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Cat Urbigkit

Cat Urbigkit: From Spring’s Awe, to Summer’s Awful

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by Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

I’ve spent the last month alternating shifts with other family members as we camped on the range with a sheep flock for lambing. The sagebrush rangeland was been blessed by frequent rain and snow this spring, and conditions were ideal for enjoying the splendors of this season of renewal.

Lambing season is the most beautiful time of year in our ranching enterprise, as we supervise our fine wooled Rambouillet ewes giving birth. The ewes rarely require assistance, and our job is to make sure everything stays quiet and calm so the ewes can tend to their newborns without disturbance. 

The livestock guardian dogs take the night shift, keeping predators at a distance. We human herders spend the daylight hours watching over the flock, and directing its movements to new grazing areas, to water, and to hilltops to bed for the night. Our herding dogs help us as we backtrack the flock, making sure no lambs have continued snoozing contentedly in the brush as the flock moves.

Our primary task is to keep watch, and there is much to see. Discovering horned toads provokes a child-like sense of wonder, as does encountering pronghorn antelope fawns secreted in the contours of the landscape. We see wildflowers springing forth in brilliant bloom from hardy cushion plants, catch glimpses of sage grouse hens escorting their broods through the sagebrush sea, and laugh when we catch burrowing owls scowling at us from their burrows. 

The overwhelming magnificence of a quiet, starlit night is both seen and felt, as is bearing witness to a dark wall engulfing the horizon as a snowstorm roars across the landscape. In this environment that inspires such awe, I understand the wisdom in Aristotle’s, “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.”

As spring’s lambing season draws to a close, my reprieve from society concludes. As though summer sun glares seem to blind humanity of its sense of awe, at my return I find awfulness in abundance.

The news is awful, from the international arena to local. Russia continues its assault on Ukraine, targeting innocent civilians. Tens of thousands of Maasai pastoralists are being forcibly evicted from their ancestral lands by the Tanzania government so that a foreign company can use the land for a luxury game preserve. Mass shootings in communities, from New York to Texas. Dozens of people are found dead, locked in an abandoned tractor-trailer in Texas. Casting aside 49 years of precedent, our nation’s highest court eliminated a woman’s right to obtain an abortion – an action in which some rejoice, though I join others in mourning.

The Biden administration is busy rolling back policies of the Trump administration, which had rolled back Obama’s policies. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has proposed that it should be able to transplant endangered species outside their historic ranges – because it still hasn’t learned lessons from the past.

Wyoming PBS’s mission to provide service to Wyoming citizens which “helps them more fully understand and participate in local, national and global events that affect their lives,” is furthered by hosting a public debate for Republican candidates for U.S. House. After receiving pushback from its decision to exclude both the public and the media from attending the event, PBS will now allow some media to be present. That’s progress, but the nonprofit failed to invite even one of Wyoming’s female political reporters to participate as a panelist. Instead of selecting just one of these highly qualified, award-winning political reporters, in a nod to establishment, the public will be presented with a man panel that does not reflect the diversity of the candidates they will be questioning.

Our politics is polarized, our humanity lacking in humaneness. Plenty of hateful rhetoric but a drought of proposing solutions. Conspiracy theories instead of truth. Too much casting blame and too little consideration of merits of ideas. Awfulness.

After experiencing a springtime of renewal, perhaps it’s appropriate that this is the way of the world as we enter summer, the season of heat, with higher crime rates, accidents, and mosquitos. 

I’m not a summer creature. While some will bask in the heat, I’ll be seeking the shade in the high country alongside our flock, joining other creatures in the shadows while waiting for the harvest, the ripeness, maturity, and the refreshing cool that comes with the arrival of the fall.

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.

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Cat Urbigkit: Sublette Lets the Sunshine In On Taxation Issue

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by Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

At Tuesday’s regular business meeting, the five members of the Sublette County Commission unanimously voted to release attorney/client communications regarding the county’s fire mill levy in response to a Wyoming Public Records Act request, and then held a public discussion of the taxation issue for more than an hour.

The meeting room was fairly crowded, with attendees including the mayors and legal counsel for the incorporated towns in the county who had been specifically invited to join in the discussion at the meeting.

The communications included a 12-page analysis of the way the commission had levied up to one mill for Sublette County Unified Fire services in the county.

As reported in last week’s column, when Sublette County unified its local fire departments into one countywide department in 2015, it continued to tax a portion of a mill for fire protection in the unincorporated areas of the county. Residents of the incorporated towns were never subjected to the county tax.


In anticipation of the commission’s decision to publicly release the document from the County Attorney’s office, Sublette County Clerk Carrie Long prepared a large stack of copies to be distributed to the public attending the session.

Written by Chief Deputy County Attorney Clayton Melinkovich, the memo included several startling revelations. The first is the County Attorney’s determination that “the County has no authority, statutory or otherwise, to assess a mill levy for fire protection services, and as such the practice of doing so is unlawful.”

The memo reported that there is no time limitation for refunds of an illegal erroneous collection of a tax and pointed out that Sublette County has collected more than $11 million from its fire protection levy in the last five years.

Not only did Sublette County improperly impose the Fire Mill tax levy, the County Attorney’s office advised that the County also violated state and federal laws by failing to apply its General Fund tax levy uniformly throughout the county by not taxing properties located within the three incorporated towns (Big Piney, Marbleton, and Pinedale). County officials estimate that this failure represents an undertaxation of about $42,000 per year, or about $36 per person residing in the towns.

Executive Session

My column last week criticized the county commission for holding its discussion of this taxation issue in executive session on June 7. An email communication to county officials dated June 3 from Melinkovich, released in response to the Wyoming Public Records Act request, summarized the situation going into that meeting:

• “the County has not had the authority to assess a ‘fire mill’ since 2015”

• “A tax collected without proper authority would likely be found to be erroneous/illegal”

• “Erroneous or illegally collected taxes are subject to refund or credit against future payments.”

• “Eliminating Sublette County’s ‘fire mill’ and absorbing that amount into the County’s general fund levy and taxing all properties within the County uniformly would protect all dollars collected in the future from being subject to refund.”

The June 3 email was sent to prepare the Board of County Commissioners for its June 7 business meeting. The email noted: “We will be discussing whether the County is appropriately assessing a fire mill at Tuesday’s meeting.

The agenda has a brief executive session prior to the discussion for the purposes of providing the opportunity for the Board to ask any questions about the legal aspects of the attached memo or the issue and what potentially could happen next.

If the Board ultimately chooses to make a change and absorb the amount that has been levied as a ‘fire mill’ into the County General fund mill levy, this decision would need to be made through Board action. Thus, a motion, discussion, and vote would need to take place in open session.”

But the County Commission didn’t hold any of the discussion in open session at that June 7 meeting, and the public generally was unaware of the taxation issue until my column was published last week. In my view, this week’s release of documents and full discussion in open session, resolves the lack-of-transparency issue.

Changing Taxation

After discussion of the issue at length between county and town officials on Tuesday, Sublette County Commissioner Sam White said he was ready for the commission to make a decision, to take action. “I think we are doing it wrong and we need to change the way we are doing this,” he said.

Although Commission Chairman Joel Bousman pressed to request an Attorney General’s opinion on the matter, Commissioner Tom Noble said that legal opinions are just that (opinions) and “only a judge” could make the legal determination.

In the end, the commission took action as White had suggested. Prompting Melkinovich to provide the proper verbiage, Commissioner Doug Vickrey make a motion to eliminate the Fire Mill levy from the county taxation in the future. The motion was seconded by Commissioner Dave Stephens, and passed on a vote of 4-0, with Bousman abstaining from the vote.

Going Forward

This week’s action means that Sublette County will no longer impose a Fire Mill levy and will now begin to tax its General Fund levy on property owners within the incorporated towns to comply with the Wyoming Constitution’s Article 15 provision that taxation “be equal and uniform.”

The county’s fire protection program will now be a part of the General Fund budget, on par with other departments such as the road and bridge department and the sheriff’s office.

That also means that the revenue stream generated from Sublette County Unified Fire’s (SCUF) work on federal wildfires throughout the western states will no longer be protected by its designation into a restricted fund used to replace aging equipment and fire halls.

Instead, the revenues generated by Unified Fire will go into the General Fund to be spent by the county commission as it wishes (and will no longer be earmarked exclusively for fire purposes).

That issue was of considerable concern for many attendees at Tuesday’s meeting. Representatives from the towns expressed their continued support for SCUF and the existing structure of the town-county deal in which the county provides fire protection for the towns, prompting the commission to agree that the exiting program works well and expressing their support for the importance of the fire protection program.

In the end, it will be the sitting board of county commissioners that decide how much money is spent on the SCUF program every year when it adopts the upcoming budget. That’s been the way the program has operated in the past, but from now on, the revenues generated by SCUF will no longer be set aside specifically back into that program.

By the time the session concluded Tuesday, what the commission didn’t address was how to correct the mistaken taxation imposed since 2015. My guess is that any action on that front would only be prompted by a legal filing from a county taxpayer.

A full audio recording of Tuesday’s commission meeting is available here. The Fire Mill Levy agenda item begins around 1:25:44.

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.

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Cat Urbigkit: Uncovering Sublette’s Secrets

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

There’s bad blood between the Sublette County Commission and Sublette County Attorney Mike Crosson. Crosson claims there is a “deep state” operating in Sublette County and has been vocal with his complaints against a county administrator, sheriff, and other county government leadership. Here’s a backgrounder by the Pinedale Roundup’s Brady Oltmans.

Even Crosson’s annual budget request submitted in April this year included a dressing-down to the board of county commissioners, which Crosson claimed “miserably failed to uphold the three basic conservative Republican core values of low taxes, small government, and fiscal responsibility.”

The conflict with the County Attorney Crosson hasbecome so extreme that the county commission requested the presence of law enforcement in its business meetings when Crosson is in attendance.

That bad blood may be impacting how the Sublette County Commission is responding to a taxation conundrum the county now faces.

Last week, when the Sublette County Commission met for its regularly scheduled commission meeting, on its agenda was an item noted as the “fire mill levy discussion.”

Unable to attend the meeting, I listened to the recording of the meeting that evening, but found the commission never addressed that agenda item.

I attended the commission’s budget workshop the next day and learned the commission had discussed that item behind closed doors ­– during one of four executive sessions held during the business meeting.

The Fire Mill Levy

When Sublette County unified its five local fire departments into one countywide department in 2015, it continued to tax a portion of a mill for fire protection in the unincorporated areas of the county. Residents of the incorporated towns have never been subjected to the county tax.

Sublette County Unified Fire provides fire protection for all the county, including in the three incorporated towns of Pinedale, Big Piney, and Marbleton which receive the service for a token $10 per year per town – similar to the law enforcement services provided by Sublette County to the towns. None of the towns in Sublette County have their own police or fire departments.

But state statutes didn’t envision such a scenario for fire protection. Fire protection could be extended by the towns out into the county, but the statutes didn’t address the reverse.

State law reads: “The board of county commissioners of any county contracting with any municipal corporation, private organization or fire department in return for fire protection service may make an appropriation in its annual budget for the purchase of fire equipment or for the maintenance and support of the fire protection and may annually levy a tax of not more than one (1) mill on the taxable valuation of the property in the county except property within any incorporated city or town or rural fire district.” (emphasis added)

Sublette County is no longer contracting to receive fire protection service, and instead, is providing that service throughout the county by its own department – yet has continued to levy the fire mill tax throughout the unincorporated areas of the county since taking over fire services in 2015.

If the county budget simply included the costs of fire protection services in its overall general fund, there wouldn’t be an issue, but state law also requires that proceeds from the fire mill levy be kept in a special fund that is used solely for the purpose of fire protection.

If the fire mill has been inappropriately levied by the county since 2015, what then? Since the county never levied more than the maximum 12 mills allowed by law, is this all no-harm, no-foul? Probably not.

Hiding Public Business

Last week, county officials conferred in small groups to discuss the fire mill issue – in small enough groups to avoid a quorum which would violate state law requiring deliberations about public business be held in public. Written correspondence viewed by me indicates the issue has been discussed since at least November of 2021 – that’s about eight months of keeping this taxation issue on the down-low.

As the Sublette County Commission prepares to adopt a new budget assessing the maximum 12-mill levy next month under the same structure that is now under question, it has failed to inform its taxpayers that there may be a problem, let alone the details.

To my knowledge, Sublette County hasn’t been threatened with litigation, and there is no legitimate reason whatsoever for Sublette County to keep this issue hidden from its taxpayers for all these months.

Taxation is surely public business, and, as the Wyoming Supreme Court has noted in the past, “The courts, legislature, administrative agencies, and the state, county and municipal governments should be ever mindful that theirs is public business and the public has a right to know how its servants are conducting its business.”

Recourse

This column is the first step to opening the door and letting the sunshine in – an airing of the public’s business.

But the door needs to be thrown wide open – and they’d best prop a rock against it because the public is going to want in the room for the discussion.

You can bet that the energy industry that pays more than 90% of the property taxes in Sublette County will take notice. Have they been inappropriately taxed? If so, what is the financial recourse? Those are the tough questions the commission will soon face.

Wyoming’s ad valorem taxation laws provide for refunds in the case of illegal taxation.  Wyoming Statute 39-13-109 (c) reads: “Within one (1) year following an illegal assessment, levy or collection of taxes an action may be filed in district court to enjoin the illegal assessment, levy or collection. The action shall be against the county assessor in the case of an illegal assessment, the governmental entity which levies an illegal levy, the county treasurer if the levy is entered on the tax list, or against the governmental entity if the taxes were collected and paid to the entity,” and “If any person pays any tax, or portion thereof, found to have been erroneous or illegal, the board of county commissioners shall direct the county treasurer to refund the erroneous or illegal payment to the taxpayer.”

As a representative of Cowboy State Daily, I filed a Wyoming Public Records Act request for documents concerning the fire mill levy, including a memorandum from the Sublette County Attorney’s office to the Sublette County Commission – a memorandum which County Attorney Mike Crosson will neither confirm nor deny exists, but does indeed exist.

I also notified the Sublette County Commission Chairman and the Sublette County Clerk that handling this very public business in executive session was improper and requested that the commission release the memo from Crosson’s office and that the entire issue be fully discussed and debated in public.

I am confident they will do so, in part because there are numerous county officials uneasy with how this issue has unfolded.

Which brings me back to the bad blood. We won’t know all the legal issues and advice the County Attorney’s office has provided to the County Commission until that information is publicly disclosed.

If the County Commission is balking from legal advice because it’s tainted by the bad blood with County Attorney Crosson, it needs to get over it and do its duty for the taxpayers of the county.

If the commission feels it needs specialist legal counsel to help work through this, tell the Sublette County Attorney that, in a public meeting. Let Crosson explain why or why not that may be justified. But don’t let bad blood, or the questioning of motivations, hinder resolution of this tough issue.

If the Sublette County Commission has been notified by its legal counsel that it has improperly imposed a mill levy, and yet choses to stick its head in the sand by adopting a new budget with the same tax-levy structure, it will be rightfully accused of a dereliction of its fiduciary duty.

If a previous county attorney made a mistake, or there was an oversight when the county reorganized the fire service in 2015, the county must move forward by acknowledging and correcting the mistake. It must prepare for the potential ramifications in its new budget. It cannot simply hide this public business any longer.

Disclosures:

1.  I work for the Sublette County Commission as an independent contractor, writing and compiling an annual budget report.

2.  I once worked under the supervision of Sublette County Unified Fire (SCUF) Chief Shad Cooper when I served as public information officer for an interagency Covid-19 response team. My son is a wildland firefighter now employed by SCUF. I have great respect for the work of SCUF under Chief Cooper’s leadership.

3.  I have numerous friends and acquaintances working in Sublette County government, and as elected officials. I respect citizens who serve the public as elected officials, and my criticism in this column isn’t a reflection of my personal feelings towards any commissioner. In addition, I hold Sublette County Sheriff KC Lehr in high esteem and believe he runs a top-notch department. (Unlike a previous sheriff.)

4. My dog in this fight – first and foremost – is as a long-time advocate for government transparency.

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.

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Cat Urbigkit: Risks & Rewards of Storytelling

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

Ranchers sometimes complain that their views aren’t reflected in mainstream reporting, but when invited to do interviews, we often decline. We let our designated industry spokespeople do the talking, and while that may work, it also results in reporting that remains distanced and insulated from what is happening on the ground and reporters are kept away from witnessing a rancher’s connection with animals and lands.

I’m one of the ranchers who often declines interviews, but I try to weigh the merits of the requests rather than automatically saying no. Because I’ve written extensively about conflicts with wolves, we get frequent requests from film companies wanting to visit, but most of these requests are declined, for a variety of reasons. When it’s obvious that we’re just a stop on the way to film wolves in Yellowstone, there is little incentive for our involvement.

This year, we were contacted by a production company working on a science-based series focused on the intersection of people and predators. I liked what seemed to be their honest curiosity about the issue and its complexities, and we agreed to host the film crew. Their visit coincided with our lambing season, and my family scrambled to have all the ranch work covered while my time would be spent with the visitors.

I met with the first two crew members to explain what to expect. As they drove into the lambing grounds, if a lamb suddenly jumped up and ran toward their vehicle, please stop, shut off the vehicle and wait for a ewe to retrieve the lamb.

That happened numerous times, as newborn lambs, startled by the sudden stimuli, raced toward the moving object. While the crew stopped and waited, ewes approached to claim their babies, giving an opportunity for filming the close bond and communication between lambs and their mothers.

I also explained that the sudden presence of a group of people approaching the lambing flock would not been seen by the livestock guardian dogs as a welcome presence, but as a threat or intrusion in the otherwise tranquil landscape.

The last time a film crew came to the ranch, a videographer tried to follow behind a guardian dog while holding a large piece of recording equipment low to the ground, getting a dog-level view. The dog, Panda, had barked and warned the guy to back off, but when he persisted, I had to quickly step in as the enraged dog wheeled around to take out the equipment.

I shared that story with the new film crew, so they were careful enough with Panda, but when one filmmaker tried a similar maneuver with guardian dog Harriet, I once again had to jump in front of the filming to intercept Harriet as she lunged to take down the equipment stalking her. {For the record, Harriet’s full name is Harriet the Horrible, and she suffers no fools among her flock with its newborn lambs.}

It quickly became apparent that Panda still held a grudge against film crews, so I ended up driving him to our camp where he was tethered away from the visitors. Harriet generally sulked amid her sheep, tolerating the crew since I was present. The other dogs either watched from scattered locations in the brush with their sheep, or left to chase coyotes.

It was a two-person crew for the first two days, but on the third day, three more people arrived. The show’s host and I had a good conversation sitting on the ground as we bottle fed orphan lambs I had transported to the location specifically for that purpose.

I wanted the crew to get to know some sheep up close, to share some of what we ranchers see, feel, and experience. That proved key to the success of the entire adventure as each crew member made a connection with our animals. Lambs followed us around as we walked, and they chewed on cables and tried to stick their noses in lenses as they busily tasted everything in the world around them.

The visit mostly went off without a hitch, but there were a few bumps. We had agreed to allow some drone filming, so long as the device was kept high enough not to disturb the sheep.

The drone operator got a little too enthusiastic and came in too low, so when I saw a ewe move away from her twin lambs, I yelled from a neighboring hilltop to get the drone up higher. By the time I had walked back to the crew vehicle, they jokingly expressed relief that I had left my Henry rifle down at the road and didn’t have it with me when the drone moved too low.

In the three days the crew were here, they were able to witness our young herding dog Fly as she moved a yearling steer away from a ewe in labor, without disturbing the ewe. They filmed Harriet’s tenderness as she tried to nap while being pestered by a lamb.

They watched me feeding salty crackers to an adult ewe who was penned at camp as she recovered from a difficult birth. They watched Awbi, a large guardian dog, gently roughhousing with small herding dog Fly, and were able to see how each type of dog does its very different job in the presence of the other.

When we hiked to the top of a hill where Harriet was perched early one morning, we found Harriet was keeping watch atop a coyote den. They learned why guardian dogs are so valued and treasured by those share their lives with these magnificent beasts. They witnessed these canine cousins of the wolf that spend their entire lives in service to another species – a species considered prey by their wild relatives.

When the professional filming was concluded, each of the five crew members took turns holding lambs and taking selfies on their phones. They were tickled to learn that lambs like to cuddle and fall asleep with friends.

Our last task was to film me reading aloud from one of the books I’ve written for children. The crew wanted to do this in my house, but I suggested since the book was about sheep and their guardian dogs, perhaps it would be more compelling if there were lambs present during the reading.

While waiting for equipment and lighting to be retrieved, I sat down with the book in an outdoor chair and set a sleepy lamb across my lap. That’s when the crew understood that this read-aloud had some real potential.

They moved my chair into the middle of a small pen with a half-dozen young lambs, and I proceeded to read the book to the attentive lambs as they chewed on the edges of the pages, and my fingers, with one lamb sleeping in my lap the whole time.

