Wyoming’s Public Lands Initiative

Throughout the past two years I followed the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative. The Wyoming County Commissioners Association started the initiative in 2016. Their goal was to address the status of 45 Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) in the state encompassing 700,000 acres.

encampment river
Encampment River Canyon Wilderness Study Area

A WSA is a designation that applies to lands that federal agencies manage to protect wilderness characteristics. Congress set these lands aside about 30 years ago. They intended to evaluate the undeveloped lands for significant wilderness characteristics. The evaluations would have allowed Congress to decide how to designate the land. This could range from wilderness areas to multiple uses. Of Wyoming’s 45 WSAs, the US Forest Service manages three. The Bureau of Land Management maintain the other 42.

In the entire nation, the BLM has 545 wilderness study areas with a total area of 12,790,291 acres. The US Forest Service manages 26 wilderness study areas.

When the initiative started, Carbon, Fremont, Johnson, Washakie, Teton, Park and Sublette Counties signed up to take part. After two years of work, Teton, Park and Sublette Counties couldn’t come to a consensus on how to designate their wilderness study areas.

The Wyoming County Commissioners Association is drafting the bill for the counties that completed the initiative.  Former executive director Pete Obermuller is heading up the project with a few others individuals. Once the counties approve the draft, it will be introduced to Congress.  Obermueller’s goal for having the recommendations to Congress is within the first quarter of 2019.

Obermueller commended the work of the counties who partook in the WPLI process.

“We knew that we wouldn’t solve every single acre,” Obermueller said, “And we knew we wouldn’t have 100 percent agreement in all places.”

1102_Seminoe View
Bennett Mountain Wilderness Study Area as seen from Seminoe State Park

In Carbon County, Committee Chair John Espy contributed the success of the process to the other committee members. From the beginning, he said they agreed to not put their personal feelings at the forefront of their job. Instead they focused on the people who use the land, getting comments from recreationalists and local ranchers.

“We started out from the beginning with an open mind as a rule,” Espy said. “We learned to trust each other and work together. We didn’t let our personal biases cloud our thinking from the start.”

I also appreciated how every person on the Carbon County committee saw the importance of preserving the landscape of the areas they were talking about. While not everyone agreed on the best practice to preserve the land, their intentions were pure.

I also talked to Fremont County’s WPLI Chair Doug Thompson. He too contributed the success of his group to having open minds and considering public input.

“We had a lot of public input,” Thompson said. “We tried to consider it. It came down to a use or no use decision. We tried to find wording that would accommodate those who wanted to prevent the more destructive aspects of development but also allow for appropriate economic development in the continuation of activities taking place on the land.”

You can find the recommendations for the Wilderness Study Areas here. County led committees recommended four WSAs throughout the state for wilderness. These include the Encampment River Canyon and Prospect Mountain in Carbon County, Sweetwater Canyon in Fremont County and Bobcat in Washakie County.

While I didn’t witness it, I heard “horror stories” about the process in Teton County. As the committee started to fall apart, the members weren’t even talking to each other anymore. In October the Teton Board of County Commissioners decided to abandon any recommendations for the WSAs. The dirt bikers, snowmobilers, mountain bikes and heli-skiiers fought against everyone else. They created a group, the Advocates for Multi-Use of Public Lands, to fight against any new wilderness. In the end, the Teton County Commissioners dropped the committee because they couldn’t come to consensus.

I find it unfortunate that the Teton, Park and Sublette committees couldn’t come to a consensus, but I’m glad they tried working through the initiative. Hopefully someday the residents and interest groups can try again.

 

Lincoln, Bighorn and Sweetwater Counties didn’t take part in the initiative at all. This puts their public lands at jeopardy and takes the public involvement away. Instead, they decided to join a legislative bill proposed by Representative Liz Cheney. This bill is titled “Restoring Public Input (insert scoffing here) and Access to Public Lands Act of 2018.” It doesn’t take into account an in depth public review and would lift all protections on the Wilderness Study Areas on about 400,000 acres in those three counties. It also would restrict future designations of wilderness areas.

Cheney claims that the wilderness study designation “prevents access, locks up land and resources, restricts grazing rights and hinders good rangeland and resource management.”  She further noted in a September 27th statement that the bill she introduced will “provide citizens and local officials in Big Horn, Lincoln and Sweetwater counties more authority to determine how best to manage the federal land within their counties.” While that part sounds good, I don’t like that she didn’t ask all interest groups on the best way to address the landscape.

