitions, fairs and rodeos, for family pack trips and hunting adventures, and for kids to ride bareback on the vast public lands nearby, where the kids climb off to explore horned toads and other wonders of nature that surround them.

While some see rural sprawl, I notice the installation of flowerbeds, scattered wildflowers over septic systems, and boxes lovingly crafted for bats, bluebirds, and kestrels. I see people who have taken some level of food security into their own hands, raising animals to provide meat for the freezer, and living and learning about the cycle of life and death, and knowing where their food comes from.

All forms of living have both societal and environmental impacts (negative and positive), but rural subdivisions are often maligned. This view fails to recognize that people can be drawn to our communities with properties in rural subdivisions, and these rural ranchettes can serve as anchors that connect communities while supporting local economies.

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.

Resolve to Childish Rules

in Column/Range Writing
Determination
2615

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

With the ringing-in of a new year, it’s that time when we feel the need to make resolutions, most of which are quickly broken. I know, I know; this time it’s going to be different. Really? I’m of the mind that rather than making new resolutions, we adults need to revisit and relearn some of the vital lessons of childhood. 

You know the basics: make your bed when you get up, bathe often, brush your teeth, wear pants if there is company, and don’t bother an adult until that adult has had coffee. Don’t pick up snakes. Don’t throw fits, or rocks, or call people names.

Share and take turns, and no fake crying. Chew with your mouth closed, and introduce yourself first when making a phone call before asking who is on the other end of the line. Don’t ask if we’re there yet. Sit down to eat your dinner. Try not to break anything.

Use your manners: say please and thank you, and take your hat off when you enter a building. Look people in the eye when you’re talking to them. If you make a mess, clean it up. Hold the door open for others.

If it’s none of your business, don’t ask. If it’s not right, don’t do it. If it’s not yours, don’t take it. Keep your hands to yourself. Don’t cheat. Remember that just because someone else is doing it doesn’t make it okay. Don’t talk about poop at the table.

Treat others how you wish to be treated. When you’re wrong, apologize. Forgive each other. Work hard, try new things, ask questions, make mistakes, and learn. No, you can’t beat your brother/sister/person with a stick. Insults don’t win arguments. Try not to hurt others. When you’re mad and frustrated, try not to yell too much. Work on using your inside voice. 

Plant a seed and water it. Skip rocks. Play fair. Be kind to animals. Be respectful and honest. Do it if it makes someone happy; don’t do it if it makes someone sad. Get dirty and have fun. Know that meanness is ugly, and kindness is beautiful. Watch the clouds float by. Marvel at stars at night.

Do hard things. Eat dessert first. Respect others. Take naps. Dream big. Treasure friendships. Root for the underdog. Don’t be a bully. Stand up for yourself, and for others. Do your best, and help each other.

Find time to play. Dangle your toes in a pond, creek, lake, or ditch. Sing in the car. Dance when you feel like it. Laugh often. Hug often. Stay awake reading a good book; fall asleep reading a good book. Make a snowman. Believe in yourself. Do good works, even when no one is watching. Be grateful for good things.

May the new year be your best year yet. And try not to bite anyone.

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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