In the end, three days of filming a segment about our experiences with wolves resulted in many hours of footage of beautiful sheep and their guardians thriving in wild landscape, and each crew member had been personally charmed by those sweet lambs.

Two young filmmakers were able to witness a ewe giving birth. They were initially taken aback while watching the ewe’s labor, but soon marveled at the beauty of new life as the lamb and its mother vocalized to each other and the lamb began to try stand on its legs for the first time.

I pointed out the lamb as we passed a few hours later, so they could see the bright white lamb already walking alongside its mother. I learned that neither filmmaker had ever seen a birth of any kind, and I’m confident this was an experience they will never forget.

The show is expected to air next year, so we’ll have to wait to see what makes the final cut. But as a shepherdess, I’m content that what began as a discussion about wolves became an intimate view of sheep ranching in Wyoming.

Reporters and filmmakers can only get these views if we allow these glimpses into our lives and provide opportunities for personal experiences. There is risk involved, but the rewards may be significant.

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.

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Cat Urbigkit: Gun Violence And Silencing the Language of Hate

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

Last week’s massacre of elementary students at a school in Texas, coming so soon after another deadly rampage in a grocery store in New York, generated many sincere but inadequate expressions of “thoughts and prayers” and once again predictable declarations for and against gun control. There were plenty of people making statements, but few were actually communicating.

It seems that earnest deliberations directed toward reducing gun violence and mass shootings are a rarity. Those who dare to discuss whether universal background checks or instituting age limits on certain firearms may reduce gun violence are promptly labeled “gun-control advocates.”

For some, any regulation addressing gun safety is seen as an attack on the Second Amendment. But how is regulation of gun safety any different than the voter ID requirements pushed by many of the same constitutional rights advocates? Using the same standard, aren’t voter ID laws an attack on voting rights? Doesn’t that mean those who advocated for such laws are “voter-control advocates?”

Just as predictably as Republicans pointed to mental health issues and the presence of evil in society as the cause for gun violence, Democrats pointed to gun ownership in America as the root cause. Both sides are busy issuing statements, attempting to score political points while blaming the other party.

Conservatives blame godless liberal policies for violence, while liberals blame the Republican religious-like worship at the altar of the gun, or claim they are captive to the gun lobby. Anyone within either camp who notes that the opposing party just might have a point is condemned.

That’s where we are at as a nation, stuck in a quagmire of virtue signaling instead of working to save lives. There are a few points both sides should agree on: anyone who would shoot and kill a group of innocent people is deranged; and we need to reduce the risk of such attacks in the future.

Since I don’t envision many of our political leaders crossing the aisle for in-depth policy discussions on this issue (especially in an election year when all the action is focused on playing to the base), I suggest that the first step we all can take is to silence the language of hate.

None of us should be engaging in language that promotes hate or hatred of anyone. We must reject political candidates who engage by claiming their opponents “hate you.”

Reject their narratives that call their opponents communists or fascists and other such deceitful pettiness aimed at dehumanizing their opponents. Reject their efforts to invoke fear and distrust. Reject the stoking of hatred and violence that they claim are merely jokes or hyperbole. Reject their claims that every elected official they disagree with is corrupt.

If their campaign is centered on “fighting the enemy” don’t expect them to come to the table to talk solutions. Their rhetoric indicates a desire to continue to fan the flames and make headlines, not seek out solutions. Our political opponents are not our enemies.

As President Abraham Lincoln stated in his first inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Lincoln concluded his address with this: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

It’s time to call up those better angels, and the words we use in doing so matter.

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.

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Cat Urbigkit: Game & Fish Compensation Program Shortchanges Livestock Producers

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20072

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

The 2021 killing season on the HD Ranch west of Thermopolis began in January, when the Wyoming Game & Fish Department confirmed an adult ewe had been killed by a mountain lion. Although the agency attempted to capture the lion, the effort was unsuccessful.

More ewes and their lambs were verified as killed by a mountain lion in three separate incidents in April and June. Each time, the agency attempted to capture the problem predator, but the predator proved elusive.

In July, multiple grizzly bears joined the mountain lion (or lions) in killing of both sheep and calves on the HD, in at least seven incidents that month. Each time the agency responded to verify the kills, but only set traps for the bears twice, failing both times at capturing the culprits.

By August, the kills were confirmed nearly every other day, with WG&F confirming kills on 17 occasions that month, and with multiple kills confirmed in at least six of the incidents. In seven cases, the agency response was “investigate only” because either the livestock carcass was consumed, or because of the incident’s “remote location.”

In another five cases, WG&F set traps, but was unsuccessful in capturing the depredating predator. But WG&F did manage to remove one mountain lion and four grizzly bears from the ranch that month.

A few days into September, another grizzly bear was trapped and removed from the ranch. Although the kills continued with a lesser frequency that month, with four incidents of grizzlies killing sheep and cattle in addition to kills by mountain lions in two other incidents, the agency only attempted to capture a grizzly bear one other time that month, again to no avail.

In October, two more calves were confirmed as killed by grizzlies on the ranch, and on both occasions, WG&F investigated but didn’t take further action.

The HD’s Losses

At the end of 2021, HD Ranch manager Josh Longwell tallied up the confirmed kills, subtracting the losses due to other causes, with the balance demonstrating the missing livesotock – animals that had been born, branded, and tallied – to learn how much had been lost.

By his count, he ended the year with a loss of more than $236,000. WG&F has agreed to pay about $100,000, leaving uncompensated losses of $136,000. That’s a tough way to end a year but imagine trying to suck up those losses year after year. Not many ranches could sustain those losses for one year, let alone year after year, and those losses occur even in the presence of herders and livestock guardian dogs.

That’s the situation the HD Ranch finds itself. Every year when depredation problems on the HD Ranch make the news, there are inevitably the same complaints that arise, generally centered on the fact that these ranches were bought by Frank Robbins, a rich out-of-stater, who was involved with controversies with the Bureau of Land Management.

While all that is true, none of it has anything to do with the depredations happening on the ranch in the last decade and the shortcomings of the compensation program. Robbins is Longwell’s father-in-law, but Longwell has been managing the ranch enterprise for the last decade.

He consistently publicly praises the hard work done by WG&F in documenting livestock losses and trying to resolve conflicts with large carnivores on the ranch. He works cooperatively with the BLM, and USDA Wildlife Services, in making sure he is running this major cattle and sheep outfit as a commercial enterprise that his children will one day take over.

Compensation Shortchanges

Wyoming law provides that WG&F is to compensate livestock owners for damages due to state trophy game animals like mountain lions and grizzly bears.

The 2003 Wyoming Legislature enacted legislation enabling the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission to “establish through rule making methods, factors and formulas to be used for determining the amount to compensate any landowner, lessee or agent for livestock damaged as a result of, missing as a result of, or killed by trophy game animals.”

Acknowledging the inability of finding all the missing cattle and sheep believed to be damaged by these large predator species, the WG&F Commission includes a multiplier to help account for missing livestock when large carnivore depredation has been confirmed.

In areas occupied by grizzly bears, the agency uses a multiplier of 3.5, so that for every confirmed kill of a calf or sheep, the livestock owner can be compensated for 3.5 of those animals. For all claims, the agency has to have confirmed damage by these predator species, and in no case is compensation offered for more than the total known death loss.

But the 3.5 multiplier doesn’t adequately compensate for the predator kills on the HD, according to Longwell.

According to a paper published by WG&F nearly 20 years ago, the factors and formulas used in the WG&F regulation were based upon “a combination of analysis of data collected by the department; historic use of similar formulas to pay producers for sheep missing as a result of cougar depredation in the Big Horn Mountains; and cattle and sheep death loss data compiled by a livestock producers association in the Upper Green River area near Pinedale, Wyoming that has frequently experienced missing livestock that are believed to be the result of grizzly and black bear depredation.”

Grizzly bear depredation in the Upper Green is different from the situation at the HD, located on the other side of the Continental Divide.

The Upper Green is the largest cattle grazing allotment in the National Forest system in which cattle enter for summer and fall grazing. The HD Ranch is a patchwork of private, federal and state land. Longwell says that about 90% of the predator kills occur on private lands, of which the family company, Hay Creek Land and Cattle LLC, have accumulated nearly 75,000 acres in Hot Springs County.

The ranch has year-round commercial livestock production centered on the Owl Creek drainage, and bordered by the Wind River Reservation on one side, and National Forest lands on the other, and thousands of acres of BLM and State lands intermixed.

Shifting from serving as a guest ranch with livestock, the company is now all-in on commercial cattle and domestic sheep production, accumulating acreages to provide feed and forage year-round for both species of livestock.

While the WG&F program provides compensation only for direct costs (death loss and injuries), more recent research indicates that indirect costs (decreased weaning and conception rates, and increased illness) due to large carnivore depredation are substantial. Thus, compensation programs such as Wyoming’s systematically undercompensate ranchers.

An analysis of grizzly bear damage to beef calves in the Upper Green published in the Journal of Wildlife Management more than a decade ago concluded that the WG&F compensation factor was too low and did not provide equitable compensation for direct depredations.

That paper, of which I was a co-author, noted: “Current compensation schemes, which ignore the indirect effects of predators, may significantly undercompensate landowners for their role in predator conservation. In an era of high subsidies, full compensation for predator losses would still be small relative to other agricultural subsidies (e.g., total US corn subsidies in 2012 of $3 billion is nearly 5 000 times larger than the total amount spent on wolf-related compensation).”

No one argues that the WG&F compensation fully compensates livestock owners for their losses. In fact, whenever Longwell’s damage claims go before the WG&F Commission, an arbitration panel, or a court, there are usually expressions of sympathy for his losses.

Sympathy doesn’t pay the bills, and it’s past time for the agency to take action to re-evaluate its compensation formulas, and for state and federal lawmakers to try to figure out how to pay for these large predator species that the nation wants but are financially impacting ranchers. It’s time to make predators an asset to ranchers rather than a liability.

Alternatives to the Status Quo

There are numerous ways to push this issue toward a better outcome. State law allows the WG&F Commission to consider “factors and formulas” to be used for determining the amount to compensate for damage by these predators.

How about factoring in the amount of private land involved, and the months that livestock are exposed to these predators when tallying compensation? How about entering into a cooperative research project with Longwell to learn about the specific damage situation and predator load on that ranch? How about Congress allocate federal funding for equitable compensation programs for impacts to livestock operations throughout the Western states that harbor robust populations of wild predators like grizzly bears and gray wolves?

If these species are treasured by the national public, let the national public help to pay for them. The WG&F had spent more than $40 million since 1990 to recover grizzly bears in Wyoming – $40M for a federally protected species. Wyoming is carrying the load for the nation, and we should be getting support for our efforts.

Individual ranchers are currently faced with increasing costs due to both direct and indirect losses associated with depredations while land prices are skyrocketing.

The increased costs of all inputs, combined with diminishing returns, casts doubt on the future of these operations that provide so much to our communities, including those open spaces we all enjoy.

If you want large-scale habitat change and increased human presence, both key factors in a loss of biological diversity, keep inducing conversion of ag land to rural-residential development or other development.

Back in 2007, Dr. Richard Knight of the University of Wyoming proposed that ranchers were a keystone species, defined as “a species whose importance is disproportionate to its numbers.”

He opined that “Ranching works well, ecologically, economically, and culturally. If ranching declines rather than prospers, so too will the health of human and natural communities decline.”

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.

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Cat Urbigkit: Wolves Create Landscape of Fear for Prey, Landscape of Stress for Farmers

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

The ecological theory that wolves create a landscape of fear for prey animals has gained widespread acceptance. Pursuant to this theory, impacts to wild prey aren’t just limited to the direct impact of predation but extend to indirect impacts such as those demonstrated when wild animals such as elk behave more vigilant when sharing a landscape with wolves. Domestic livestock herds that have been subject to wolf attack behave in the same manner, and these “indirect” impacts can result in reduced weight gains, reduced conception rates, etc.

A “landscape of fear” may also be what causes most wild wolves to avoid areas with human settlements and activity. In those cases, humans are the species causing the fear in wild animals.

A new paper published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution takes these ecological theories one step further, in proposing that Swedish farmers who keep livestock in large carnivore areas experience a “landscape of stress.”

The paper suggests: “The ‘landscape of stress’ for sheep owners when coexisting with wolves and other large carnivores suggest that sheep owners’ behaviour is somewhat similar to behaviour described for prey in the ecology of fear. They respond to the carnivore presence and change their behaviours in accordance with the experienced probability of a predator attack.”

The paper stated, “Similar to the vulnerability of female elk and bison with young offspring in Yellowstone’s wolf areas, livestock farmers care for their livestock, and are expected to become more vigilant at the presence of potential threats to their animals.” While direct interactions with wolves may result in financial losses, a farmer’s concern for the welfare of his animals “may also imply that indirect interactions, in which the mere perception of the presence of wildlife or reflection on previous experiences and learning, can trigger negative thoughts and feelings.”

The paper cited a Norwegian study that found human stress levels “were impacted by the farmers’ attachment to their livestock, their lack of control in reducing their own stress after predation events (combined with a lack of trust in the authorities), and their perceived need to make changes to their everyday lives in order to handle the ambient pressures caused by the presence of wolves.”

These sheep owners who lived in areas where sheep had been lost to wolves “scored significantly higher on psychological stress than did farmers without sheep production in these areas, as well as sheep owners elsewhere in Norway. Sheep owners who had experienced wolf attacks, also reported in follow-up interviews that they had experienced sleeplessness, guilt, and a constant state of anxiety.”

The authors propose that it is plausible that the responses that sheep owners have to the stress of large carnivores can have cascading effects on the species composition in the landscape. For examples, when sheep farming is halted, or if sheep are gathered in fields near human settlements, “trees, bushes and grasses take over the abandoned grazing areas and the abundance and species richness of flowering plants and herbs diminish. … Thus, the landscape of stress could, just like the landscape of fear, imply cascading effects for biodiversity and species richness/abundance on a landscape level.”

The Swedish paper considers sheep owners as part of the same social-ecological system in which wolves occur, and suggest that this type of interdisciplinary understanding of coexistence should serve as a starting point for wolf management in the future. They note, “These are not separate worlds, but rather they are depicted by different scientific perspectives providing multiple views of one system, where interactions occur and where carnivores influence humans and humans influence carnivores at some level of coexistence.”

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.

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Cat Urbigkit: Yellowstone Stirs Controversy Over State Management of Predators, Part 2

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Natural, or Habituated: YNP sets predators up for failure, then wants States to fix the problem.

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

Last week’s column debunking the claim that wolf hunting outside Yellowstone National Park (YNP) had altered wolf pack behavior concluded by suggesting that YNP officials are trying to generate public pressure for state wildlife agencies to change the way they manage wolves.

I maintain that YNP intentionally stirs public outrage about “naive” wolves crossing outside park boundaries and subjected to wolf hunting in neighboring states. A YNP official also claimed this hunter harvest outside the park screwed up wolf research in the park because “this is no longer a natural population.”

Oh puh-leeze. Like it’s “natural” to have thousands upon thousands of humans lined up along park roadways daily to watch wolves and bears. Yellowstone’s “naturalness” policy is responsible for the human habituation of large carnivores in this ecosystem, but park officials then point the finger of blame at state wildlife managers when predators leave park boundaries and find themselves in human-dominated communities.

They know that the wolf and grizzly bear populations have saturated available range inside the park and that these large predator populations will continue range expansion outside the park’s borders. YNP created this mess, but looks to the states to fix it.

Park officials fully understand that their policy to emphasize the management of humans inside the park while limiting management of animals is feasible only within the boundaries of the Yellowstone preserve.

Outside the national parks are human-dominated landscapes with a vast array of communities, land ownership, and multiple uses of natural resources and landscapes, and human livelihoods. There aren’t teams of rangers with the authority to close roads because a grizzly bear lingers roadside.

To expect state wildlife managers to manage large carnivores in the same manner as park officials would be a ridiculous ask. The park service itself can’t afford its current program, and the states certainly can’t either.

YNP officials are fully aware that its naturalness policy results in human-habituated predators, yet instead of openly informing the public of the benefits and consequences of this policy, it now casts dispersion on neighboring state wildlife agencies.

It should be telling the public that within the boundaries of the preserve, park policy provides these great wildlife viewing opportunities for millions of people every year.

But then tell the public about the downside of this management policy: these constant encounters with people results in human-habituated animals and that has consequences – such as the 33 wolves that have been run over and killed by vehicles in the park since 1995.

The agency has long understood the risk of allowing wolves to become human habituated could result in those same animals being legally harvested by humans outside the park.

A 2016 paper acknowledged: “However, the potential still exists for high harvests of wolves exiting the park in other areas, where wolf harvest quotas are substantially higher or unlimited, including in Idaho and Wyoming.

This probability may be heightened by the habituation of wolves to visitors in YNP, their likely naivete when they initially move outside the park, and current temporal patterns of increased movement outside the park that coincide with the initiation of wolf hunting season.”

Back in 2008, YNP acknowledged the situation with habituated bears in a Yellowstone Science article, noting, “The next challenge for park managers is to find innovative, cost-effective ways to manage the large numbers of visitors that want to view and experience habituated bears, or to develop cost-effective methods to prevent habituation.”

Where’s the progress on that? Rather than trying to expand its hands-off approach to managing animals beyond the park’s borders, the park service could engage the public in a discussion about the consequences of its current policy.

Got a bunch of folks gathered at a bear jam? Let the public ponder this one: “While you enjoy seeing five grizzly bears together along this road inside a national park, would you feel the same way if you stepped outside your house in the darkness of early morning to get into your car for work and find those five grizzlies in your yard? Do you think it would be safe for your children to play outside there?”

YNP should help the public understand that there are consequences to its management policies. Instead, YNP officials propose that adjacent state agencies impose buffer zones around the park. A 2016 paper by YNP wolf biologist Doug Smith and co-authors suggested just that.

But they forget that when it comes to wolves, the three states have already implemented buffers – rather than buffer zones, the states agreed to a number buffer for wolf management. When wolves were released in Yellowstone, the federal goal was 10 breeding pairs and at least 100 wolves in each state of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

Later on, each state agreed to manage for a buffer to cushion that minimum number, and that requires at least 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves in each state. Where are we at with that? Montana has more than 1,000 wolves, Idaho has about 1,500, and Wyoming has more than 300. None of these states need additional buffers to protect wolves.

YNP’s irresponsible messaging is a factor in keeping large carnivore management subject to high levels of controversy.

The agency needs to look at itself and ask some questions: Is the National Park Service policy that creates habituated predators ethical? Has the agency honestly assessed its own role in creating human-habituated predators? Has it considered the dilemma involved in creating such a demand for roadside animals that visitation levels indicate the park is in danger of being loved to death? Has it considered any viable pathway to reduce animal habituation in the park, especially in areas near park boundaries?

Until the agency engages honestly and publicly over the consequences of its current policy, I’ll view YNP’s statements about hunting seasons that occur outside the park as nothing more than a federal agency stirring the pot of controversy.

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.

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Cat Urbigkit: Yellowstone Stirs Controversy Over State Management of Predators, Part 1

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

It was a damning revelation: wolf hunting outside of Yellowstone National Park had “altered pack behavior, damaged research.” The allegation came from Yellowstone National Park (YNP) biologist Doug Smith as reported by WyoFile’s Mike Koshmrl.

The article, which has since received widespread distribution, claims that wolf hunting outside the park has resulted in “highly unusual mating behavior” in the park’s wolf packs, and quotes Smith: “It’s broken apart the social structure, it’s messed with the hierarchy, and it’s actually produced more pups. Now this is a hypothesis, but this is what I would call an artificial stimulation of wolf reproductive capacity. By going in and killing them, you stimulate reproduction.” 

I’m calling “bullshit” on that claim. Sorry to be vulgar, but my search for an adequate substitute couldn’t generate a better descriptor for those claims.

The WyoFile article correctly reported that a majority of the park’s wolf packs usually produce single litters.

But that has never been the case for wolf packs inhabiting Yellowstone’s northern range – the area of origin for most wolves shot in Montana’s wolf hunts that have caused such concern for Yellowstone officials.

Although the northern range consists of only 10% of the national park, it has been the stronghold for the wolf population as it was once home to the biggest elk herd in Yellowstone.


Figure 1: Yellowstone’s Northern Range. Source: National Park Service


Multiple Litters Begin in 1997

Shortly after gray wolves were brought into YNP from Canada in 1995 and 1996, Smith was part of the team that documented multiple litters in individual wolf packs in the park, and Smith is the primary author of YNP’s annual wolf project reports.

In 1997, YNP documented 13 litters of pups in 9 wolf packs, with the Rose Creek pack having 22 pups in three litters, and the Druid Peak and Chief Joseph packs each producing two litters. All but the Chief Joseph pack inhabited the park’s northern range.