The bill passed the House Natural Resource Committee on November 15th. Nineteen republicans on the committee backed the bill while 11 democrats opposed it. This also annoyed me because public lands and conservation should NOT be a bipartisan issue. However, the bill will now move to the full U.S. House for possible consideration.

 

adobe town
Adobe Town Wilderness Study Area

Several people criticized the county commissioners who decided to team up with Cheney. They said this route didn’t allow the public to be part of the process on their lands. Cheney’s critics scoff at the bill, starting with its title’s nod to public input, which they called misleading.

The biggest concern was over a Wilderness Study Area in Sweetwater County. The Adobe Town WSA is a treasured place among those who have visited, myself included. Rare species, badland features, fossils, and surrounding vistas make Adobe Town a special haven.

Adobe Town has garnered significant citizen support for Wilderness designation by Congress. It was part of the 2011 Citizen Wilderness Proposal for BLM Lands in Wyoming. This proposal had the support of thousands of Wyoming citizens and many conservation groups across the state.

But Adobe Town is rich in oil and gas resources, making the region one of the most threatened landscapes in Wyoming.

 

The Wyoming Wilderness Association has taken steps to try to protect Adobe Town. They plan to make a documentary film to bring national awareness to the landscape. The film will help educate the public about the extensive oil and gas leasing taking place near and near into the sacred corners of Adobe Town. It will also provide ways for the public to influence management decision, such as leasing, on areas that should be off limits to extraction. Finally, the film will be the first step toward including Greater Adobe Town and the Adobe Town WSA as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. You can donate to the cause here.

Encampment Bighorn Sheep Capture

0120_sheep capture (1)Two weekends ago I joined Wyoming Game and Fish as they captured five bighorn sheep near the Encampment River. The state agency partnered with Native Range Capture Services which originated in New Zealand. The company works with many agencies in Canada, Mexico and the United States.

Another bighorn sheep capture took place last February. At that time Game and Fish collared five ewes. Over the weekend, the mugging crew caught the same sheep, so they could receive new collars.

Saratoga Game and Fish Biologist Teal Cufaude said the sheep needed new collars because the ones placed last year didn’t work well. The new collars have functional GPS systems that give Game and Fish the ability to see day to day movements. The old ones were only giving off high frequency signals.

“(The new collars) will send out a couple points per day as the sheep move throughout the landscape,” Teal said. “We’ll collect the collars in a couple years. Then we’ll be able to download even more points and fill in the gaps of where they’ve been moving day to day.”

0120_sheep capture (3)Once the muggers captured the sheep, Game and Fish personnel and local residents brought the sheep to tables. There some Encampment students and Game and Fish employees took samples and fitted the animals with new collars.

The samples included blood samples, swabs from the nose and tonsils, fecal samples and an ultrasound to see if the ewes were pregnant.

The samples that Game and Fish gathered from the sheep will go to the agency’s veterinary lab. This is part of a statewide effort to gauge the health of the Wyoming’s bighorn sheep populations.

Game and Fish Wildlife Disease Supervisor Hank Edwards said the state wildlife agency can determine the health of the bighorn sheep with the samples.

“We’ll be sampling for pathogens known to cause pneumonia,” Hank said. “Pnemonia is a big deal in bighorn sheep.”

Game and Fish will also be able to compare herds that are healthy with those are not. From there they can try to determine differences in environment and any needs for ecological management.

Locally, Teal said Game and Fish will track the movements the sheep make to develop useful habitat improvement plans in the future.

“We’ll be able to know where we can better spend our money and our time enhancing habitat if we know exactly what parts of the landscape they’re using,” Teal said.

The state wildlife agency has been receiving help on the initiative from Encampment students. Jordan Seitz’s sixth and eighth grade classes got involved last February when Game and Fish captured the first five sheep.

The students have participated in observing the sheep as well.. The Game and Fish Laramie Region Newsletter states that the students took a field trip where the learned about bighorn sheep habitat, diets and digestion. Then they explored that habitat and learned about radio telemetry. At the end of the day they got to observe several bighorn sheep feeding near Miners Creek. Jordan said he hopes the experience inspires his students.

 

It’s cool that Jordan takes his classes out to help Game and Fish with this project. It shows the students that they can have a successful and awesome career in this state and in their hometown. Many students could enjoy a similar experience that opens their eyes to a fuller extent of what they can do after they graduate.

dsc_0260It’s been fun to take part in this effort myself for the past two years. I’ve gotten to touch the bighorn sheep to help hold them down while game and fish personnel gather samples. My first year at the capture Will Schultz, who was the game biologist at the time, asked if I wanted to touch the sheep and get my picture taken. Of course! Anybody who knows me won’t be surprised that I took my gloves off when holding the ewes so I could feel their soft fur.