The next year, four packs had multiple litters, including two packs on the northern range. The year after that (1999), the Rose Creek pack had three breeding female wolves give birth to pups on the northern range – for the third consecutive year of multiple litters in this pack. In 2000, that pack did it again, as did the Druid Peak pack with its 21 pups born in three litters.

The park population peaked at 174 wolves in 2003, with 7 packs crowded onto the northern range, and the Druid Peak pack once again produced two or three litters of pups. Then the population started its downward trend.

By 2010, Smith and his wolf team wrote that the park wolf population had declined to 97 wolves, “a decline that was brought about by disease and food stress, and suggests a long-term lower population equilibrium for wolves, especially on the northern range.

Northern range wolves have declined 60% since 2007 compared to a 23% decline for interior wolves during the same period. Northern range wolves are much more dependent on elk as a food source, whose population declined 70% since 1994, than are interior wolves that prey on elk and bison, both of which are still widely available in the park interior.”


Figure 2: Number of Northern Range Elk, 1978 to 2018. Source: Mossley & Mundinger, Rangelands (2018).


YNP’s annual wolf reports revealed that wolves killing other wolves accounted for most natural mortalities, but mange and distemper were taking their toll as well. With the decline of the overall wolf population, existing packs on the northern range declined, but those territories were soon taken up by the formation of new packs.

In 2012, Smith wrote that wolf hunting outside the park had resulted in the deaths of 12 wolves that lived primarily within the park, but park wolf packs produced smaller litters of pups – the opposite of his current claim that hunting outside the park increased pup production.

In 2016, Smith and two co-authors wrote about multiple litters on Yellowstone’s northern range wolves by explaining, “This phenomenon is believed to be influenced largely by Yellowstone’s prey abundance, wolf density, and more complex pack structures containing multiple, unrelated, opposite-sex pack members.”

Junction & Wapiti packs

In the recent WyoFile piece, Smith specifically noted there were multiple pregnant females in the Junction and Wapiti packs this year, suggesting it could be due to the mortality caused by hunting. But the annual reports Smith writes have reported that these packs both have histories of repeatedly producing multiple litters.

The Junction Butte pack produced four litters of pups each year in 2018, 2019 and 2020, and had multiple litters prior to those 4-litter years. The Wapiti Lake pack, which has shifted its territory to the west of the Junction Butte pack, has had multiple litters each year since 2017.

If these wolf packs have multiple litters again this year, it’s perfectly in keeping with not just their pack histories, but with the history of wolves that have used the northern range since wolves were released in the park more than 25 years ago.

Twenty years ago, it was the Druid Peak and Rose Creek wolf packs that inhabited the northern range and repeatedly produced multiple litters. “Wolves also took advantage of the favorable conditions in YNP by having multiple litters per pack,” Smith wrote in a book published more than a decade ago, noting that in 2000 the Druid Peak pack produced 21 pups in 3 litters, “increasing their pack size to 37 wolves and making them one of the largest wolf packs ever recorded.”

That’s Not Science

Rather than trying to cast the production of multiple litters as an abnormal behavior that is caused by hunting as Smith is now doing, just two years ago, he told a different story.

In the 2020 wolf report Smith wrote, “The prevalence of multiple litters in wolf packs in YNP (~25% of packs annually) has varied little over the last two decades. Large, socially-complex packs, higher wolf densities, and food abundance are believed to influence the prevalence of multiple litters and may partially explain this year’s increase.”

That report – dated just two years ago – noted that the production of 18 pups in four litters in one year put the Junction pack’s “exceptional size” at 35 members.

Rather than the “highly unusual mating behavior” he now claims it to be, Smith and his colleagues inside the park had documented this behavior on Yellowstone’s northern range, year after year, for decades – and specifically in the two wolf packs he cited in the article.

The Science

While Smith attempts to recast the cause of multiple litters in the Yellowstone wolf population, science doesn’t support his claims – and he knows it, since he writes the annual reports on wolf research and monitoring.

What is interesting is what appears to be a pattern of the park’s wolf population numbers increasing and peaking, before falling into decline, only to start the cycle again. The peak-and-decline indicates that when the park’s wolf population reaches a certain point, the habitat is saturated and the population will soon fall – with increased competition for a limited amount of prey, wolves will lose condition and will themselves fall prey to a variety of ills, from mange and diseases, to wolves killing their own.

An Idaho researcher examined the characteristics of multiple breeders in the wolf populations in Central Idaho and Yellowstone and suggested: “The occurrence of multiple breeding individuals varied considerably by group and year, but density was a strong predictor of the prevalence of multiple breeding females. Such a finding suggests that breeding opportunities are limited in this species and when they are, females may resort to polygamy. …  Choosing to remain in groups and share breeding opportunities when density is high implies the habitat is saturated.”

Driven by Desire

What is the public to make of this altered story coming from YNP? I conclude that it’s purely politics, driven by Yellowstone National Park officials’ desire to create public pressure to change wolf hunting policies of state wildlife agencies in neighboring states.

If Yellowstone’s northern range is saturated with wolves, and more of those wolves range into Montana where the wolf population remains 6-8 times larger than recovery targets, Montana should just sit back and let Yellowstone decide how the state should manage its wolves? I don’t think so.

That thousands of people line up daily along the roadsides in Yellowstone to watch human-habituated wolves and bears, while park officials claim they manage for “natural” conditions, is at the heart of controversies involving predator management in states adjacent to the park.

The National Park Service has created this mess but points the finger of blame at state managers. I’ll go into that in Part Two of this series next week.

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: Profiles in Political Cowardice — WyoRino and WyoVote

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

While the anonymous folks behind the websites WyoRino and WyoVote portray themselves as bastions of Conservatism (with a capital C), I’m calling out both for political cowardice. Both sites recently released political scorecards or rating systems for Wyoming legislators that should be cast aside by voters seeking an honest assessment of legislative performance.

In WyoVote’s case, it ranked legislators from most to least conservative. WyoRino issued a voting index that claims the majority of elected Republicans in the legislature aren’t actually Republicans at all.

What both sites have in common is their secrecy. Neither site reveals who is responsible for the scoring, and the domain ownership details for both websites are hidden by privacy services. What little we do know is that WyoRino was created by Ride for the Brand, Wyoming, which is a trade name registered by Seventeen Eighty Nine, LLC of Etna, Wyoming, with a stated purpose to “advocate for Wyoming.”

WyoVote

WyoVote claims that “A diverse Conservative team of Wyoming Citizens rated every bill that actually got to the floor of the legislature.” Each bill was rated on a scale from conservative to liberal, using this rating guide:



We can only imagine the scores for each bill, since those details are not disclosed – nor does it disclose the individual tallies for each of the approximately 300 votes cast per legislator. Apparently the keyboard Conservatives behind WyoVote don’t want anyone checking their math.

How do you suppose Senate File 83 banning the use of abortion drugs was scored? I’m betting would score high on the “conservative values” side, even though it falls squarely within the “liberal values” column since it invokes “greater government control of individuals.” And I’ll guess that banning masks and vaccination requirements would score high on the conservative side, because, you know, Conservatives like to claim they are for “personal autonomy” – except when it comes to women’s bodies.

Alas though, the bill scores remain as secret as the identity of the folks doing the scoring.

WyoRino

WyoRino.com claims “our citizen legislature is packed with a majority of elected officials who falsely claim to be Republicans.” Some back-of-the-envelope math reveals that WyoRino claims 63% of Wyoming Republicans currently serving in the legislature are RINOs, or “Republican in name only.”

WyoRino says it’s not affiliated with the Wyoming Republican Party but “remains intent on exposing elected state policy-makers who ran as Republicans but failed to adhere to Wyoming Republican values, resolutions and platform.”

WyoRino’s methodology differs from that used by WyoVote. WyoRino selected 10 bills from each legislative chamber and noted that it doesn’t matter how many bills it grades because “A RINO is a RINO whether 10 bills are graded or 30+ bills are graded.”

Some of the reasoning used by WyoRino in its bill grades seem concocted. WyoRino graded one bill a negative because it (HJ05) proposed a constitutional amendment on the governance of funds be put forth to the voters of the state, which WyoRino said violated a platform plank by “violating the consent of the governed.” The bill actually required the “consent of the governed” by requiring that the issue be decided directly by the voters.

A bill (SF15) increasing permit fees for oversize and overweight vehicles was viewed as a violation of the GOP opposition to tax increases. WyoRino simply ignored the difference between taxes (which are compulsory to all and are used to generate revenue for overall government function) and user fees (which recoups costs for the government to provide a particular service).

But the real zingers are in how WyoRino treats things it doesn’t like: They support government bans. While touting the need for “limited, constitutional government,” and declaring that the GOP opposes “big government,” and “big regulation,” WyoRino then favorably grades bills that impose more government control (such as bans on critical race theory, abortion drugs, and on private entities from requiring face coverings to enter their establishments).

Like WyoVote, WyoRino’s principles seem to shift in the wind. Sacred rights such as gun rights aren’t to be meddled with, but foundational rights such as voting should have even more restrictions, according to WyoRino’s bill grades. The hypocrisy is palpable.

Scorecards without Value

These scorecards provide no explanation why a legislator voted a particular way, and we all know that good governance requires attention to detail. While hot-button social issues might be high priority for the Wyoming GOP, I know legislators who voted against various bills for good reason, such as:

  • limiting introduction of general topic bills during the short budget session, attempting to focus on the three main issues before the legislature: the biennial budget, legislative redistricting, and allocating American Rescue Plan Act funds;
  • rejecting bills that contained unconstitutional provisions, or sanctioned public servants for doing their jobs; and
  • rejecting statewide mandates that eliminated options for local governments to respond to local needs, or that otherwise stripped authority from local elected officials.

But you won’t find any of this reasoning in the WyoRino and WyoVote voting indexes.

WyoRino tends to oppose any program of the Wyoming Business Council, or anything these covert keepers of Conservatism profess as falling into the realm of taxation. But their stated reasoning is fascinating.

In 2020, it opposed passage of the statewide lodging tax because “it interferes in the free market system and causes an increase in state government growth and fiscal irresponsibility.” That same year it also opposed taxation of nicotine products because it “penalizes an individual’s right to use nicotine products and unjustly taxes that individual.”

Bills aimed at improving Wyoming’s financial future are rejected as big government spending bills. While the GOP is opposed to big government spending, what solutions are Conservatives putting forth as a vision for Wyoming’s economic future? Let me know if you find anything.

WyoRino is sure that “the enemy” lurks inside the Republican Party, warning: “The war within our nation’s boundaries is every bit as real as those across the ocean. These truly are perilous times we live in and if we are not willing to do the hard work of vetting the candidates (at all levels) who are running this year, we may potentially live to see the demise of our Republic. Yes, it is that serious.”

Culture War Conservatives

Traditional conservatives understand that we don’t need government to decide on every social issue. We don’t want authoritarian government. We don’t want interfering or overprotective government. We don’t need state legislators treating Wyoming’s citizens as children, performing as a freedom-denying mechanism rather than allowing “we the people” to make decisions for ourselves.

While liberals have used government power to regulate things like the size of sugary drinks, “ride for the brand” nanny state cowboys stampede their stick horses to Cheyenne to demand the Wyoming Legislature restrict or ban things they dislike.

While calling it conservatism, they use the legislative branch of government to narrow both individual choice and individual responsibility as they promote more government interference in our lives – in our schools, medicine cabinets, bodies, businesses, and voting booths.

Instead of promoting limited government, these Conservatives seeking their desired outcomes on “culture war” issues abandon conservative principles. In deciding that they know what’s best for you, they are responsible for the decay of individual liberties.

So who’s the real RINO?

Evaluating Credibility

As you assess the claims or scorecards issued by special interest groups, you too can create a scoring system to evaluate their credibility. Borrowing a few concepts from the scientific method, let’s put on our critical thinking caps to evaluate the work of these clandestine Republican raters.

I developed a scorecard to assess their credibility, using a simple three-step test of transparency, methodology, and replicability, with scores of 0-20 points each, providing for a maximum of 60 points. The higher the points, the higher the credibility, with the range of 40-60 a passing grade.

Transparency: Basic sourcing and identification of individuals involved in the project, with declaration of conflicts of interest. 20 points possible. WyoVote: 0, WyoRino: 0.

Methodology: Detailed description of the methodology utilized. 20 points possible. WyoVote: 10, WyoRino: 20.

Replicability: As an independent evaluator, I can copy the same process and arrive at the same results. 20 points possible. WyoVote: 0, WyoRino: 0.

With WyoVote’s 10 points, and WyoRino’s 20 points, neither gets a passing grade.

Do Your Own Scoring

Looking for a scorecard? As I’ve just demonstrated, it’s easy to make your own. The Wyoming Eagle Tribune came up with a 100-point scoring system that can serve as a model for those wanting to assess the effectiveness of their legislators, and their system is easily adjustable to your personal priorities.

Of course, the best way to judge your legislator’s performance is to simply engage with them – they are your representatives after all.

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.

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Cat Urbigkit: Tracking Bird Flu

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

Avian influenza is spreading with the spring migration of wild birds, and although federal officials report 665 cases in wild birds in 38 states, those numbers don’t yet include recent confirmations in Wyoming.

This year’s avian influenza outbreak appears to be more severe than those in the past, killing more than 5,200 wild cranes at a migration stopover in northern Israel in December, and affecting domestic bird flocks on a massive scale.

The good news is that this bird flu generally poses a low risk to the public, and there haven’t been any human cases reported in the United States. Avian influenza is rarely transferred to humans, but when it does, cases can be lethal.

The bad news is that the outlook for domestic flocks and a variety of wild birds that contract the virus is glum.

The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is the agency tracking avian influenza in both domestic birds and wild bird species, and reports that this year’s highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus strains are extremely infectious and often fatal in domestic chickens, with rapid spread from flock to flock. Infected birds shed bird flu virus through their saliva, mucous and feces.

The CDC reports that the number of U.S. domestic poultry affected by the virus since the start of the year stands at more than 28 million, including backyard flocks in Park, Fremont, Johnson, and Sheridan counties in Wyoming. When bird flu is detected in a domestic flock, the entire flock is depopulated by animal health officials. The Wyoming flocks impacted by the virus range in size from about 40 to 100 birds.

As the proverb goes, birds of a feather flock together, and wild bird species that congregate together seem to be the most impacted by avian influenza. Nearly half of all wild bird cases detected in the United States this year are in ducks and geese.



But what is concerning for bird enthusiasts is the rising number of birds of prey that are impacted, with three dozen dead bald eagles detected thus far, from Florida to Maine, and from North Dakota to Georgia. Avian predators like eagles, hawks and owls that hunt or scavenge infected birds may then become ill with the deadly virus. There have been more than 30 fatal cases confirmed in black vultures, another scavenger species.

Other cases detected in wild birds of prey include eight cases in hawks, including five red-tailed, two Cooper’s, and one red-shouldered hawk. Another 10 cases were in owls, including five snowy owls and five great horned owls, with detections reported mostly across northern tier of the country.

Not yet included in the federal numbers are new cases reported last week by the Wyoming Game & Fish Department. Two great horned owls from Park County, one Canadian goose from Bighorn County, and two Canadian geese from Fremont County all tested positive for the highly pathogenic avian influenza. Since then, Wyoming has also detected the virus in wild turkeys and a black-billed magpie.

The scope of wild bird species affected by HPAI is growing, and now ranges from pheasants to trumpeter swans. Recent detections of the virus in game birds such as wild turkeys and pheasants are especially concerning to sage grouse advocates.

The federal plan for monitoring wild bird infections noted “it is reasonable to assume that many of our wild gallinaceous birds such as turkeys, pheasants and grouse may very well be susceptible to avian influenza and suffer notable mortality.”

Greater sage grouse are currently congregating on their breeding grounds, called leks. According to WG&F, breeding activity usually peaks in late March and early April, so we are past the point that most grouse will be in attendance. By this time of year, most of the breeding is complete, so it’s mostly male grouse that are still present on the leks.

WG&F notes that wild birds can carry HPAI and not appear sick. Some birds might exhibit signs of neurological impairment or may be found dead with no apparent cause. Noting that HPAI is zoonotic disease that can infect humans, WG&F requests that anyone who finds a cluster of dead birds should notify the nearest WG&F office, but do not touch or handle sick or dead birds or allow your pets to come into contact with these birds.

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.

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Cat Urbigkit: Court Affirms Plan For New 3,500-Well Gas Field in Sublette County

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

Environmental advocates failed to make a convincing case against Jonah Energy’s proposed Normally Pressured Lance (NPL) Project in western Wyoming, according to a federal court ruling issued last week.

The NPL Project would allow the drilling of up to 3,500 directional natural gas wells (about 350 new wells a year over a 10-year period), using multi-well pads, and with no more than 4 well pads per section (640 acres). The project area encompasses about 141,000 acres of mostly public land immediately south and west of the existing Jonah Gas Field in Sublette County.

The ruling by U.S. District Court of Wyoming Judge Scott Skavdahl determined that the Bureau of Land Management had taken a “hard look” at the environmental consequences and considered all relevant information when making its decision and in selecting the best alternative to balance the goals of the NLP Project and its potential environmental impacts.

What the case demonstrates is that when environmental groups don’t have a federally protected species to hang their litigation hats on, their arguments aren’t nearly as effective at stalling or halting projects when a case makes it to the federal court.

The lawsuit was filed by the Upper Green River Alliance, Western Watersheds Project and Center for Biological Diversity. They claimed that the BLM acted arbitrarily and capriciously in approving the project because the agency failed to take a “hard look” at impacts to greater sage grouse and pronghorn antelope populations, which they claimed violated provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

But NEPA is a procedural law that requires the federal agency to consider all relevant factors and articulate a legitimate connection between the facts and the ultimate decision. It doesn’t mandate an outcome, and the judge found that the BLM did a comprehensive job in laying out relevant information and connecting that to its decision. As Skavdahl wrote in the decision, “NEPA does not mandate certain results, yet Petitioners only challenge the substance of the decision.”

Twice in his 47-page decision, Skavdahl cited a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision that noted NEPA prohibits “uninformed” rather than “unwise” agency action. It’s worthwhile to look at exactly what the Supreme Court said in that case. It stated, “Other statutes may impose substantive environmental obligations on federal agencies, but NEPA merely prohibits uninformed — rather than unwise — agency action.”

That Supreme Court decision set out that “it is now well settled that NEPA itself does not mandate particular results, but simply prescribes the necessary process.” Because the BLM had done a comprehensive job in disclosing the potential environmental impacts of the NPL project, its decision withstood the legal challenge, in accordance with the 1989 Supreme Court determination that “If the adverse environmental effects of the proposed action are adequately identified and evaluated, the agency is not constrained by NEPA from deciding that other values outweigh the environmental costs.”

Unlike federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act that do mandate certain outcomes such those heavily favoring protection of federally protected species and their habitats, NEPA has no such requirement. Thus, the federal agency is able to weigh other factors or values in making its decision.

Skavdahl’s decision explicitly acknowledges Wyoming’s jurisdiction for wildlife within the project area by stating, “The State of Wyoming effectively owns the pronghorn and sage grouse species (as it does all wildlife) within the NPL Project Area.” And it’s worth noting that the State of Wyoming had defended the BLM decision on the NPL Project in the legal arguments in Skavhahl’s court.

While the BLM determined that there may indeed be wildlife loss and habitat degradation in the NPL project area, it also set forth a suite of development restrictions, stipulations, and mitigations that the agency may impose as development proceeds.

Factors Other Than Wildlife

When issuing its record of decision for the NPL Project in 2018, the BLM took note of the nation’s goal of energy independence, and that “the NPL project could unlock up to 7 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of natural gas and between 17.5 and 140 million barrels of oil over the 40-year life of the project.

The proposed project could also create approximately 950 jobs during the development phase and generate $17.85 billion in total project revenues with Federal royalties amounting to about $2.2 billion, of which about $1.1 billion would go to the State of Wyoming.”

The agency stated that it had selected the development alternative it felt best addressed concerns “associated with conserving a broad range of resource values and focusing development in the least environmentally sensitive areas.”

As Skavdahl noted in the court decision, the BLM’s decision “was the best choice to avoid and reduce impacts to the environment and sensitive wildlife while still allowing for recovery of natural gas resources” and “Jonah Energy is allowed to move forward on the NPL Project only by complying with a long list of resource protection measures…”

After more than a decade of planning, and four years of litigation in the federal court system, Skavdahl’s decision sets the stage for NPL to finally come to fruition – should Jonah Energy decide when the time is right to proceed.

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.

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Cat Urbigkit: Buffalo Commons, Version 2022

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

It was back in the 1980s that Deborah and Frank Popper published their “daring proposal” to reverse the settlement of America’s Great Plains by having the federal government purchase private property to create a Buffalo Commons they described as the “world’s largest historic preservation project, the ultimate national park. Most of the Great Plains will become what all of the United States once was – a vast land mass, largely empty and unexploited.”