If I had liked science more while in school and college, I may have become a game biologist. At least I get to sometimes live vicariously as one while being a news reporter.

 

Further Bighorn Sheep News

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department in partnership with the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation, the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center, and the University of Wyoming’s Ruckleshaus Institute is announcing a public engagement process to explore management concerns, issues, and opportunities for the Whiskey Mountain Bighorn Sheep herd.

A situation assessment was recently completed and dates for a series of public workshops and a “Bighorn Sheep Summit” have been set. Game and Fish encourages all those interested in this herd to attend the Summit. People will meet with bighorn sheep specialists from around the country to chart a path forward for this iconic bighorn sheep herd.

This herd has struggled to recover from a catastrophic all-age die-off caused by pneumonia in 1991. The disease caused an estimated 30% decline in the number of sheep. The herd continues to stay below the desired population size. This is because lamb survival is very low, likely due to the persistence of lamb pneumonia. At one time, there were an estimated 2,500 sheep in this population; today there are about 750.

“The bottom-line is, we simply don’t have all the answers how to turn this important bighorn sheep population around,” says Daryl Lutz, Lander’s wildlife management coordinator. “There is much to be learned how to best address this decline and perhaps implement management strategies and projects to attempt to arrest and reverse this trend,” says Lutz. “To do this, it is clear we must consider a different approach.”

All collaborative workshops will be held in Dubois at the Headwaters Arts and Conference Center (20 Stalnaker Street) from 6:00 pm- 9:00 pm each of the following evenings:

February 11 – Public workshop to summarize the situation assessment and exploration of issues.

March 14 – Bighorn Sheep Summit – discussion with “outside” experts about technical and scientific information regarding disease, predation, habitat and other aspects of this bighorn sheep herd.

April 3 – Public workshop to craft solutions to improve herd conditions.

June 5 – Public workshop to present draft strategy for public input, discussion, and refinement.

Weekly Review: January 25th

Wildlife habitat conserved in Wyoming

A family in southeast Wyoming teamed up with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to protect 133 acres of important elk habitat.

Fred and Stephanie Lindzey cherish the wildlife values of their land, which their family has owned for more than three decades.

The property is about 20 miles west of Laramie and east of the Snowy Range Mountains on the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. It features high quality wildlife and riparian habitat along the Little Laramie River and is part of the Snowy Range Scenic Byway. It also provides critical linkage between several nearby completed and developing conservation projects. These are all located within the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Sheep Mountain Mule Deer Initiative Area.

The Lindzey’s Home Ranch Conservation Easement protects winter and year-round range for elk. It also provides a home for moose, mule deer and antelope. The property also serves as historic range for a wide array of nongame fish, bird and animal species, including golden eagles. The landowners cooperate with wildlife agencies and nonprofit organizations on habitat research. They also host a bird banding site for the Audubon Society on the property.

Funding partners for the project included the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Wyoming Wildlife Foundation. The Lindzey family also made a generous donation.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation works with willing landowners to establish conservation easements. These protect crucial elk winter and summer ranges, migration corridors and calving grounds.

Since 1986, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and its partners protected or enhanced 1,131,711 acres of habitat in Wyoming. They’ve protected more than 7.4 million acres nationwide.

 

Major reservoir in Colorado heating up at fast pace

The surface temperature at a major reservoir in Colorado has risen 5 degrees over a 35 year period. That’s according to a new study from researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Lake Dillon is a significant source for Denver’s water supply. So researchers at CU Boulder took on the task in the early 80s to study the water quality. William Lewis is a professor at CU Boulder and lead author on the study.

He said the fact that the lake is warming is not surprising, but the rate of warming is.

Lewis said despite the changing temperatures, there weren’t any signs of ecological damage to the reservoir. The researchers think there’s a reason for that. The lake sits at an altitude of about 9,000 feet so the water is very cold, to begin with.

 

Volunteer to help habitat

game and fish volunteer
Photo from Wyoming Game and Fish

On Saturday, February 9, Wyoming Game and Fish invites volunteers to help improve fish habitat in Ocean Lake, near Pavillion, WY. The project provides an opportunity to recycle Christmas trees while improving the structure of the lake. Fresh Christmas trees are being accepted for free at the Lander and Dubois Landfill and Riverton Transfer Station through Wed, Jan. 30.

At Ocean Lake, volunteers and staff will wire the trees together and attach concrete blocks to weigh them down. When the ice melts in the spring, the weighted trees will sink and provide structure for fish. The resulting formation creates the inland version of an artificial reef.

Volunteers have taken part in this project for several years to help increase fish habitat at Ocean Lake.”

Volunteers should meet at the boat landing on Long Point of Ocean Lake at 9 am, and bring pliers or wire cutters, work gloves and warm clothes. Volunteers are welcome to show up for any part of the time. Game and Fish plans to complete the project early in the afternoon.

Partners who donated supplies, put forward effort, and gave of their time include Fremont County Solid Waste Disposal District, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, North Platte Walleyes Unlimited, Wyoming Demolition, Drake’s Landscaping, Geotec, Brian Woodard of Rocky Mountain Discount Sports in Casper, and the volunteers who attend each year.

 

Popo Agie Gold Art and Science Project.

At Lander Arts and Sciences has a new project entitled Popo Agie Gold. This project seeks to raise awareness of water use in and around the Popo Agie River and to celebrate the Lander area watershed. The organization planned many discrete events over the next year to engage the community.

One event at the Lander Library on January 31 at 7:00 pm is the Story Deluge: Whiskey is for Drinking and Water for Fighting Over.  The event will highlight the humorous, poignant and personal stories of Rob Hellyer, Jason Baldes, Del McOmie, Lynn McRanns, Mike Dabich, George Hunker and others. Limited seating is available. Tickets are $12. Proceeds benefit the local Healthy Rivers Initiative water conservation projects.

A second upcoming event is a Photographic Exhibit: For the Love of Water: A History of Our Use. I’m going to try to make it to this one. The event opens on Feb 16 from 4:00 – 6:00 pm at the Lander Pioneer Museum. The exhibit features historic photos and artifacts that show how people use the water in Fremont County from the late 1800’s to present day.  It will explore the agricultural, recreational and industrial use of water in the area.

 

Game and Fish Commission supports sage grouse populations through translocation

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission held its January meeting in Cheyenne this week. The volunteer board voted on several topics and had other discussions related to Wyoming’s fish and wildlife.

The commission voted to continue the translocation study of Wyoming greater sage grouse to North Dakota. The study has been underway for two years. It helps develop a range-wide protocol for translocating sage grouse. It will also help maintain the interconnected populations throughout the region. Wyoming is a stronghold for sage grouse and a source to help bolster populations. The translocation study will be evaluated on an annual basis dependent on impacts to the source population. In return, North Dakota will provide Wyoming with 200 pheasants.

 

Wyoming Governor appointments that deal with lands and conservation

Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources

Darin Westby has been the director of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources since August 2016. Westby has over 24 years of experience in the environmental, architectural, engineering, construction and management fields. This includes twenty years in State employment and seventeen years with the agency. He has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Wyoming. He also has a Civil Professional Engineering license, and a certificate in public management.

 

Wyoming State Geological Survey

Erin Campbell has served as the State Geologist and director of the State Geological Survey since appointed to the position in 2017. She has also worked at WSGS as the Manager of Energy and Minerals Resources. She is the first woman named Wyoming State Geologist. Campbell has a B.A. in Geology from Occidental College in Los Angeles and a Ph.D. in Geology from the University of Wyoming. She also has experience working for Chevron and as a lecturer at UW.

 

Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality

Todd Parfitt has served as the DEQ director since 2012. He has over 30 years of experience in the environmental field, including 25 years with the DEQ. Before becoming the director, Parfitt spent seven years as the DEQ Deputy Director and as the Administrator of DEQ’s Industrial Siting Division. Parfitt has a bachelor’s degree in Natural Resources, Fisheries Management. He additionally has a master’s degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Environmental Policy. Both degrees are from The Ohio State University. He is a 2008 graduate of Leadership Wyoming and was the President of the Environmental Council of the States in 2017-2018.

 

Wyoming Department of Agriculture

Doug Miyamoto has served as director of the Department of Agriculture since 2015. He was recently elected President of the Western United States Agriculture Trade Association. Before becoming director, Miyamoto served as the Executive Director and deputy director of the Wyoming Livestock Board. Miyamoto earned a Master’s Degree in Rangeland Ecology and a Bachelor’s Degree in Range Management. The degrees are both from the University of Wyoming. He has served as chairman of the Natural Resource and Environment Committee of the National Association of Conservation Districts of Agriculture since 2016.

 

My upcoming adventures:

I have friends from college visiting this weekend. We’re going to the Snowy Range Ski Lodge to see if we can remember how to ski down mountains. We might have to resort to snowshoes instead!