“We are suggesting that the region be returned to its original pre-white state, that it be, in effect, deprivatized,” according to their essay published in Planning magazine. “{T}he government will take the newly emptied Plains and tear down the fences, replant the shortgrass, and restock the animals, including the buffalo.”

Thirty-five years later, the Bureau of Land Management’s approval last week to convert livestock grazing permits from cattle to bison to graze public lands in Montana sets the stage for the 21st Century version of the Poppers’ Buffalo Commons.

But instead of the federal government buying up private property to make a nature reserve, it’s the American Prairie Reserve, a non-profit Montana-based organization that has built up more than $100 million in assets since its founding about 20 years ago.

APR’s stated goal is to create the largest nature reserve in the contiguous United States. Although the nonprofit is located in Montana, that’s not where its money originated. Big business, big money, is funding creation of the reserve.

APR’s strategy is straight-forward: “purchase and permanently hold title to private lands that glue together a vast mosaic of existing public lands so that the region is managed thoughtfully and collaboratively with state and federal agencies for wildlife conservation and public access.” Through the purchase of private ranchlands, the group hopes to “stitch together” more than 5,000 square miles of public lands “in order to create a seamlessly managed wildlife complex.”

How does a large region of public land under multiple-use mandates of the Bureau of Land Management become a “wildlife complex?” Enter APR’s bison program.

When APR purchases a ranch, it also acquires the base property and associated livestock grazing permits for public lands administered by the BLM. Now the APR has convinced the BLM to convert those cattle allotments to bison allotments. That’s not unheard of – there are other grazing permits for bison use on BLM-administered lands in the Western states.



But those previous bison permits are for commercial bison production, which is livestock production. That’s not what APR is doing. They are running a “conservation” herd of bison– under a livestock grazing permit.

The BLM decision authorizes year-round bison grazing on three APR grazing permits, and seasonal bison grazing on three others. When the BLM authorized APR to switch from cattle to bison, that authorization used a 1:1 conversion ratio, meaning that for every cow permitted, one bison is now permitted. The decision allows for nearly 8,000 animal unit months of permitted use by bison.

The ironic part of this is that when the Taylor Grazing Act was enacted by Congress in 1934, it specifically stated that the purpose of the law was “to stop injury to the public grazing lands by preventing over-grazing and soil deterioration, to provide for their orderly use, improvement, and development, to stabilize the livestock industry dependent upon the public range, and for other purposes.”

The law provided for grazing permits to be issued with preference be given to landowners “engaged in the livestock business.” Does it seem APR is in the livestock business? Only if you warp or redefine that phrase.

APR isn’t engaged in the livestock business, and that will be at the core of the arguments that will surely wind up in federal court. The Taylor Grazing Act didn’t specifically define livestock, so the BLM issued regulations doing so, and those regulations define livestock as “Livestock or kind of livestock means species of domestic livestock – cattle, sheep, horses, burros, and goats.”

Those federal regulations adopted in 1978 authorized the BLM to issue “special grazing permits … authorizing grazing use by privately owned or controlled indigenous animals. These special grazing permits could be “issued at the discretion of the authorized officer. This use shall be consistent with multiple-use objectives.”

The BLM has decided it has the authority to authorize livestock grazing permits for bison as “indigenous animals” even though they aren’t used in livestock production. APR readily acknowledges that its bison are a “conservation herd” in which calves won’t be raised and sent to market for human consumption.

To control the population, APR will distribute some animals to other conservation herds, such as Native American tribes. Otherwise, APR allows hunting of a limited number of bison but refers to it as “public harvest” instead of public “hunting” – specifically because it views its bison as livestock (in order to get the grazing permits).

It’s bad public policy for those with deep pockets, enabled by a federal agency, to use their coffers to buy public policy. In this case, the BLM didn’t conduct an environmental review of turning a large portion of north-central Montana into a nature reserve, with a herd of bison at its core.

Instead, it did an assessment of switching livestock classifications on existing livestock grazing permits, knowing all the while that livestock grazing is not what is being done here. It allows the establishment of a bison herd on public land, complete with hunting – even though it’s called “harvest.” 

The semantical gymnastics by BLM and APR remind me of former President Bill Clinton’s famous, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” That’s certainly not an honorable or honest path to follow.

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.

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Cat Urbigkit: Ending Federal Wolf Oversight, or Permanent Protection?

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

As Wyoming nears the time that federal oversight of its wolf management program is set to expire, wolf advocates are fervently campaigning to jerk management authority away from state wildlife departments in favor of federal protection for the species.

This is the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) decision to remove Wyoming’s gray wolves from the list of federally protected species under the Endangered Species Act.

Unfortunately, Wyoming wasn’t able to celebrate its success with wolf recovery back then, as litigation soon placed the state’s wolf population back under federal protection.

It took another five years before a federal appeals court finally ruled that FWS was correct that wolves in Wyoming had recovered and no longer required federal protection. At last, in April 2017, Wyoming regained its management authority for wolves.

Federal Oversight

While wolves were under state management for the last five years, the FWS has performed an oversight role that is due to expire soon. With about a month remaining to the end of FWS’s “post-delisting monitoring period,” state officials must file one more annual report on its wolf population management and monitoring program with federal officials.

The goal of post-delisting monitoring is to ensure that the recovered species does not deteriorate, according to FWS, “and if an unanticipated decline is detected, to take measures to halt the decline to avoid relisting the species as threatened or endangered.”

When it announced the decision to delist Wyoming’s wolves, FWS said it would reinitiate a status review to determine if relisting is warranted:

(1) If the wolf population falls below the minimum recovery level of 10 breeding pairs or 100 wolves in Wyoming statewide (including Yellowstone National Park (YNP) and the Wind River Indian Reservation) at the end of any 1 year;

(2) If the wolf population segment in Wyoming excluding YNP and the Wind River Indian Reservation falls below 10 breeding pairs or 100 wolves at the end of the year for 3 consecutive years;

(3) If the wolf population in Wyoming falls below 15 breeding pairs or 150 wolves, including YNP and the Wind River Indian Reservation, for 3 consecutive years; or

(4) If a change in State law or management objectives would significantly increase the threat to the wolf population.

None of those things happened. Wyoming has not changed its management of wolves in Wyoming, and the state’s wolf population has met recovery goals for 20 years. By the end of 2020, Wyoming had at least 327 wolves and 22 breeding pairs, well above the minimum recovery criteria.

But that may not keep wolves from being placed back under federal jurisdiction – possibly with even more stringent management provisions than those in place for decades after wolves were released in Yellowstone.

Emergency

As the Wyoming Game & Fish Department prepares what should be its final report to federal officials on wolf management in Wyoming, escaping the unneeded federal oversight of its successful wolf management efforts, wolf advocates have mounted a comprehensive campaign to have wolves throughout the Northern Rockies placed back under federal protection, and have advocated for more stringent protections than those associated with the experimental population status that accompanied the release of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s.

Citing changes in state laws in Montana and Idaho that provide for expansive wolf take, wolf advocates were able to convince FWS to conduct a 12-month status review of wolves in the Northern Rockies. But with a federal court decision placing wolves across most of the nation back under federal protection last month, wolf advocates are now calling for an “emergency relisting” in all three Rocky Mountain states, Wyoming included.

Instead of celebrating Wyoming’s successful track record in maintaining its wolf population above recovery goals, wolf advocates still miffed that wolves have dual status in Wyoming are decrying Wyoming’s wolf management as “hostile” and “draconian.”

Dead or Alive?

While wolf advocates spend much time ginning up public outrage over dead wolves, what they don’t do is focus on the fact that wolf recovery is based on live wolves – not dead ones. And the number of live wolves in the region remains far larger than that required by federal wolf recovery criteria.

Since live wolves don’t generate outrage, or increase petition clicks, or result in increased donations to the cause, wolf advocates prefer to focus public attention on dead wolves. Wyoming’s 2021 wolf hunting season in the trophy game area resulted in a harvest of only 32 of the 47-wolf maximum quota before the season closed. That’s draconian?

Despite the public hysteria over changes to state laws which could result in more wolves being taken in Montana, that state’s wolf hunting and trapping seasons closed with 273 wolves taken from the statewide harvest threshold of 450. Montana’s annual wolf harvest varies from 223 to almost 400 wolves “without a demonstrable negative effect on population growth.” How dare they!

Contrary to the claims of “unlimited wolf killing” throughout the Northern Rockies states, each of the three states does regulate wolf harvest. Despite claims that Idaho would kill 90% of its wolf population, Idaho still has more than 1,500 wolves. Wyoming has more than double the number of wolves required for recovery, and Montana’s wolf population has remained 6-8 times larger than recovery targets, with more than 1,100 wolves. But sure, wolves need federal protection from the states?

There is no emergency. That’s a bogus claim based on an unfavorable view of wolf management that allows wolves to be killed. It’s more convenient to claim that wolves are being savagely hunted by wolf-haters rather than give legitimacy to the wide diversity of people who may want to hunt and harvest wolves, or to have state officials managing wolf populations. But that doesn’t generate the level of clicks or donations as claiming that “anti-wolf legislators and extremists” have “stepped up their attacks on these vulnerable animals” while urging the Biden administration to “stop cruel wolf killings.”

The Park’s Non-Controversy

Yellowstone National Park officials complained that 25 wolves inhabiting the park during a portion of the year were killed in hunting seasons in adjacent states (mostly in Montana), yet failed to mention that the remaining park population of 89 wolves is on par with park wolf numbers for more than a decade.

Although the Park Service blamed Montana and its wolf harvest laws for the decrease in the park’s wolf population, history has repeatedly shown that once the wolf population in Yellowstone reaches a certain level, there are expected outcomes: Wolves will kill each other, pup production will be impacted by disease outbreaks, and wolves will seek new ground outside the park. It happens time and again.

The increased wolf harvest adjacent to the park this winter was a predictable result of the wolf population boom that occurred inside Yellowstone in 2020, when the wolf population increased 31% in one year to 123 wolves.

Although Yellowstone’s wolf population has fallen to 89, that number is in line with its population count over the last decade; the park wolf population has stayed in the range of 80-108 wolves with little fluctuation since 2009. Park Service documents indicate that this population level is “likely due to fewer elk in the ecosystem” than in the past, and when the wolf population increases, park officials report wolves losing condition as more wolves vie for meals from a prey base that has declined.

The park’s largest wolf population decline was in 2005, when the wolf population dropped 30% from 171 to 118 wolves, with three packs leaving the park or dissolving, wolves killing other wolves, and diseases killing pups. Just two years later, the park’s population of 124 wolves dropped 27% in one year as wolves killed each other and disease again took its toll on the high-density population.

Although Montana’s wolf harvest near the park increased this winter, the park’s wolf population remains about the same as it has over the last decade – but that doesn’t make the headlines or generate outrage. Only humans killing wolves does that.

Selling a Narrative

Pretending that wolves teeter on the brink of extinction may effective, but it’s not truthful. The three states in the Northern Rockies are managing wolves above federal recovery levels, and worldwide gray wolves are considered a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

While those signing petitions for emergency relisting claim that genetic exchange and connectivity isn’t happening with wolves under state management, the Northern Rockies wolf population has expanded into Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, and Colorado.

Remaining focused on dead wolves is an intentional strategy. If the focus is on the number of live wolves, the story is vastly different than the narrative promoted by wolf advocates.

Wolf advocates want more wolves roaming across a larger landscape, and they don’t want wolves to be killed or actively managed. That doesn’t mean the wolves are biologically threatened or endangered, though they will try to use the Endangered Species Act to get what they desire. The new strategy is to claim that the federal recovery criteria are no longer valid.

It’s clear that we can’t reach a number at which wolf advocates would agree that hunting is acceptable – indeed, some are touting proposals for permanent federal protection for both wolves and grizzly bears.

The Jackson-Hole based Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative has proposed that in the long term, management of wide-ranging species like wolves should be overseen by FWS, much like birds protected by the Migratory Birds Treaty Act. The group wrote to FWS, “Until existing regulatory and management mechanisms can be brought up to speed with modern values and modern science, we conclude that oversight by the federal government, led by the Service, remains necessary.”

Regardless of the naysayers seeking permanent wolf protections, Wyoming should celebrate its success on the 5-year anniversary of the removal of its gray wolves from the list of species federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. We’ve earned it.

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.

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Cat Urbigkit: Biden Steps Away From Protectionists’ 30 x 30 Plan

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

Last week, while the world’s attention focused on Russia’s assault on Ukraine, representatives of 164 nations gathered in Geneva, Switzerland to continue working on the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) plans “to safeguard nature” through a global biodiversity framework. A key target of that framework is to ensure that “at least 30 percent globally of land areas and of sea areas” are conserved as protected areas.

Although President Bill Clinton signed the CBD in 1993, his action was not ratified by Congress, so the United States is not a party to the convention but attends and participates via its “other governments” status in the proceedings.

A few days after taking office, President Biden signed an executive order instructing federal agencies and departments to begin work on a plan to “achieve the goal of conserving at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030” in line with the CBD. But what was initially perceived as a threatening land grab was quickly toned down when the Biden administration announced its initiative, renamed America the Beautiful, a few months later. Rather than setting aside 30% of America in protected areas, the Biden plan identified six priority areas:

  • Creating more parks and safe outdoor opportunities in nature-deprived communities.
  • Supporting Tribally led conservation and restoration priorities.
  • Expanding collaborative conservation of fish and wildlife habitats and corridors.
  • Increasing access for outdoor recreation.
  • Incentivizing and rewarding the voluntary conservation efforts of fishers, ranchers, farmers, and forest owners.
  • Creating jobs by investing in restoration and resilience projects and initiatives, including the Civilian Climate Corps.

One year into the program, the administration’s progress report does not even include an estimate of the amount of land protected, conserved or restored in the United States. Instead, it highlights cooperative and voluntary efforts to support wildlife habitat, honor private property rights, preserve working landscapes, and increase access for outdoor recreation.

While the Biden administration says it is using the America the Beautiful initiative to meet the 30 x 30 target, the plan is now put forth as “a locally led and voluntary nationwide effort that aims to conserve, connect and restore 30 percent of America’s land and waters by 2030” rather than the CBD’s demand for 30% of the globe to be set aside in “protected areas.”

The Biden administration’s next step is development of an Atlas which will be used to measure progress toward the 30 x 30 goal. Instead of simply measuring the number of acres in designated protected areas, the administration proposes to include “the progress of conservation, stewardship and restoration efforts across the country.”

That indicates that a wide variety of conservation initiatives will be included in counting progress toward the 30 x 30 goal – including acres treated for invasive species, acres enrolled in various federal and state conservation programs, private lands under conservation easements, and perhaps the many, many acres of federal lands in the West that are managed for multiple uses rather than just lands designated for wilderness preservation and national parks.

The Biden administration is aware that progress toward the 30 x 30 goal will substantially depend on what exactly is being measured, but this indicates his administration is taking a different approach than many protectionists.

Percentage-Based Conservation

During the last 40 years, various papers were published in scientific journals that all start with the premise that protected areas are the cornerstone to conservation of the world’s biological diversity and attempting to justify percentage-based global conservation targets.

In 2010, the CBD proposed that 17% of the world should be protected by 2020, but eventually the target area grew to include half the terrestrial habitats of the world under the “Nature Needs Half” theory – which also advocated depopulation of rural areas in favor of moving the human population into developed cities. The 30% by 2030 (30 x 30 plan) is regarded as only a stepping stone for the larger goal of having half the planet under protected status by 2050.

For a look into the science (or lack thereof) involved in development of these percentage-based conservation plans, read this excellent account by Simon Counsell.

Protected Areas

Mark Dowie has written extensively about how setting aside lands into protected areas for conservation has resulted in the displacement of millions of people around the globe (on every continent except Antarctica). There’s a name for these people: conservation refugees.

Protected areas in developing nations usually entail eviction of local human populations, and enforcement of boundaries. Africa’s war on poaching became “green militarization” and “fortress conservation” with resulting violence against local inhabitants, and evictions due to lands designated as protected areas furthering human impoverishment.

Not all protected areas result in violence against their former inhabitants, but restricting traditional uses such as hunting and wood-gathering is common. And it’s not just happening in foreign countries.

As Dowie writes, “The preference for ‘virgin’ wilderness has lingered on in a movement that has tended to value all nature but human nature, and refused to recognize the positive wildness in human beings.”

New Conservation

Members of the conservation science community are now embroiled in the “new conservation debate,” pitting the “nature protectionists” who favor setting aside lands and waters for the sake of biodiversity while restricting human use, with “social conservationists” who believe that severing humans from nature is a bad idea and that sustainable use and poverty alleviation should be incorporated into conservation planning. It appears that the Biden administration is turning away from the nature protectionists and his policies align with these social conservationists.

Old School

Biden’s policies that emphasize keeping humans connected with nature while conserving the natural world isn’t in keeping with an active faction of his political party in Congress. A group of Democratic members of Congress have endorsed a proposal to vastly expand protected areas in the Northern Rockies.

The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) would designate all of the inventoried roadless areas in the Northern Rockies – an additional 23 million acres – as designated Wilderness areas, add 1,800 miles of rivers and streams to the list of federally protected Wild and Scenic Rivers, and create a series of federally designated wildlife migration corridors. These lands and waters are located in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.

The legislation is sponsored by Congressional members who do not live anywhere near the areas to be protected. When filing the bill in the U.S. House last year, Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York said in a statement, ““This legislation would bring us significantly closer to the 30 x 30 Resolution by protecting our nation’s wild lands, animals, and ecosystems.”

With New York’s Maloney the primary sponsor, she has been joined by 36 other Democrats from throughout the country as cosponsors – only one who lives within a state that would be impacted by the legislation. A similar bill filed in the Senate by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island), has 11 cosponsors, none of whom represent an area that stands to be impacted by the bill.

If the past is any indication, NREPA has little chance of moving forward, since it has stalled numerous times in the past. Perhaps Biden’s Democratic colleagues in Congress will eventually leave the protectionist camp and join the social conservationists in the realization that conserving biodiversity should be paired with sustaining human livelihoods and communities.

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.

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Cat Urbigkit: Tom James & Wyoming’s Boondock Saints

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

In a bizarre St. Patrick’s Day salute, Senator Tom James of Green River likened himself and five other state senators to the violent religious extremists featured in the cult classic film The Boondock Saints.

James’ Facebook post referred to himself and fellow senators Anthony Bouchard of Cheyenne, Tim French of Powell, Troy McKeown of Gillette, Tim Salazar of Riverton, and Bo Biteman of Ranchester as the “we six” in a revised version of The Boondock Saints script in which men who believe themselves to be shepherds ordained by God become vigilantes who hunt down and kill wicked men – for the good of mankind. 

Here’s the side-by-side view of the Facebook post by Senator Tom James District 13 compared to The Boondock Saints script:




James’ omitted the movie’s lines “Each day we will spill their blood till it rains down from the skies” and sending the offenders “to whatever god you wish.” Instead of having the hunted pay “the dearest cost,” James claimed the offenders would be exposed “for who they really are.”

James’ post warned, “Do not dishonor your seat, do not {sic} do not lie, do not steal, and do not take advantage of the power the people have so graciously besowed {sic} upon you.” Those who ignore these codes of behavior “will pay by the people casting you out of your honored position,” according to James.

“But if you do, one day you will look behind you and you will see we six, and on that day, you will reap it. And we will ensure the people know of your deceit and your corruption.”

Conflicts

Senator James’ Boondock Saints post came just a day after he penned a long post suggesting that a dozen state senators are violating the Government Ethics Act, and stating, “To anyone reading this, if any of these individuals reside in your county, you can turn this information over to your county attorney for investigation and prosecution.” James noted that violation of the law “constitutes sufficient cause for termination of a public employee’s employment or removal of a public official or public member from his office or position.”

James had a long list of supposed violators, calling out Dan Dockstader, Larry Hicks, Ogden Driskill, Jim Anderson, Ed Cooper, Affie Ellis, Dan Furphy, Dave Kinskey, R.J. Kost, Tara Nethercott, Drew Perkins, Jeff Wasserburger. While these are all Republican colleagues, James also named Democrat Mike Gierau.

Although James cites the Wyoming Government Ethics & Disclosures Act (9-13-101 to 9-13-109), he apparently doesn’t understand the law, which states: “A public official, public member or public employee shall not make an official decision or vote on an official decision if the public official, public member or public employee has a personal or private interest in the matter. In determining whether he has a personal or private interest in a matter the public official shall recognize the importance of his right to represent his constituency and shall abstain from voting only in clear cases of a personal or private interest as defined in this subsection.”

The statute is clear about what constitutes a personal or private interest by noting it is “an interest which is direct and immediate as opposed to speculative and remote” and “is an interest that provides the public official, public employee or public member, a greater benefit or a lesser detriment than it does for a large or substantial group or class of persons who are similarly situated.”

To suggest that a legislator should not vote on anything for which that person is remotely involved in is ludicrous, but that is pretty much what James’ suggests. For example, James suggests that because Senator Dan Dockstader owns a media company, and a communications provider places advertisements with that media company, Dockstader should declare a conflict of interest when serving on the Wyoming Business Council (WBC) broadband advisory board. That’s ridiculous. 

Similarly, James complains that since Drew Perkins is attached to numerous businesses and some of those businesses have participated in disaster recovery funding through WBC, Perkins should declare a conflict of interest when it comes to funding WBC. Likewise, since Jeff Wasserburger works for a local Board of Cooperative Educational Services, Wasserburger should declare a conflict of interest “on funding of education topics since that is what they do.”

I think James’ allegations of unethical behavior by his senate colleagues reveals more about James and his lack of understanding the basic rules and functions of the government for which his is elected than it reflects on the work of his colleagues.

Pot, Meet Kettle

The state legislative website lists James’ occupation as “surface miner,” yet a quick search of recent mining legislation in 2020 found that James didn’t declare a conflict of interest in voting on legislation for mining permit applications. Nor did he refrain from voting to reduce the number of WBC voting members, even though the company he works for received $500,000 in “Coronavirus Mitigation Stipend” through the WBC – from a program that James voted in favor of a few months earlier.

There is a reason James could freely vote on these issues: he didn’t have a conflict of interest. Neither did his senate colleagues, and James’ allegations are hypocritical.

James’ post also confuses voluntary service on a board or foundation with providing a financial benefit that would be reason to declare a conflict of interest, and included a laundry list of other grievances, sticking to his allegation that “The Majority Floor Leader assaulted me, but not before calling me a vulgar name and a liar.” Cowboy State Daily previously reported on this incident.

James concluded: “In summary, I believe these people have no room to talk about the actions of another senator when they themselves are doing things that are far worse than anything Bouchard is accused of. These people should be investigated for what they have done and are currently doing and at the very least remove themselves from this honorable position as it is clear (if found guilty) they do not have the people’s best interest at heart.”

A Trend

James’ fellow “we-sixer” Bouchard was removed from his legislative committee assignments as was detailed here. These kerfuffles are the latest public viewing of uncivil behavior involving distinct factions of elected members of the Wyoming GOP, complete with public name calling and claims that veiled threats are simply hyperbole and aren’t to be taken literally.

Last fall Bouchard created a social media post suggesting White House Chief Medical Advisory Dr. Anthony Fauci be tried and executed. A few months later, McKeown posted a meme with a “fix bayonets” and “Remember it’s the 3rd rib” when expressing frustration over mask mandates.

Back in November, state senator and Congressional wannabe Anthony Bouchard named the same group of six men James referred to as the “we six” as Wyoming’s “Senate Six-Pack.”

Last month James posted Wyoming Senate rankings from the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), with James holding the #1 spot, French #4, Biteman #5, McKeown #6, Bouchard #7, and Salazar #11.

For a person who doesn’t understand the law he’s bound by, it’s interesting that James also runs a Wyoming Voter Education website that claims to be “a non-profit dedicated to informing voters on our processes.”

As part of that initiative, James travels around the state “presenting vital information to public schools, private schools, and to anyone who would like to become an informed voter.” According to his schedule, that included a presentation to the John Birch Society in Evanston earlier this year.

Not familiar with JBS? The group’s current crusade is to “Defund Public Schools.” The JBS advocates three actions to “reclaim America’s children and its future:

  • Get our children out of public schools
  • Encourage faith leaders to form a cohesive crusade against public education
  • Defunding all state and local public-school programs and abolishing the federal Department of Education.”

So what should a voter in Wyoming make of all this? I suggest that when it comes to Wyoming’s version of the Boondock Saints, when they show you who they are, believe them.

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Cat Urbigkit: Government in Sunshine — Your Right to Know

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

“A popular government, without popular information, or the mean of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”—James Madison, 1822.

This is Sunshine Week, a week in which news organizations across the country highlight the importance of government transparency and celebrate the public’s right to know the workings of its government – a critical principle in democracy. The date of this celebration is no coincidence since Sunshine Week marks the week of Madison’s birth 271 years ago.

Your right to know is enshrined in federal and state “government in sunshine” laws that provide mechanisms to ensure that government is open, transparent, and accountable to its citizens. Sunshine laws provide for public oversight of governmental functions through provisions that provide for public attendance at governmental meetings as well as access to governmental records. These laws mandate that the public’s business is discussed and decided in public view. Here’s a quick guide to the primary federal and sunshine laws that apply in Wyoming.

FOIA

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), first enacted in 1966, applies to federal agencies and establishes a legal right of access to government records, provides a presumption of disclosure, and requires records to be released to any member of the public, unless one of the FOIA’s nine exemptions applies.

FOIA provides that when processing requests, agencies should withhold information only if they reasonably foresee that disclosure would harm an interest protected by an exemption, or if disclosure is prohibited by law. Agencies should also consider whether partial disclosure of information is possible whenever they determine that full disclosure is not possible and they should take reasonable steps to segregate and release nonexempt information.

“At its core, the FOIA fosters public trust: trust that those who are charged with faithfully executing the laws are in fact doing so with integrity and in the public’s interest,” said Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the U.S. Justice Department in remarks earlier this week.

To learn more about FOIA, how to file a FOIA request for records, and to review recently released documents, visit www.foia.gov.

FOIA Reading Rooms

Many federal government agencies and departments have online FOIA reading rooms where certain records of public interest are already posted. For example, the Department of the Interior has a variety of FOIA libraries and reading rooms, which can be accessed here. And here’s the BLM FOIA Reading Room.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has a FOIA reading room, appropriately called The Vault.

You can even file a request to see if the FBI has a record about you. It’s a little more complicated, and involves the Privacy Act, but the option exists.

The Central Intelligence Agency FOIA reading room offers a fascinating record of declassified intelligence information – everything from the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe to the animal used in spycraft.

Federal Sunshine

The federal Government in the Sunshine Act, passed by Congress in 1976, declared it to be the policy of Congress that federal agency proceedings be open to the public except in limited circumstances, and required that agencies provide public notice of meetings.

The act applies only to federal agencies headed by collegial bodies (boards, councils, and commissions) whose members are presidentially appointed and to any subdivision of such an agency authorized to act on its behalf. Passage of this act at the federal level gave rise to similar laws at the state level across the country.

Wyoming’s Open Meetings

The Wyoming Open Meetings law (16-4-401) declares, “The agencies of Wyoming exist to conduct public business. Certain deliberations and actions shall be taken openly as provided in this act.”

The law states: “All meetings of the governing body of an agency are public meetings, open to the public at all times, except as otherwise provided. No action of a governing body of an agency shall be taken except during a public meeting following notice of the meeting in accordance with this act. Action taken at a meeting not in conformity with this act is null and void and not merely voidable.”

The law provides that a member of the public “is not required as a condition of attendance at any meeting to register his name, to supply information, to complete a questionnaire, or fulfill any other condition precedent to his attendance. A person seeking recognition at the meeting may be required to give his name and affiliation.”

The law provides for exceptions to open meetings. These executive sessions are not open to the public, and may be held to discuss: matters posing a threat to the security of public or private property, or a threat to the public’s right of access; to deliberate on personnel matters or litigation; matters of national security; examinations by a licensing agency; determinations of terms, parole or release of an individual from a correctional or penal institution; when considering real estate deals; accepting confidential donations or bequests; information classified as confidential by law; employment negotiations; disciplinary actions involving students, and; safety and security planning that, if disclosed, would pose a threat to the safety of life or property.

Wyoming’s Public Records

The Wyoming Public Records Act (16-4-201) declares, “All public records shall be open for inspection by any person at reasonable times, during business hours of the state entity or political subdivision.” This statute applies to governmental entities in Wyoming including state agencies and political subdivisions such as county, city, town, school district and special districts.

The act defines public records as “any information in a physical form created, accepted, or obtained by a governmental entity in furtherance of its official function and transaction of public business which is not privileged or confidential by law.” The law also includes a variety of exemptions and sets out a 30-day general timeline for agency response to requests, as well as determines when fees may be applicable.

A key legal decision on public records was issued by the Wyoming Supreme Court in 1983 in the case of Sheridan Newspapers, Inc. v. City of Sheridan, in which the court noted the importance of “making the public’s business available to the public whenever that is possible.

The courts, legislature, administrative agencies, and the state, county and municipal governments should be ever mindful that theirs is public business and the public has a right to know how its servants are conducting its business.

Furthermore, it is for government to remember that the written, viewing and broadcasting press are the eyes and ears of the people. The citizenry must be permitted to hear and see what public officers and their employees say and do whenever the imparting of this knowledge does not run contrary to the rights of those otherwise protected in a way that would result in disclosure having the effect of inflicting such irreparable harm as is recognized at law.”

The court ruled that if a record custodian declines to allow inspection of a record, “he must state specific public-policy reasons for the refusal. These reasons provide a basis for review in the event of court action. The custodian of the records must satisfy the court that the public policy presumption in favor of disclosure is outweighed by even more important public-policy considerations.”

“Whether harm to the public interest from inspection outweighs the public interest in inspection is a question of law,” according to the court. “The duty of the custodian is to specify reasons for nondisclosure and the court’s role is to decide whether the reasons asserted are sufficient.”

Ombudsman

In 2019, the Wyoming Legislature created a state public records ombudsman, a position that is appointed by the governor, to mediate complaints about public records requests submitted to state and local governments.

The ombudsman can determine whether good cause existed for an agency to not meet the 30-day response deadline to release documents, as well as address other complaints. Mediation through the ombudsman is an option to seeking District Court review of an agency determination but is not required. Learn more about the ombudsman.

For more:

Many Wyoming reporters are well versed in the nuance of the sunshine laws, thanks to groups like the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. RCFP’s Open Government Guide provide a handy and detailed overview that any citizen can use to shine some sunshine on government.

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Cat Urbigkit: Energy Industry Exits Russia, While ExxonMobil Relaunches Wyoming Project

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine last month, the U.S. and many of its global allies began imposing wide-ranging sanctions that have already resulted in an exodus of international energy industry companies from their Russian holdings and operations.

Although the sanctions announced prior to Tuesday did not directly targeted the export of Russian oil and gas, energy companies stood to be impacted by the sanctions that shut Russia out of global financial markets and restrict technology exports to the country. On Tuesday, President Biden turn further action by announcing a U.S. ban of all imports of Russian oil and gas and coal.

The Exodus

Exxon Neftegas Limited

ExxonMobil pledged it will not invest in new developments in Russia and will begin the process to discontinue operations of the Sakhalin-1 project, which it operates on behalf of a consortium of Japanese, Indian and Russian companies.

The oil and gas project is reported to be the one of the single largest international direct investments in Russia, and is based off Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East. ExxonMobil and Japan each reportedly have a 30% stake in the project, while Russia and India each have 20% interests.

BP announced it would divest of its 20% stake in Russia’s state-owned Rosneft, followed by Shell’s divestment in its 27.5% stake in the Sakhalin-II liquified natural gas facility. Shell has about $3 billion in assets in Russian ventures, while Reuters reports BP has $25 billion invested in the country, and ExxonMobil’s Russian assets were valued at $4 billion.

Oilfield service firms Halliburton, Schlumberger and Baker Hughes all operate in Russia, with their Russian operations reportedly generating from about 2%-20% of each company’s revenues, but the companies have not yet announced their plans in regard to operations in Russia.

Wyoming Expansion

ExxonMobil Shute Creek Treating Facility Subpart RR Monitoring, Reporting and Verification Plan

Last fall ExxonMobil announced that after a two-year delay it was initiating the contracting process to expand its carbon capture and storage (CCS) facility in southwestern Wyoming, and last week the company announced it had made a final investment decision to expand CCS at its Shute Creek facility.

The estimated $400 million investment further reduces greenhouse gas emissions, supporting corporate-wide emissions reductions plans, according to the company.

ExxonMobil’s CCS facility near LaBarge currently captures nearly 20% of all human-made CO2 captured in the world each year, the company reported. The expansion project will capture up to 1.2 million metric tons of CO2, in addition to the 6-7 million metric tons captured at LaBarge each year.

“Carbon capture and storage is a readily available technology that can play a critical role in helping society reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Joe Blommaert, president of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions. “By expanding carbon capture and storage at LaBarge, we can reduce emissions from our operations and continue to demonstrate the large-scale capability for carbon capture and storage to address emissions from vital sectors of the global economy, including industrial manufacturing.”

ExxonMobil completed front-end engineering and design work for the project in December 2021 and expects to issue the engineering, procurement, and construction contract later this month. Pending regulatory approvals, startup is estimated in 2025, according to a statement from the company.

Shute Creek

ExxonMobil’s carbon capture project adds new process equipment to the existing Shute Creek facility in Lincoln County and the company’s adjacent carbon dioxide (CO2) compression facility in Sweetwater County, as well as a new CO2 injection well and pipeline in Lincoln County. ExxonMobil’s LaBarge gas wellfield and Black Canyon facility in Sublette County have been operating since 1986, and the Shute Creek facility was constructed in 1984.

The Shute Creek Treatment Facility (SCTF) processes gas produced from the LaBarge field, handling the lowest hydrocarbon content natural gas commercially produced in the world, according to a 2011 report in Energy Procedia. The company reported: “The gas composition entering Shute Creek is 65% CO2, 21% methane, 7% nitrogen, 5% hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and 0.6% helium. The SCTF separates CO2, methane, and helium for sale and removes hydrogen sulfide for disposal.”

Most of the CO2 captured at Shute Creek is used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) projects, which the company notes, “has been clearly recognized as an approach to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions while offering the important benefit of providing incremental production of oil and gas.”

Some environmental advocates take issue with EOR projects being viewed as climate friendly. “Going forward, even if it could come close to its target, selling CO2 to produce more oil out of the ground (EOR) is ‘passing the buck’ in terms of managing the release of emissions – it is not a net-zero solution,” says the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, which seeks “to accelerate the transition to a diverse, sustainable and profitable energy economy.”

Injection wells

ExxonMobil Shute Creek Treating Facility Subpart RR Monitoring, Reporting and Verification Plan

ExxonMobil has operated two acid gas injection wells in the Madison Formation since 2005, taking the H2S and some of the CO2 removed from the produced raw gas and injecting it back into the Madison reservoir. The process provides for acid gas disposal while sequestering CO2. The gas is injected at a depth of 17,500 feet below the surface and approximately 43 miles away from the main producing areas of LaBarge, according to the company’s monitoring report filed with regulatory officials.

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon released a statement supporting ExxonMobil’s expansion project: “Our state has always been a leader in carbon capture, utilization and sequestration and we are pleased to see projects like this that bring that technology forward. Wyoming and our industries do more than talk about carbon capture technologies. We help develop and deploy them. This announcement is a great example of what industry can do to reduce greenhouse emissions and develop resources.”

In addition to producing natural gas, ExxonMobil’s LaBarge facility is one of the world’s largest sources of helium, producing approximately 20% of global supply. Helium is an essential component for health care equipment such as magnetic resonance imaging, high-tech products including fiber optics and semiconductors, and materials for space travel, according to the company.

Community Benefits

ExxonMobil estimates that the expansion project will involve an average of 162 construction jobs over 29 months, with a peak workforce of 388, and creation of 11 new permanent positions added to its existing 200-person workforce in the area. Sales and use taxes during construction are estimated at $3.9 million for Lincoln County, and $3.2 million in Sweetwater County. The company’s 25-year estimate of ad valorem taxes total $18 million for Lincoln County, and $10 million for Sweetwater County.

Impact Assistance

As part of the permitting process for the project, the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council granted ExxonMobil’s permit to construct and operate the CCS facility in May 2020, and agreed that local communities should receive state impact assistance payments.

Impact assistance funds help to cover costs associated with a project’s impact to local communities due to the short-term increase in population during construction, such as impacts to roads, and emergency and medical services. Communities in Lincoln and Sweetwater counties will receive a total of about $2.5 million in impact assistance payments over a two-year period.

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Cat Urbigkit: What the WYGOP Stands For

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

While the Wyoming Legislature meets and considers GOP-backed measures imposing additional restrictions on voting in the name of “election integrity,” it’s worthwhile to take a look at voting patterns in the state.

In 2020, 52% of voting-age Wyomingites were registered to vote in the primary election, but only about 32% of these folks actually voted. That voter turnout was up from the paltry 25% in 2012’s primary, but those are anemic numbers as compared to voter participation in the primaries of the 1990s.

Despite the low participation rate in the primaries, the GOP focus isn’t on increasing the number of Republicans voting its primaries, and the party’s actions may set that number into further decline.

After the 2020 primary, an additional 25,000 Wyoming people registered as Republicans and cast their ballots in the general election, and nearly 63% of all registered voters in Wyoming participated in the election. The GOP had momentum, but what’s happened since? Since shortly before the Jan. 6, 2021 rally and attack on our nation’s capitol, the Wyoming Republican Party’s number of registered voters has declined by more than 13,000 by the end of February.

The GOP strategy to further restrict voting rights stands in stark contrast to its pledges to protect what it calls “sacred rights.”

While the Wyoming Republican Party State Central Committee is busy casting out those it disfavors, attempting to quell internal dissent, and now requires that all disputes between party members appear before a Wyoming GOP tribunal, it also claims to be protecting our “sacred rights.” The GOP’s pursuit of “Riding for the Brand” has turned authoritarian, requiring strict obedience to its authority at the expense of personal freedoms.

Although the Wyoming Republican Party says it stands for freedom and the preservation of the liberties upon which our nation was built, the policy positions adopted by the party’s State Central Committee (SCC) in the last few years belie that claim.

The U.S. Constitution’s provision granting automatic citizenship at birth needs fixed, according to the SCC, to only apply “to an individual born of at least one United States citizen or a legal resident.” Any law enforcement officer should be “allowed to ask the legal status of criminal suspects and to aid the federal government in the deportation of criminal illegal aliens.” I’m guessing that not many of the attendees at that SCC meeting were from minority populations that have more experience with racial profiling.

Those seeking citizenship in America “should assimilate themselves to the United States of America,” according to the GOP. What does that statement even mean? Giving up their cultures because they become U.S. citizens? Let Native Americans (you know, those people who were here first) tell you about their experiences with cultural assimilation.

While the SCC wants English designated as the official language of the country, what’s interesting is its reasoning: since “multiple languages being spoken cause a breakdown of communication, and is divisive,” the GOP offers the English language “in the spirit of unity.” Guess the party didn’t “assimilate” with the Natives that already inhabited Wyoming when their ancestors arrived in the region. Nevermind that while most people in the U.S. do indeed speak English, millions of our citizens also speak other languages in this vast melting pot that is America.

In its push to sustain equality, the SCC distinguishes “Christian” refugees from “illegal immigrants,” proclaiming that “persecuted Christians are denied refugee status worldwide,” so “the Wyoming Republican Party will welcome persecuted Christians after a reliable vetting process.”

These representatives of the party of freedom proudly proclaim that all humans are equal, but then adopt resolutions carving out those freedoms.

While proclaiming it “stands for freedom in health care,” the SCC states “We will stand for freedom and the opportunity to choose the medical procedures, vaccinations, or examinations used upon any person’s body” – but that freedom doesn’t extend to a woman’s healthcare decisions. The GOP wants abortion outlawed, even in cases of rape or incest. So hey ladies, don’t worry your pretty little heads about it – the GOP has made that medical decision for you.

And since womankind obviously needs protection, the GOP wants to ban transgender girls and transwomen from women’s sports. To be fair, in 2020 the GOP also wanted to ban transgender boys and transmen from men’s sports, but earlier this year decided to only seek the ban in women’s sports.

The SCC-approved resolutions include ad nauseam references to traditional marriage, civilized society and the importance of marriage being a union between a man and a woman, but also refers to undefined “alternative lifestyles” while complaining about “sexual orientation and gender identity” being added to anti-discrimination laws and practices. The GOP claims that adolescents “experience confusion about many things, including sexual orientation and gender identity, and they are particularly vulnerable to environmental influences” but most will grow out of it, according to the resolutions used justify the party’s opposition to transgender athletes in selected sports.

While I believe the SCC is in the dark ages when it comes to gay and transgender issues, I’m thankful that science continued to advance. The first major medical treatise on transsexuality was published in the 1960s, about the same time as major medical advances such as the development of vaccines for polio, measles and mumps, and the first human heart transplants and balloon catheters. Since then, science has cloned a sheep, drafted the human genome, developed artificial kidneys, eradicated smallpox, and discovered that HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, and then developed a treatment for what had until then been a fatal disease. Fortunately, gender-related health care has advanced as well, and is a far cry from the GOP mentality of hoping they’ll grow out of it.

And while the SCC supports the military, it prefers that gay members of the military remain in the closet. That 2020 policy resolution declares that “the presence of on-duty, transgender or homosexual relationships in the military may greatly weaken the effectiveness of the military” while demanding a return to Democratic President Bill Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy to “mitigate the open perpetuation of homosexuals in the military.”

Freedom. Equality. Family. But only as defined by the SCC.

The SCC “believes that all education standards shall be delegated to the local school boards, with the State Board of Education having an advisory role” – except for its new position urging the “banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory, and the 1619 Project from all Wyoming public schools and public colleges.” Rather than following the conservative principle that less government intrusion in our lives is best, the GOP tends to seek statewide bans on things it disapproves.

While the SCC has spent considerable effort chasing culture war talking points, the good news is that there are still plenty of Republicans in Wyoming who do firmly believe in the rights set out in the United States and Wyoming constitutions; who believe in individual liberty and that each person’s ability, dignity, freedom and responsibility should be honored and recognized; who believe that the most effective government is government closest to the people and that the best government is that which governs least; and who support the free exercise of religious beliefs without discrimination or preference.

The brand we ride for is this Wyoming Republican Party:

These Republicans, of which I am one, believe it’s important to focus our efforts on moving Wyoming forward in the face of various economic, social and political challenges, who cast aside the politics of division in favor of working to strengthen our economy, improve education for our children, and provide for a high quality of life for Wyoming’s citizens.

I am concerned that policies adopted by the SCC infringe on individual liberties, harm Wyoming’s economy, and make our youth turn toward other states that offer greater opportunities, diversity, and respect for individual freedoms. The GOP’s treatment of political opponents as though they are enemies and not our neighbors serves to create further divisions when we should be acting for the good of the people in Wyoming.

The recent GOP precinct caucuses in Sublette County had a grand total of 16 Republicans participating in policy discussions – of the county’s more than 4,000 Republicans. This tiny group represents 0.37% of the county’s registered Republicans and puts forth the grassroots policy of the party. When the SCC adopts policies, it claims to represent the majority of Wyoming Republicans, but does it really? Your involvement, or lack thereof, will determine the future of the party in Wyoming, since we only get out of it what we put into it.

This month of March, each county Republican Party will convene in their county conventions, developing the party’s policy platforms and resolutions that will be subject to debate and voting. Consider this your invitation to get involved. Contact your county’s elected party leadership to learn how your voice can be heard. Policy positions adopted at the county conventions will then go forward for debate at the Wyoming.

Policy positions adopted at the county conventions will then go forward for debate at the Wyoming State Republican Party Convention May 5-7 in Sheridan. We will reap what we sow.

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Cat Urbigkit: Wyoming Wildlife Advocates Deceives to Support Wolf Relisting

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

In a January 30, 2022 letter to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service urging that wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming be placed back under federal protection, Jackson Hole-based Wyoming Wildlife Advocates (WWA) used Sublette County livestock producers as an example of negative attitudes toward wolves, claiming this leads to “unnecessary wolf deaths that could be prevented if proper protections were in place for wolves statewide and if livestock producers were using preventative, non-lethal methods to avoid losses.”

The letter stated: “The cultural attitude that originally exterminated wolves in the Contiguous U.S. is alive and well. Until this is ameliorated by drastic increases in livestock protection and more protections for wolves, this species will need protection.”

Well, let’s provide some schooling, shall we? Apparently getting their information from one inaccurate article in a local newspaper, WWA made some assumptions when writing to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that in Sublette County, “only three cattle conflicts with wolves were confirmed in 2021 with only two of those leading to deaths of livestock. For sheep, only seven were killed in 2021 by wolves. Even with these very low losses of livestock, the county Predator Board is killing wolves ahead of any conflicts.”

Notice how WWA Executive Director Kristin Combs discounts the importance of wolf-killed livestock by consistently inserting “only” prior to the number of dead livestock?

I can report that as the owner of some of those livestock that they weren’t “only” numbers to my family. And the numbers reported were strictly for kills that were verified by a federal animal damage control agent.

In fact, 2021 was our family’s worst year ever for predators killing livestock, as we grazed livestock in some of the most inaccessible, roughest range available so that our cattle and sheep could be on live water in a dangerous drought. Only a few kills by wolves could be confirmed; notice that this is the proper use of the word “only” when discussing predator kills of livestock.

This particular pack of wolves has been confirmed as involved in chronic livestock depredations (both cattle and sheep) along the southern end of the Wind River Mountains for years – contrary to WWA’s claim that the county predator board (of which I am a member) “is killing wolves ahead of any conflicts.” But the facts just don’t fit the narrative that WWA provided in attempt to justify reimposing federal protection for wolves.

A few years ago, after hearing repeated claims that ranchers weren’t doing enough to protect livestock, our family started making a list of all the methods we use in a year to protect our livestock.

The list now includes nearly two dozen different non-lethal methods or techniques to reduce the risk of depredation on our livestock, and to minimize losses when they do occur.

We spend a lot of time and money using non-lethal prevention, and we’ve learned that all methods fail at some point. Wolves are intelligent animals that adapt to changing situations, and there is no magic method that provides fail-safe protection from these large carnivores. We know that, and we continue to try to minimize conflict.

Let me back up and provide a little history of the pack. Our family has had conflicts with the Prospect wolf pack for the last five years.

In September of 2017, after the pack successfully raised pups in the national forest above us, it moved down onto our ranch, where the 60-70-pound wolf pups could practice hunting and killing prey by attacking our sheep. The surplus kill of 16 members of our beautiful flock was devastating, as were the three wounded livestock guardian dogs that battled to protect the flock as the wolves attacked under the cover of darkness.



Livestock guardian dog Rena after battling to keep a pack of wolves out of her sheep flock.

One wolf was killed in response, and the wolves moved away for a few months. But they returned a few months later, killed more sheep, wounded more dogs, and we killed another wolf. That fall, the situation escalated, with the loss of two guardian dog and two herding dogs before we killed two more wolves.

When the wolves started visiting the ranch about three nights a week that November, I requested the pack be eliminated, and 5 wolves were killed by animal damage control specialists, including a female wolf we had trapped, collared, and released on the ranch.

When a group of wolves showed up on the ranch the next spring, we monitored them, and again trapped and placed a collar on an adult wolf. The wolves killed one of our pregnant ewes just prior to the start of lambing in May 2020, killed at least one of our calves, and wounded numerous livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) in consistent conflicts.


This adult male wolf was recovering from mange and injuries.

Among my ranch journal entries documenting wolf presence at various locations on the ranch are entries naming the dogs that were injured by wolves that summer of 2020:

May 13-17, 4 LGDs injured in last 5 days

June 8, Panda injured

June 15, Snoop injured

June 21, Nika injured

June 23, Awbi injured

July 13, Awbi & Panda injured, Ash head split open

The guardian dogs did a warrior’s job in protecting the livestock, but they were walking wounded and needed some relief. We killed another wolf from the pack, but within a month the remaining pack of three wolves were back on the ranch. They killed sheep in October and November, then went away for a few months.

By May 2021, the wolves were back on the ranch, but the pack remained at three animals. They killed a yearling ewe as we took the flock downriver on the desert to get out of range the wolf pack, then killed an adult cow at the home place. We trapped and killed two wolves, including the big male that we knew was the primary culprit in the recent livestock kills.

A wolf stands in a leghold trap prior to its release wearing a radio-collar in Sublette County.

We knew that there was an adult female wolf remaining, but fearing that she had pups in a den, we stopped the lethal control effort. Perhaps foolishly, we didn’t want her pups to starve to death in a den. Livestock killing in this area stopped with this partial pack removal.

That is, the killing stopped for six months. But in November 2021, the female wolf returned as a member of what had by then become a pack of six wolves.

Our ranch monitoring system detected their presence prior to any confirmed livestock kills. Within a day of the pack’s arrival on the ranch, one of our adult female livestock guardian dogs disappeared, and I fear she met her fate to the wolves.

One of the wolves, a big black male, looked mangy and wounded, and I really didn’t want our healthy guardian dogs interacting with a sick, wounded wolf on the ranch.


The mangy male wolf had numerous injuries, including a completely severed tail.

We trapped, collared and released one of the wolves, a young female. In the coming weeks, animal damage control officials killed half of the pack, and we halted control, hoping that the remaining wolves would prey on the abundant elk wintering in the area and leave the livestock alone. They didn’t.

The pack of three wolves went to a neighbor’s place and killed two yearling cattle, and wounded a third, in two nights earlier this month. We reinstituted lethal control, taking out the remaining pack members.

The WWA assertion that here in Sublette County we are “killing wolves ahead of any conflicts” is pure fallacy, as is the assertion that lethal control wouldn’t be needed “if livestock producers were using preventative, non-lethal methods to avoid losses.”

WWA doesn’t know or understand just how gut-wrenching it is to find that wolves have injured or killed our most important “non-lethal” deterrent, our devoted livestock guardian dogs.

The 110-pound wounded wolf I was concerned about did indeed have mange and had been severely wounded in battles with other members of his canine family. In fact, his tail had been completely severed from his body – something the Prospect pack had attempted on Rena, another of our livestock guardian dogs, years ago.

In WWA’s telling, livestock producers in Sublette County demonstrate “the cultural attitude that originally exterminated wolves,” and ask the federal government to step in to protect the wolves from me and my neighbors. Too bad that concerns for protecting our animals, our livelihoods, and our families, never crosses their minds. We give far more consideration to wolves than WWA does to people.

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.

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Cat Urbigkit: ESA Decisions Ping-Pong Between Republican & Democratic Administrations – But Not In The Way You May Expect

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

Last week’s federal court decision placing gray wolves in most of the United States back under federal protection is often reported as a rollback of the Trump administration’s decision to delist wolves, yet few reports note that the Biden administration had supported and defended the decision made during Trump’s time in office.

It’s part of a trend in reporting that casts blame (or credit) either on Republican or Democratic administrations when it comes to decisions involving federal protections for endangered species, but history shows these are often false narratives.

The Bipartisan ESA

The early 1970s saw a wave of new laws favoring environmental protection in the United States, including passage of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, just to name a few.

In early 1972, it was Republican President Richard Nixon who requested that Congress pass a stronger law to protect endangered species of wildlife, and with overwhelming bipartisan support, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) sailed through Congress to be signed into law before the end of 1973.

The bill won unanimous support in the Senate and was soundly passed in the House by a vote of 390 in favor to 12 against. All three of Wyoming’s congressional delegation supported the bill, including U.S. Senators Cliff Hansen (Republican) and Gale McGee (Democrat), and Representative Teno Roncalio (Democrat).

Yes, back in those days, two of Wyoming’s three seats in Congress were held by members of the Democratic Party. Most members of Congress at that time supported what was viewed as a noble effort to protect endangered animals.

But it soon became clear that Congress did not understand how the ESA would actually work.

Tiny Fish Tests the ESA

The same year that Congress was working to pass the ESA, a scientist discovered a tiny fish in the Little Tennessee River. When the snail darter was listed as an endangered species in 1975, more than $78 million in public money that had already been spent in construction of Tennessee’s Tellico Dam when work was halted because the impoundment would disturb the habitat of now federally protected species.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the TVA v Hill case became the landmark ESA case in its finding that the ESA required that endangered species be given highest priority over any other concerns, with no exceptions.

Tellico Fallout

The Tellico Dam controversy prompted Congress to amend the ESA in 1978 to allow federal agencies more flexibility in dealing with endangered species, including taking actions that would jeopardize a species if okayed by a Cabinet-level Endangered Species Committee.

This group would be informally called the “God Squad” for its ability to approve the extinction of a species if it found a project served a greater good. The 1978 ESA amendments passed with overwhelming support (93-4 in the Senate) in Congress, including support from Wyoming’s Congressional delegation, although by then Democratic Senator McGee had been replaced by Republican Senator Malcolm Wallop. The amendments were signed into law by Democratic President Jimmy Carter despite protests from within his administration.

Grayrocks

Meanwhile, another endangered species controversy had arisen. The debate over damming the Laramie River to create Grayrocks Reservoir was raging through Wyoming and Nebraska communities, the courts, and in Congress.

When the God Squad was scheduled to decide on whether creation of Wyoming’s Grayrocks should be exempted from the ESA requirement to protected endangered whooping cranes, “on the last frenzied day of Congress, retiring Rep. Teno Roncalio (D-Wyo.) got an amendment adopted that exempted Grayrocks from the act,” reported the Washington Post.

Grayrocks Reservoir

The Post reported on Roncalio’s arguments on the House floor: “Roncalio pleaded, “Do you want to send me back to Wyoming, after 10 years as your friend and colleague, to face 2,000 unemployed people in Wheatland on account of a totally unjustified thing like this, the Endangered Species Act?”

Roncalio’s amendment was later dropped, and the Endangered Species Committee was set to meet near the end of January 1979. At that January meeting, the God Squad issued two contrasting decisions: one declining to exempt the Tellico Dam from ESA protections for the snail darter in the Tennessee; and one in which the committee voted unanimously to exempt Grayrocks from ESA provisions that would protect whooping cranes in Wyoming.

Allow Water Projects or Forego ESA

Since the committee’s decision jeopardized the Tellico Dam, Congress then passed legislation specifically exempting the dam from ESA requirements, and the dam was completed in 1979. When President Carter signaled agreement to the Tellico exemption, the Washington Post reported: “Presidential adviser Stuart Eizenstat said Carter also feared that, if he vetoed the water bill, the Endangered Species Act, up for reauthorization, “would be chopped to ribbons with amendments exempting a whole variety of projects and species.

“There was a real concern that we could win the Tellico battle and lose the Endangered Species Act war,” he said.”

Ironically, the snail darter was removed from the list of federally protected species in 2021, its conservation deemed a success despite its loss of habitat to the Tellico Dam. In contrast, the whooping crane remains North America’s rarest bird, with its only self-sustaining wild population nesting in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park and migrating to winter along the Gulf Coast.

The 1990s Flipflops

Fast forward a few years to the early 1990s. There had been rumblings and debates over wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies for decades, with well-defined lines of support and opposition. In 1990, Republican Senator James McClure of Idaho proposed that Congress mandate the return of wolves to Yellowstone and Central Idaho but limiting protections outside those limited recovery zones.

The New York Times reported on Wyoming Republican Senator Alan K. Simpson’s reaction: ”If you can do it in a way which does not decimate the wildlife of Wyoming and a great part of the economy of Wyoming and part of the uniqueness of Wyoming, do it in a way where if the wolf gets outside the park it can be taken, i.e., shot and killed and then have a compensation fund for livestock owners who can prove depredation by that, then I’m ready to continue to talk.’’

Wyoming Republican Senator Malcolm Wallop testified at a Senate hearing: “I remain opposed to the reintroduction of wolves, and as a rancher, don’t want these animals in my state. However, I also know that wolves could arrive in Yellowstone by natural migration. If that premise is inevitable, I would prefer to have the opportunity to manage these predators on terms and conditions that the residents of my state could live with – and not be shackled by the onerous provisions of the Endangered Species Act.”

The Republican Deal

Although Congress didn’t adopt McClure’s original proposal, it did establish a Wolf Management Committee to develop a plan for wolf reintroduction.

That effort had a snowball effect, and by 1991, with President George H.W. Bush in the White House, and Democrats maintaining control of both houses of Congress, Congress directed the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to develop an environmental impact statement (EIS) assessing a proposal to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho.

The EIS process was carried out during the Republican administration of President George H.W. Bush, with Manual Lujan, Jr. as Secretary of the Interior, and Wyoming’s own John Turner as FWS Director.

Republican Push

Turner pushed the proposal to transplant a limited number of wolves into Yellowstone and Idaho with the classification of non-essential, experimental status to allow more flexibility in wolf management.

In an editorial published in the Casper Star-Tribune early in 1991, Turner wrote of the “inescapable fact that wolves occur in increasing numbers and distribution in the Northern Rocky Mountain area,” and that those wolves would be treated as fully endangered. In effect, transplanting wolves into the area became the Republican compromise to allow for increased management flexibility.

As Turner’s U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service held public meetings and proceeded with the EIS, wolves kept showing up in the Yellowstone region, being filmed by a cinematographer, run over by vehicles, roped by a rancher, or shot by a hunter. The Republican administration and wolf advocates eager for the reintroduction found themselves on the same side, discounting the presence of wolves already in the region so that the reintroduction could move forward.

The stage had been set during the Bush administration, so when it left office in January 1993, it had cleared the way for the new Clinton administration to complete the job.

Democrats Carry the Crates

In 1994, Republicans swept both houses of Congress, and the official decision to conduct the reintroduction took place under Democratic President Bill Clinton, with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and FWS Director Mollie Beattie. Although these were the folks that were seen crating the wolves into Yellowstone National Park, the heavy lifting had been done in the Republican administration prior to their arrival.

The first wolf arrives in Yellowstone at the Crystal Bench Pen (Mike Phillips-YNP Wolf Project Leader, Jim Evanoff-YNP, Molly Beattie- USFWS Director, Mike Finley-YNP Superintendent, Bruce Babbitt-Secretary of Interior) ; Jim Peaco; January 12, 1995; Catalog #15032

Recovery Battles

By 2001, the initial wolf recovery goals had been met in the tri-state area of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, triggering a review toward delisting. Several times during Republican President George W. Bush’s administration, FWS proposed to reduce protections or delist gray wolves in the Northern Rockies, but the administration was thwarted by federal court decisions. Irritated at the delay, Montana and Idaho sought to have wolf protections removed in their states, since much of the debate about delisting hinged on Wyoming’s dual status for wolves. While Wyoming continued its own battles, Congress removed federal protections for wolves in Idaho and Montana in 2011.

Obama delists, Court overturns, Trump Wins

In 2012, during the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama, FWS Director Dan Ashe approved a deal for Wyoming wolves to be removed from federal protection and allowing the state’s dual status of wolves as trophy game animals in northwestern Wyoming and an unprotected predator in the remainder of the state.

Two years later (in Sept 2014) a federal court reinstated federal protection for wolves in Wyoming. Both Obama’s FWS and the State of Wyoming filed appeal with a higher court, but it would be several years before the decision would be issued. Three months into Republican Donald J Trump’s presidency, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the lower court decision and returned wolf management to Wyoming. Wolves have remained delisted in Wyoming since then.

Conflicts Continue

While wolves in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana remain under state management, last week’s court decision places wolves in parts of 44 states back under federal protection. The lawsuit was filed by wolf advocates during the Trump administration, but the decision was issued during the Biden administration.

Meanwhile, the fight over wolf protection in Wyoming and elsewhere continues – regardless of which political party is in the majority in the nation’s capital, or who is residing at the White House.

Wolf advocates have asked the Biden administration to consider placing wolves in the Northern Rockies (Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana) back under federal protection, and the Biden administration is now conducting a review to see if relisting pursuant to the ESA is justified.

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.

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Cat Urbigkit: Shedding Cabin Fever Amid COVID-19

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

This national emergency has only compounded our normal cabin fever as we put winter behind us and we’re all chomping at the bit to get out and do something.

We are tired of having businesses closed down and being told to stay home. We’re tired of not having our children in school with their teachers. We are terrified by what has happened to our economy. We don’t want to wear face coverings. We don’t want to practice social distancing.

We’re nearing the end of President Trump’s “30-days to slow the spread” campaign, and as we near that mark, the pressure is on to reopen America and start the recovery process.

Every day of warmer weather leading us to May 1 has led to more complacency with the mitigation measures that were created to help us survive this pandemic, even as Wyoming’s case count continues to rise.

I get it. Everyone is unhappy and stressed, and either the government is doing too much, or the government isn’t doing enough. General complaints about government aren’t doing much to help anything, but let’s all take personal responsibility for what happens next.

Even before this national emergency, there tends to be an uptick in human injuries caused by the enthusiasm of getting outside in response to spring weather.

We all seem to engage in riskier activities like riding spring-kinked horses, getting on dirt-bikes and 4-wheelers, or going for long hikes regardless of our fitness levels.

What we end up with is wrecks and medical emergencies, and more heart attacks, strokes, and car accidents. We end up needing to call for help. And there – in every community – are the first responders willing to take their own risks to rescue us.

Unlike the majority of the population, these people are trained and highly skilled at getting victims found, stabilized, and transferred out of whatever predicament we’ve found ourselves in.

In this pandemic we are asking first responders to do even more. Right now, our reckless or thoughtless actions (or pure dumb luck) place our first responders in even more jeopardy.

We do that by exposing them to a threat that they can’t see, and that perhaps they won’t know they (or you) are carrying. They may be fine, but unknowingly transmit coronavirus to someone else. You or I may be doing the same.

I know that when you head out on a beautiful sunny day, you aren’t thinking that you will be doing anything dangerous, or that you may end up in a medical emergency before you can return home, but that’s how all accidents happen.

The May 1 opening of the shed antler season is expected to bring an influx of horn hunters to the public lands of western Wyoming even during this national emergency.

Switching the opening hour from midnight to noon has some shed hunters grumbling about cheaters and lack of enforcement, but hopefully the time change will help to tame the chaos of year’s past.

But each of those horn hunters will transport with them a heightened risk of transmitting COVID-19, even as they view their activity as low-risk since they’ll be in the great outdoors.

They’ll stop for gas or groceries, or to open a gate. Some will have overturned 4-wheelers or get thrown by a horse. They will add to the growing burden we’ve placed on our first responders, and the potential cost is significant.

We all need to take personal responsibility for our own actions, and to be aware of the burdens that we are placing on others as we engage in higher-risk activities.

Here on the ranch it’s shearing season, and any time we have to work animals in confinement heightens our risk of injury. The arrival of our shearing crew brings the same added threat as the traveling horn hunters, so we’ve had to make changes and added precautions to reduce both the risk of injuries and threat of disease transmission. Some of it seems unwelcoming or inhospitable.

But what is most unwelcome is COVID-19 transmission. If the series of small actions I take can reduce the threat I pose to others, I’m good with that.

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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Cat Urbigkit: Rejecting an Unsustainable System

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

The COVID-19 crisis has presented various lessons for our country, but I fear that once the crisis has passed, we’ll forget those lessons – until the next crisis.

I’m not referring to the lack of readiness for a global health pandemic, and the shortages of medical supplies, personnel, and facilities. Instead, I’m referring to everyday items used and consumed by American households: Food.

In a country with such an abundance of food production, communities found themselves with food shortages, and when stores were able to restock certain items, they were mobbed and quickly sold out again.

Even in small-town Wyoming, staples such as eggs, milk, bread, and meat were in short supply. At the same time, food waste occurred at staggering levels, as producers of food were unable to get their products to consumers.

The consolidation of meat processing in America into relatively few facilities owned by even fewer giant corporations has caused bottlenecks in the supply chain as their plants are shut down due to COVID-19.

In my view, the consolidation of the meat supply has resulted in companies selling an inferior product that costs them less, providing for huge profit margins for the companies while livestock producers get shafted.

Meatpacker margins for beef has surged during this pandemic, yet the price that processors pay for live cattle has plunged. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, at the request of congressional members, has said it will investigate. When the food supply is captured by big ag, it’s not operating as a free-market system.

The Smithfield Foods pork-processing plant in South Dakota is the nation’s ninth-largest hog-processor and was shut down after COVID-19 swept through the plant, with more than 600 infected employees. The plant is part of a much larger Chinese company that is the largest pork producer in the world.

But Smithfield wasn’t alone in having to shutter. The JBS plant in Colorado shut down with more than 100 infected employees and several deaths from COVID-19.

JBS is owned by a Brazilian company, the world’s largest producer of beef. At least one Tyson Foods plant in Iowa is shut down after several workers died and nearly 200 workers were sickened by the coronavirus.

Tyson is an American company that proudly wields the title of being the world’s second largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef and pork (second only to JBS).

All three of these industrial food giants have also launched their own “alternative protein” companies, creating laboratories and factories for manufacturing these food products.

While they claim to be doing it to meet the protein needs of our increasing world human population, it’s another move that will result in human dependence on only a few food suppliers for actual human survival.

I am fortunate to look out my living room window to beef and lamb on the hoof, raised in a sustainable grazing system that follows nature’s rhythms. I know that in a food shortage, we can feed a lot of people.

But our family won’t be doing it by sending our livestock to huge meat processors. Expanding the network of small meat processing companies (like Laramie’s 307 Meat Company) is desperately needed throughout the country, so that we can reduce the miles that food must travel between the field and the table.

The dwindling sheep industry has it even worse than the cattle component. Lamb prices have dropped 40%; wool prices are down 43% from last year and sales have come to a screeching halt; and American sheep producers are now paying to dispose of beautiful sheep pelts that were once considered a premium product – thanks to tariffs imposed by China, where many sheep pelts were exported for processing (because America tends to export industries it finds inconvenient).

With no market for our fine wool this year– wool that has been used to create military dress uniforms and fashion lines in Europe – it’s time to make a change. Continuing to participate in this warped market system is not sustainable.

My family is going to join others in making the change to local market systems. From marketing our own meat products, to working with companies (like Mountain Meadow Wool) to create a product line from our wool, we’re making the move to invest in ourselves, and investing in Wyoming’s future.

And for those who discount the importance of livestock grazing on public lands in the arid American West, as the Brits say, “Sod off.” This pandemic has proven the importance of food production at the local level.

As we saw during this worldwide crisis, agricultural industry workers at every level are deemed essential – because we produce food for human survival. Yet only 2% of American population has any connection to production agriculture.

How I wish every family in America could at least plant their own gardens and have a few laying hens. Then there would be much less food insecurity, and families would be better able to sustain themselves during a crisis like this one.

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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Cat Urbigkit: The Helpers, and Paying It Forward

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

I haven’t been to town for a few weeks but had to make a run for supplies on Friday. I was glad to see that everyone in the grocery store was practicing social distancing as recommended, and some were wearing face masks.

As I exited a government building in town, I heard the sounds of a piano playing. I stopped in my tracks to listen and was immediately mesmerized, listening to the beautiful music, picturing a lone pianist playing to an empty, cavernous room. I was thankful to have shared in that soothing moment, even from a distance.

That got me reflecting on the famous Fred Rogers story about when he was scared as a child, his mother would say “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

The isolated piano player was a helper, whether that person knows it or not.

During this national emergency, this unsettled and distressing time, I’m noticing helpers in every direction. Communities throughout Wyoming have COVID-19 response teams preparing and taking action to protect and respond to those in distress. It seems all first-responders and community leaders are involved in one way or another. Donations of equipment, medical supplies, food, and money are being offered up by businesses and nonprofits across the state. Volunteers for groups like The Salvation Army and Lions Club have mobilized to provide food boxes for distribution to families. Senior centers are making sure our seniors are getting fed, and seniors around the state are sewing face masks for anyone who needs them.

When I think of helpers, a certain smiling, friendly face comes to mind. That particular face is that of my late brother-in-law Bill (“Papa B”) Urbigkit of Riverton who passed away six years ago. I’ve yet to meet a more kind, helpful and community-minded person than our Papa B. His good works continue through family and friends – especially this month as we each participate in our own #payitforwardforpapab in his honor, spreading acts of kindness large and small.

People are leaving inspirational messages in chalk on sidewalks, taping hearts to their windows, and placing stuffed animals out in full view for those participating in “bear hunts.” Retired medical professionals are returning to work during the riskiest time for doing so. Neighbors are making sure that snow is shoveled from sidewalks, fixing things that need fixing, and making grocery runs for people who can’t do it themselves. Retail workers and delivery drivers are working hard to keep our families supplied with whatever we need.

Public libraries around the state are closed but have quickly adapted to providing needed services remotely, including online access to reading materials and audio files. Many libraries have public-use internet hotspots in their parking lots, and story times for children are offered online, as are continuing education events. The Wyoming State Library’s Facebook page is constantly updated with great informational sources for the public, as libraries continue to serve a diverse demographic even with their doors closed.

The Wyoming Department of Transportation is providing support in ways most of us don’t know. When a crash closed I-80 last month, WDOT provided an escort for COVID-19 supplies to be able to safely proceed during the closure. Wyoming troopers have been delivering COVID-19 testing equipment and supplies and moving test samples from hospitals and clinics to the state health lab from around the state. Think about that the next time you see a highway patrolman or get behind a WDOT snowplow.

Local law enforcement and fire organizations find themselves in lead roles in a public health crisis in addition to their regular missions. Whatever needs done, they are making sure that it gets done. Fire officials are working with federal land managers to prepare for wildland firefighting season amid a pandemic, a daunting challenge.

Now imagine being one of the staff handling unemployment claims for the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. With record numbers of claims all coming at the same time, calls to the unemployment insurance claim center (UI) have been overwhelming, but I’ve heard that once a call is answered at UI, staff members have been not just competent but caring. Kudos to them.

Local churches are organizing drive-in Easter services to bring their congregations together while practicing social distancing. Artists are continuing to create and share their work, deeply touching and connecting with people they will never meet. Blood drives are being held with special restrictions to ensure an adequate blood supply while not spreading COVID-19. Individuals with 3-D printers are constructing facemasks for healthcare workers. Others are donating meat from their freezers, delivering firewood, and doing outdoor chores.

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon deserves a special mention in all this. Criticized in equal measure for not doing enough and for doing too much, Gordon has the unenviable job of leading a state of independent-minded folks who have a general aversion to being led. Whether I agree with him on any given action, I do appreciate and thank him for his service to this great state.

As we are engulfed in bad news and distressful events, it’s increasingly important that we make everyday efforts to share the good, the beauty, in our human experience. Let’s all be helpers in some way and pay it forward with acts of kindness and compassion.

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: Governor Rejects Legislative Oversight of Land Deal, But Plows Ahead

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

In his final actions on bills passed by the Wyoming Legislature in its 2020 session, on Friday afternoon Governor Mark Gordon vetoed Senate File 138, the bill laying out the process for state officials to consider purchasing 1 million acres of land in southern Wyoming, along with 4 million acres of mineral rights, from Occidental Petroleum.

Oh, in this current national crisis, this global pandemic, where the United States Congress just passed the largest spending bill in our country’s history, with more than 3 million Americans filing for unemployment, with oil prices in the tank at an 18-year low, Gordon has decided now might not be the time to spend millions, or billions, of state reserves to eliminate a million acres of private property, you ask? Nope.

Gordon has decided the legislature provided too much baggage in the bill, so he’ll go forth on his own.

In his letter rejecting the bill, Gordon said: “I do not take this action lightly. Members of the Legislature and my office worked tirelessly crafting a process to provide the ability to conduct due diligence on the land and assets being offered for sale to the State of Wyoming. I appreciate everyone’s efforts.”

Here’s the zinger: “Unfortunately, owing to the rapid changes of the waning hours of the session, the final bill was flawed. The original concept of the legislation was to establish a process to conduct due diligence and provide the funding to do so, as well as bless the authority to enter into a transaction of this magnitude. The end result is a vehicle so heavily laden with legislative baggage that the ability to conduct thorough and appropriate due diligence takes a back seat to mandated reports and recommendations.”

So Gordon rejected the bill because it provided too much legislative oversight for what could be the largest government purchase of land since the United States purchased Alaska. No doubt the final bill was flawed, but my view of its faults differ from the governor’s view of its faults. Gordon laments the “legislative baggage” in the bill, while I complain that it provided too much power to the State Loan and Investment Board by allowing it “to take all actions the board deems necessary to sell, transfer or otherwise dispose of” the property after the deal concluded.

Gordon’s letter notes that the availability of funding to conduct due diligence on the deal “is in question.” He wrote, “The failure to enact a Capital Construction measure inadvertently squeezes the State Building Commission Contingency Account to the point where existing obligations and priorities are in direct competition for money to pay for the cost of due diligence.”

Gordon also took issue with legislative interference in decision-making on the deal, which he views as executive branch function. Gordon maintains that the final bill “overreaches in its grant of authority to the legislative branch.”

“Unfortunately, I am left with an all or nothing solution,” Gordon wrote, thus vetoing the bill.

Gordon continued to pledge his commitment “that we will continue to find ways to take steps to explore this opportunity.”

Gordon’s letter states that he will work with the SLIB and will report to the legislature any progress made, and commits to providing the basics of their findings to the legislature. Gordon also commits to honor all the requirements for public comment and public involvement outlined in the vetoed bill, and perhaps even exceed the amounts called for in the bill.

Gordon closes the veto letter with a statement that he believes he has established a reasonable step-by-step process allowing for pre-purchase activities. He wrote: “Should an agreement in principle be reached, the Legislature will have the opportunity to review. It is the Legislature’s role to decide whether and how to fund a potential purchase based on the Agreement in Principle.”

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 Ringing of the Bells

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

The gentle ringing of bells is heard by those who listen. Pastoralists around the globe have used bells on their livestock for thousands of years, and in many regions the tradition continues substantially unchanged.

I’ve heard the bells wherever I’ve traveled to rural areas of the world, from Portugal to Turkey, in Africa, Mongolia, and the American West. The bells are attached to sheep, cattle, goats, and horses, and to the livestock guardian dogs that accompany these flocks or herds. Some bells are attached with elaborately decorated collars while others dangle from simple rawhide straps. The bells may be small, made from copper or brass, or huge bells draped from the neck of an oxen or horse. The bells vary in musical tone and relay constant messages to those tending the livestock, and to others who listen.

The seasonal movement of livestock with their human tenders is called transhumance, which is practiced throughout the world. In Italian, it’s called transhumanza. Although the English language lacks a word for the multi-species social group of a pastoralist with a flock or herd and its equine and canine partners, Italians have a word for it: the morra. The bells sing the song of the morra. The sound of the bells is the music of transhumanza, and of the landscape.

Italian communities have been devastated by the coronavirus disease, and Italian citizens remain under lockdown. They’ve found wonderful ways to connect with each other even as they remain in isolation, singing from balconies and windows. In the Tuscan village of Siena, beautiful harmony was heard coming from the windows above an empty, dimly lit street.

At mid-day on Saturday, shepherds in Italy joined together in their isolation to provide the sound of hope, of thankfulness, and of mourning, as pastoralists rang their livestock bells. As word of the Italian bell-ringing spread, pastoralists, churches and communities in France, Switzerland, and Austria joined in, each in their own exile.

The bells signal locations and serve to unify those who are dispersed. They ring within a universe regardless of distinctions in religion, language, race, or ethnicity.

The timing of the pastoral bell song was somewhat symbolic. It came at the start of spring, agriculture’s season of renewal and birth. Pastoralists rang their bells from their places on farms growing food for people throughout the globe. The ringing of the bells reminds the world that they still exist and continue in this necessary mission, even as their individual messages varied.

Some rang bells in solidarity, and to thank those who work to help the sick. Some rang bells of mourning. Some rang bells to drive away the danger and sense of foreboding caused by the pandemic.

The bells rang out from the mountainsides, their sound cascading across quiet valleys and plains. Other bells rang out from balconies, bell towers, and front porches. I hear their bells here on the ranch in Wyoming’s sagebrush steppe.

I hear them, and our bells ring out in return.

#suoniamolecampane

#WeRingTheBells

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: Trust Us, We’re From the Government

in Cat Urbigkit/Column
wild horses
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

The Wyoming Legislature concluded its session last week by passing legislation that enables state leaders to pursue purchasing 1 million acres of private property in southern Wyoming’s checkerboard, in addition to 4 million acres of mineral rights. That state officials had begun discussions with Occidental Petroleum for the purchase came to light less than a month ago when bills relating to the investment of state funds were filed shortly before the bill deadline.

Even when the public became aware that Wyoming government was interested in pursuing the purchase, state officials released very little information about the proposal, and some legislators resisted attempts to provide for public scrutiny and input before the deal could be concluded. The original proposal did not even require an affirmative vote from the legislature before the land purchase could be finalized.

I’ve been critical of the secrecy and lack of public information about this proposed land deal that is so massive that it would be the largest government purchase of private land since the United States purchased Alaska. State officials were hesitant to so much as release a map of the properties under consideration, yet were requesting that the legislature grant them broad authority to enter the deal – potentially tapping deep into various state accounts to fund the purchase, with some estimates putting the purchase price at more than a billion dollars. The pesky public was in essence being told to simply trust our government leaders to spend more than a billion dollars without any public scrutiny. That was appalling, and I maintain that state officials should sell the public on this deal if they want our support.

Fortunately, the final legislation does require state officials to release details and hold at least one public meeting, and also requires an affirmative vote of the legislature before the deal could be finalized. But it still holds “trust us, we’re from the government” provisions.

In late February, Governor Mark Gordon and state legislative leaders penned an op-ed finally attempting to sell the public on the deal, noting: “This acquisition has enormous potential benefits for multiple-use that are valuable to all citizens of Wyoming, giving us the opportunity to assemble one of the largest contiguous pieces of public land in the continental United States. One that will benefit wildlife, hunters, fishermen and outdoor recreationists while achieving responsible development of rich natural resources.”

They really haven’t told us their vision on how the land would be managed – since state trust lands are managed with the primary purpose of generating revenues, and are not “public” land. For example, camping and open fires are prohibited on state trust land, and the recently passed legislation calls for the purchased lands to be managed the same as other school trust lands.

But the real “trust us” piece of the puzzle is this: Under the enrolled act passed by the legislature, the SLIB “is authorized to take all actions the board deems necessary to sell, transfer or otherwise dispose of purchased real property assets and other interests” without restriction. 

At least the legislature is required to approve of the purchase of the properties, but from then on, SLIB – the top five statewide elected officials – are empowered to sell any of the acquired assets without restriction. There is no provision for competitive bid, public notice – nothing. 

You can envision the intention of this provision. Perhaps it is meant to enable the state to sell some of the assets to industrial companies with specific interests (such as oil and gas, or trona, or existing infrastructure). Perhaps its purpose is to enable the state to quickly transfer ownership of mineral rights that are held in Utah and Colorado. Perhaps its purpose is to enable some other deal that’s already being negotiated behind closed doors. It’s this last one that should be of concern because the legislation provides a clue that may be its intended purpose.

The legislation allows SLIB to “accept federal grants and other contributions, grants, gifts, bequests and donations from any source” to purchase the land. The governor’s staff attended legislative deliberations to speak of the importance of this provision, noting that such “gifts” may have “some strings attached to them,” while cautioning legislators about “unnecessarily tying the hands” of state negotiators by imposing too many specific provisions in the bill. 

That sure sounds like a deal is in the works to me.

But I know, I’m just supposed to trust the government.

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: Hey Neighbor Kanye, Let’s Talk Sheep!

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing
3272

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

My daily life involves tending to our sheep flock, and my morning news consumption includes updates on sheep and wool news from the last 24 hours. Imagine my surprise Saturday morning when Kayne West appeared in that news feed. What does Kayne West have to do with sheep?

Kanye West’s Paris fashion show coverage included references to one of the ranches he purchased in Wyoming. West told a reporter for The Cut that he’s got 700 sheep and he’s trying out different ways of felting the wool. Good on ya, Kanye! I saw a photo of the ranch’s sheep flock, and they are gorgeous range sheep, similar to other fine-wool bands found on the range throughout Wyoming.

I appreciate West’s interest in wool for his fashion line, since wool is a renewable resource, and is both biodegradable and natural. Wyoming’s recipe for wool is simple: Take four-hooved docile creatures, mix with sunshine, snow, and native vegetation, and the animals produce a soft and luxurious product.

My message to Kayne West and other aspiring shepherds is this: Wyoming has a lot to offer shepherds, so reach out to your new colleagues. A national sheep industry magazine called The Shepherd is owned by myself and another sheep producer and is based on our western Wyoming ranch. Wyoming Wool Growers Association is the state organization for us shepherds, and our American Sheep Industry Association is based in neighboring state Colorado. The Mountain Meadow Wool over in Buffalo is a family-operated wool mill that does a mighty fine job in custom processing Wyoming-grown raw wool.

Your fellow shepherds can talk to you about why we like to lamb outside in the pristine landscape, following the same natural cycles as the wild animals that share the same range. We can share how to protect your beautiful ewes and lambs from large carnivores in your neighborhood – including mountain lions, bears, and wolves – because Wyoming has them all. We can teach you how to help a weak lamb gain strength, and to practice low-stress animal handling for the benefit of both you and your sheep. We hope to see photos of your children bottle feeding orphan lambs ­– something that happens every spring on nearly every sheep ranch in America.

As shepherds, we understand the direct benefits of the healthy meat and natural fiber produced by domestic sheep. We also know the wider range of benefits sheep bring to human lives – from ecosystem services such as reducing fuel loads, fertilizing the soil, and controlling weeds, to their historic and vital roles in medical research to improve the human condition. Sheep provided the baseline for successful human blood donation, artificial heart valves, and vaccine development.

Biomedical researchers use sheep for studying neonatal development, and for optimization of drug delivery and surgical techniques. Sheep are used to study heart disease, asthma, and kidney disease; and are used as models for implanting medical devices, as well as improvements in the repair of broken bones and wounds.

Sheep provide meat, wool, numerous byproducts such as lanolin, ecosystem services, medical advances, and overall health advantages, but our flocks also provide shepherds with inspiration and a special type of calling.

We shepherds feel the benefits of human-animal bond as we work with and interact with our flocks on a daily basis. My favorites are when we assist a ewe in labor and hear that guttural, contented murmur to her newborn lambs, when we watch small children fall asleep with a lamb on their lap, and when we greet the rising sun alongside our grazing flock. Our blood pressure drops, and we are reminded of the good in the world – simply by being with our sheep.

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 Will Hear From Public on Land Deal

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing
SONY DSC
3221

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

Last week the Wyoming Legislature adopted revisions to two draft bills that allow state officials to move forward in pursuing a huge land purchase involving 1 million acres of surface and 4 million acres of mineral rights in the checkerboard of southern Wyoming. The properties at issue are the former Anadarko assets owned by Occidental Petroleum.

The major amendments to the bills now require some level of public comment, as well as an affirmative vote of the legislature before the deal could be finalized. There are still more questions about the proposal than answers, and state officials are providing few specifics. Changes have been made to the bills that require more specifics – but the details won’t be revealed until after the legislature gives the state’s top elected officials the go-ahead to conduct its due diligence on the possible land purchase.

Public Input

When it comes to public comment, provisions of the two bills differ in specifics. Senator Cale Case (R-Fremont) amended the Senate bill (Senate File 138) requiring that when state officials present their report and recommendations on moving forward with the land purchase to the legislature, the State Loan and Investment Board (SLIB) will immediately “make available to the public on its website the details of the purchase including the locations of the assets, the purchase price, the funding source for the purchase, the projected costs to manage the land and projected revenue streams from the assets purchased.”

Case’s amendment also requires SLIB to “establish an open public comment period to review the details of the proposed purchase, during which members of the public may submit written comments electronically, by mail or both.”

The bill also requires SLIB to hold at least one informational public hearing within a geographic area in Wyoming that would be affected by the proposed purchase, and that public testimony be taken at such a hearing.

The House bill (House Bill 249) only requires SLIB to hold at least “one public meeting in any county where the land to be purchased is located to gather input prior to the purchase.” This amendment was sponsored by Stan Blake (D-Sweetwater), John Freeman (D-Sweetwater), Albert Sommers (R-Sublette), and Clark Stith (R-Sweetwater).

Other Differences

The bills differ in substantive ways:

The Senate bill provides for two members of the house and two members of the senate to act as liaisons to SLB as it investigates the deal; the House version provides for three members from each chamber.

The Senate bill allows the state to take money from the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account (LSRA); the House bill deleted this provision and instead allows the state to issue special revenue bonds to fund the deal.

Both bills allow the state to dip into the permanent Wyoming mineral trust fund, the common school account, and other sources, to fund the deal. While the House bill allows the state to aggregate its money from these varied accounts to make the purchase, it also requires that each funding source used “shall acquire separate assets that are segregated from assets of the other funding sources used.”

The Senate bill was amended to allow SLIB to accept “federal grants and other contributions, grants, gifts, bequests and donations from any source” to complete the deal. State officials have been mum as to what kind of gift they may be negotiating, and what strings may be attached to such a gift.

Both bills would establish a payment in lieu of taxes program for counties affected by the loss of taxation if the deal is passed (since the land would convert from private property to government property).

Management

How the land would be managed is another issue. The Senate bill calls for the board of land commissioners to manage all surface and mineral interest purchased, with SLIB to manage the “other” assets “in accordance with its management of other state investments.”

The House bill provides for the state land board to manage all the “surface, subsurface and mineral interests,” while SLIB manages “other” purchased assets (neither bill states what those “other” assets are), and allows for the state to retain a manager for the properties, and that “all state laws governing the management of state lands shall be applicable.”

The House bill includes other specific provisions that the Senate bill lacks:

• No royalty payable to the state can be reduced from the rate in existence at the date of the deal; and

• No grazing lease or permit in existence when the deal is made can be modified in any manner without the consent of the lessee or permit holder.

Assets Outside Wyoming

The Senate bill allows the state board of land commissioners to determine whether it should sale any acquired properties that are located outside Wyoming and gives the board the authority to sell those assets. The House bill requires SLIB to report to the legislature whether any of the purchased property in other states “should be reviewed by the board of land commissioners for immediate or subsequent sale or exchange.”

What’s Next

Both bills have passed through their houses of origin and will now be considered by the other chamber. SF138 will be considered in the House, and HB249 will be considered in the Senate. You can follow the action here.

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: 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 Approps Reworks State Land Deal Bill

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

in Cat Urbigkit/Column
Wyoming
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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
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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
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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
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 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.

Ignorant Food Zealots Reject Agriculture

in Uncategorized/Cat Urbigkit/Column
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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 Cat Urbigkit/Column
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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 Cat Urbigkit/Column/Agriculture
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.

The Fallacy of Gold-Standard Predator Research

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/wildlife/Agriculture
sheep
2311

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

As a frequent reader of new research on livestock production and carnivore conflicts, I am often reminded of the divide between researchers and practitioners. Papers will explain that research was conducted on sheep, without necessary information about those sheep, which practitioners (livestock producers) know will influence outcomes. For instance, we need to know not just the number of sheep involved, but breed, sex, age, breeding status, etc. because these cohorts may react differently in a given scenario.

Last fall, a new paper was published that cited the need for livestock protection to be more evidence-based, calling for more scientific papers to be based on “gold standards” for scientific research. A previous paper by some of the same co-authors went so far as to call for a halt to lethal control until such gold standards are achieved. Most of the only gold-standard studies cited by these authors are for non-lethal techniques, which are easier to study.

It would seem easy to support the call for “gold standards” but too often scientists fail to recognize the realities and complexities of field situations makes that unattainable, and the policy implications are significant. For example:

• Lethal versus non-lethal: 

Most studies assessing lethal versus non-lethal control of predators only acknowledge non-lethal control when undertaken or funded by government or NGOs. Rarely is there an acknowledgment or assessment of the various non-lethal measures already used by producers prior to lethal control, so it’s not really an accurate or fair assessment.

• Feasibility & Affordability: 

When livestock producers make management decisions, the feasibility and affordability of an action are foremost considerations, yet scientists expend little effort in this sort of assessment for field conditions. Having a great predator deterrent is of little use if it’s not affordable, or is only applicable in limited conditions.

• Gold means controlled:

Gold standard research usually takes place under captive-animal scenarios, where variables can be limited by researchers. This is in contrast to field conditions, where researchers would have little or no control of variables that influence outcomes. Researchers need to understand that difference, and that just because “gold” standards aren’t achieved doesn’t mean field research isn’t valid and useful. Researchers shouldn’t stretch to such broad condemnation as did those calling for a halt to lethal control because “gold” standards weren’t used in the studies they reviewed. That recommendation was simply the reflection of researcher bias.

• Motivations Differ:

Acknowledge the motivations and goals of researcher and livestock producers are not the same thing. Much research is being conducted to reduce conflicts between domestic livestock and wild predators, yet livestock producers are rarely included in study design, and livestock producers readily find flaws in implementing recommendations resulting from the research. Perhaps if livestock producers were more involved in study design, the results could be more readily adopted.

• Partnerships: 

The new paper refers to “livestock owners” only twice; once was to discredit the use of the livestock owner’s “perceived effectiveness” of an intervention, noting “widespread placebo effects, whereby patients feel better simply because they have participated.”

Although in an opening paragraph the authors stated, “Livestock owners, natural resource managers, and decision-makers each have an important role to play in research partnerships to collaboratively guide the testing of predator control interventions,” the paper substantially ignored the livestock owner value and role in such research.

• Animal husbandry ethics:

To achieve gold standard research in this field requires experiments that are ethically questionable. A true test of effectiveness of no-control, non-lethal control, and lethal-control would result in the deaths of domestic animals without intervention to protect them during the research. I, as a livestock producer, find that intolerable and would refuse to participate in such research that would result in pain, suffering and death for the animals I am responsible to tend.

Until researchers bridge the divide between the needs of scientists and the needs of practitioners, I see little room for progress. 

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.

Outdoor Recreation & Tourism: A Look at the Numbers

in Cat Urbigkit/Recreation/Column/Tourism
Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Tourism:
2267

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

A new report from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) shows that outdoor recreation contributes 4.4. percent of Wyoming’s gross domestic product. That’s something to celebrate, with Wyoming’s percentage among the highest in the nation, behind only Hawaii, Montana, and Maine.

According to the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Office, outdoor recreation “contributes $1.6 billion to Wyoming’s economy” and “accounts for 23,036 jobs or 8 percent of total employment in Wyoming which is the highest in the nation. Those jobs also account for 4.7 percent of total compensation in the state, which is second in the nation behind Hawaii at 5.1 percent.”

Curious about how these numbers are compiled, I turned to the BEA website for the details, including the methodology used in these estimates. The BEA report attempts to isolate the economic activity associated with outdoor recreation spending and production within a state’s economy.

The largest chunk (72%) of the $1.6 billion outdoor recreation value contributed to the state’s economy is in the form of “supporting outdoor recreation,” primarily via travel and tourism (food, beverages, lodging, shopping, souvenirs, and transportation) more than 50 miles from home.

Another 20% of that $1.6 billion is classified as “conventional” outdoor recreation such as bicycling, boating, fishing, climbing/camping/hiking, hunting, shooting sports, motorcycle/all-terrain vehicle use, recreational flying, RVing, snow activities (skiing, snowmobiling, snowboarding, dog mushing), and other conventional outdoor activities such as skating, rafting, rock hounding, races, running/walking/jogging, and wildlife watching and birding.

The remaining 8% is “other” outdoor recreation including amusement/water parks, festivals, sporting events, concerts, guided tour and outfitted travel, gardening, game areas (tennis and golf), field sports, swimming, yard sports, and multi-use apparel and accessories (bug spray, sunscreen, coolers, GPS equipment, watches, backpacks, etc.).

The new BEA report puts outdoor recreation’s contribution to Wyoming’s economy at $1.6 billion, and I understand the methodology used to generate that number. Seeking more information about our state’s top industries, I turned to the Wyoming Business Council’s industry profiles, where I read that the #2 industry in Wyoming is tourism, with “$5.6 billion consumer spending on outdoor rec.”

Although the business council suggests “50,000 jobs created by outdoor rec – more than oil, gas, mining and extraction combined,” the BAE reports the total outdoor recreation employment level in Wyoming is just over 23,000 people in 2017. It took some searching, but I found that the numbers cited by the Wyoming Business Council came from the trade group Outdoor Industry Association (OIA). The bottom line is that the OIA’s numbers were about double the numbers released by the BEA, apparently because they used a different methodology.

The Wyoming Office of Tourism uses yet another number: “domestic and international visitors in Wyoming spent $3.8 billion” in the state in 2018, with the state’s tourism industry supporting 32,290 full and part-time jobs.”

Further digging revealed that the State of Wyoming’s website description of the state’s economy is sadly outdated, with most recent statistics more than a decade old. That same state information page still lists Matt Mead as Wyoming’s governor, an indication of neglecting to keep up with the times.

Curious about the state’s other top industries, I looked for agricultural statistics. The Wyoming Business Council’s estimate of $1.8 billion in agriculture worth to the state’s economy annually was an easy one, since that number comes from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and the majority of that number ($1.44 billion) is simply cash receipts for ag products sold (cattle, sheep, hogs, hay, sugarbeets, corn, etc.). But those statistics don’t attempt to demonstrate the total value of ag spending in the state (such as the sales of vehicles, machinery, equipment, veterinary services and supplies, outdoor clothing and farm/ranch supplies, etc.) or the investment in ag facilities and properties.

Mining (oil, gas, trona, and coal) have ranked #1 in contributions to Wyoming’s economy, providing substantial revenues to governments, employing workers, and gross production values. But with so much upheaval in various segments of the state’s mining industry in the last few years, and wary of the importance of what was being measured or and how it was being valued, I gave up trying.

I don’t doubt the importance of the outdoor recreation industry, and my guess is that the BAE report is the closest to being accurate, but it also has its limitations. All these assessments for various industry sectors sum up what we already knew: they compare apples to oranges and every segment of Wyoming’s economy is important.

What we can agree on is that the majority of people in Wyoming participate in outdoor recreation, whether it’s rig hands stopping to admire a bull moose on the way to work on a drilling rig, a parent purchasing a child’s first bicycle, or a rancher taking new neighbors out to visit a local sage grouse lek. We’re all in this together.

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.

Grizzly Recovery Reflected in Upper Green Conflict

in Cat Urbigkit/News/Column/wildlife/Agriculture
Upper Green River Wyoming
2233

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

The Bridger-Teton National Forest’s announcement of its decision to reauthorize cattle grazing in the Upper Green River region 30 miles north of Pinedale was met with the predictable hysteria of anti-grazing activists who claim the plan “institutionalizes overgrazing” and “negligent livestock management” on national forest lands. These activists are pushing to rid public lands of livestock and cite conflicts between grizzly bears and cattle in the Upper Green to justify their position. It’s no matter that the truth undermines their outrageous claims.

For perspective, the Upper Green is the largest cattle grazing allotment in the National Forest system, used annually by area cattle ranchers for well over a century. With more than 80 percent of Sublette County in federal or state land, public lands livestock grazing is a vital component of the area’s character and ag economy. The county’s pastoral landscapes with majestic mountain views showcase the glorious mixture of land uses, from primitive recreation, hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing, to tourism and energy development. As the Forest Service notes: “In places where agriculture increasingly operates alongside a larger, non-agricultural economy and greater range of adjacent land uses, farms and ranches continue to be important. They contribute to local economic diversity, the scenery they provide can be part of the mix of amenities that attract and retain people and businesses across a range of industries, and they are often an important part of local culture and community vitality.”

The Bridger-Teton decision authorizes a maximum of 8,819 head of livestock annually (or 8,772 cow/calf pairs or yearlings, and 47 horses), from mid-June to mid-October. The agency found that there is more than enough forage for both livestock and wildlife, noting that even when overestimating forage utilization, the “combined elk and livestock forage use on lands suitable and capable for grazing was less than the amount of forage available.”

This is not a prescription for overgrazing, and the grazing association have been active land stewards. “The Upper Green River Cattle Association is proactive in the management of the Upper Green River allotment,” according to the Forest Service record of decision reauthorizing grazing, which noted that this is demonstrated by the “voluntary permittee monitoring and adjustments to grazing practices that have occurred on the allotments for over 30 years. The permittees regularly seek information and assistance from experts in research when a problem confronts them and have a documented willingness to try new management concepts and options or take on additional responsibility if it is to the benefit of the natural resources.”

One of the biggest problems has been grizzly bear depredation on cattle, and the Upper Green has been a hotspot for these conflicts – even though it is located more than 25 miles outside the original grizzly bear recovery zone. From 2010-2018, there were 527 confirmed conflicts, and 35 grizzly bears were removed from the allotments in response. 

Noting that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear population has exceeded recovery goals and continues to expand into new areas, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) reports: “This means historical activities, which are comparable to the proposed action, have had little to no discernable effect on the population’s trend toward recovery, and we do not expect continuation of these activities to reverse the trend.”

Conflicts in the Upper Green have increased an average of 9% per year as the grizzly population density has increased, and FWS noted, “The conflict and management data indicate an expanding grizzly bear population with the action area concurrent with increasing occupancy and distribution of grizzly bears throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Because more bears are moving into areas with more human and livestock use, we expect even more conflicts and management actions will occur in the future.”

FWS issued a biological opinion for cattle grazing in the area, determining that it “will not jeopardize the continued existence of the grizzly bear.” The agency estimated that 72 grizzly bears could be removed from the Upper Green over the next 10 years, primarily due to management removal within the allotments, and that “will not appreciably reduce the likelihood of survival and recovery of grizzly bears.”

FWS also noted that the cattle permittees have tried a variety of practices over the years to reduce conflicts “with varying degrees of success,” including conducting several conflict reduction workshops, changing grazing rotations and systems, hiring 5-6 range riders and utilizing five rider camps on the allotments in addition to day help, and experimenting with herding techniques in attempt to deter predation.

The top human causes of grizzly bear deaths in the Yellowstone ecosystem are defense of life and property (20.2% of all mortalities 1997-2017), followed by hunting-related defense of life and property (18.2%). The grizzly bear mortalities in the Upper Green due to livestock depredations accounted for 7.28% of all grizzly mortalities in the ecosystem from 2010-2018. Despite daily human presence in an area with a high grizzly bear density, there have been no self-defense actions taken by range riders, although FWS notes that this will always be a potential.

FWS notes that although in the last two years the number of problem grizzlies removed from the Upper Green has increased, “these bears were chronic depredators over the last few years, removal of these bears may reduce the number of conflicts and removals in the next year or two.”

 “The number of removals has been cyclical: as the depredating individuals have been removed, the number of conflicts in the following years has temporarily decreased until other bears learn depredating behaviors and the scenario repeats itself,” FWS wrote. “We believe the increasing trend in conflicts and removals and the cyclical nature of these occurrences is due to an expanding grizzly bear population, which we expect will continue in and around the action area. As a result of an expanding bear population, we believe the action area will continue to experience a regular increase in the number of conflicts and management removals over the next 10 years of the grazing permit.”

Grizzly bear mortalities in the Upper Green due to conflicts with livestock are not the result of a failure to manage grizzlies or cattle. It’s a reality of the success of grizzly bear recovery. Those who advocate the non-lethal management of conflict bears are more interested in removing livestock grazing from public lands than providing for a landscape in which traditional uses can continue.

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.

Get real: Dumping Disneyland for nature

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing/wildlife
Range Writing elk in traffic
National Park visitors oblivious to the danger posed by a bull elk among them. (Photo credit: Cat Urbigkit)
2201

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

When instances of human-wildlife conflicts make the news, wildlife and land managers should feed reporters “thematic information or contextual data,” including information about the low likelihood of such conflict, as in “only the nth time in x-years,” in attempt to “help counteract the intense emotions” media consumers may feel that after learning of these conflicts, which “can lead to unfavorable opinions about the risks associated with spending time in nature and national parks.”

That’s the point of a paper published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin last year by three researchers at Colorado State University (CSU), which also noted that when a grizzly bear killed a person in Yellowstone National Park in 2015, the National Park Service failed to mention that there were only 38 reported cases of humans injured by bears in 36 years, while 104 million people visited the park, “and only 8 known fatalities in the park’s 145-year history.”

This kind of media framing  – especially those noting that “only” X number of people have been killed by a particular species – sets my teeth on edge. When journalists are reporting breaking news about a severe conflict (such as that involving the death of a human being by a wild animal), thematic reporting be damned. Each death is a loss of human life, a human’s story, and it is entirely appropriate to report in an episodic manner.

I would hate to be a family member reading an article about the attack on my loved one only to see that loss of life minimized by taking the thematic approach, which seems to be advanced in order to minimize the negative aspects of such human-wildlife encounters. It’s like when I have a dozen dead sheep in my field due to a wolf attack, and wolf advocates respond that livestock losses to wolves are less than one-half of one percent of the nation’s livestock inventory.

The CSU researchers wrote: “We conclude that it is reasonable to assume that if a reader with minimal experience in nature reacts with emotion to these episodic stories, those emotions are likely to be of the sort that has a negative effect on attitudes about spending time in nature, such as fear.”

Perhaps it’s past time for the public to learn that wild animals are not the Disneyesque characters they’ve been portrayed for decades. Perhaps scaring people into the reality that human-wildlife conflicts do exist across the nation is what’s needed. Perhaps people should once again learn some fear and respect for the wild animals that share the planet. Perhaps then we won’t have people trying to put wild bison calves into their cars so they don’t get cold, etc.

Besides, every year we hear news stories of “rare” attacks on humans by large carnivores. Since it’s every year, and multiple times every year, perhaps it’s not so rare in the modern age. 

I generally try to keep up with scientific literature involving human-wildlife conflicts, and a new paper in the journal Human-Wildlife Interactions by Michael Conover examined the number of human fatalities, injuries and illnesses in the United States due to wildlife, conservatively finding that more than 174,000 people were injured and 700 killed by conflicts with wild animals every year in the United States. This includes everything from wildlife-vehicle collisions, snakebites,  and zoonotic diseases, to attacks on humans by large predators. Conover said large predator attacks were “rare,” while also noting that “attacks by alligators, cougars, polar bears, grizzly bears, black bears, and coyotes have been increasing in recent decades in North America.”

According to the Conover paper, the “best estimate” of the annual number of people injured by grizzly bears in the United States is 0.8. But I contend that this number is grossly understated, and based on outdated information (plus the source cited in the paper referred only to grizzly bear attacks on humans in Alaska).

According to other current research, there were 62 attacks by grizzly bears on humans in the tri-state area of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, from 2000-2015, and seven fatalities during that time. There were an additional 51 attacks in Alaska, with another seven fatalities. This totals to 7.53 attacks annually for the United States – substantially higher than Conover’s estimate.

But back to the fear issue, Conover noted that rebounding populations of animals “which currently enjoy either complete or partial legal protection, certainly have less reason to fear humans than they did previously. Fear of humans have deterred predator attacks in the past but less so today.”

And the fear needs to flow both directions, according to Conover. “Today, many people no longer have a healthy fear of dangerous animals and engage in activities that put them in harm’s way. This naivety also contributes to the increasing frequency of people being injured by wildlife.”

Conover recommends: “Biologists can teach dangerous animals to fear humans and educate humans to recognize and avoid dangerous situations involving wildlife.”

With more than 80 percent of the American public residing in urban areas, I understand the importance of connecting people to nature. But rather than have the American public remain ignorant about the natural world and its wild animals, we need to work to educate the public of the reality of human-wildlife conflicts so that we can seek to minimize these conflicts.

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.