Game and Fish rebuffs Legislature’s Teton development plan

Wyofile by Angus M. Thuermer Jr. 

JACKSON, Wyo. — Wyoming should maintain crucial wildlife habitat, recreation access and hunting on 3,555 acres of school trust land in Teton County that lawmakers have targeted for development, the Game and Fish Department has told state land-management officials.

Biologists and other agency employees weighed in on the value of 18 state land parcels covering 3,976 acres, identifying nine as worthy of preservation for existing wildlife and recreation uses — almost 90% of the acreage under review.

“We support maintaining or enhancing existing uses on the following parcels,” Game and Fish Habitat Protection Supervisor Amanda Losch wrote the office of State Lands and Investments in a letter that listed the sensitive lands. They “provide crucial habitats (either singly or in combination) for moose, elk, mule deer, or bighorn sheep, and provide public access for fish and wildlife-oriented outdoor recreation.”

The list includes the 640-acre Kelly school section, located inside the east boundary of Grand Teton National Park and four other intact square-mile sections adjacent to federal property. A section on Flat Creek east of the National Elk Refuge that’s surrounded by the Bridger-Teton National Forest; a section in the Cache Creek drainage just east of Jackson that’s also surrounded by the forest; and 640 acres on Porcupine Creek that the forest borders on three sides are also on the list.

At the Munger Mountain section near Butler Creek, about 12 miles south of Wilson on rural Fall Creek Road, Game and Fish says commercial development would be incompatible with, and impactful to, wildlife and recreation uses.

The Game and Fish list includes four parcels on East Gros Ventre Butte just northwest of Jackson that cover crucial mule deer winter range — a limited commodity in Jackson Hole. But Game and Fish did not oppose development of a significant state holding about a mile south of Teton Village and the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

That 640 acres lies amid high-value, low density subdivisions and significant open space on a busy road connecting the ski resort to Wilson and Jackson. The state can expect some “disappointment/backlash” in not also identifying that parcel, agency Wildlife Management Coordinator Doug McWhirter wrote in a memo.

But the Teton Village parcel contains “no crucial wildlife habitat and receives little recreation use other than hunting, he wrote. “This is not the hill to die on,” his memo to Losch reads.

Cashing in

In a bid for new revenue sources, state lawmakers in 2020 passed a law that called for “commercial, retail, recreational, agricultural and residential development” proposals that would “maximize the value of the parcel[s] to the greatest extent possible.” They also asked the Office of State lands and investments to identify “potential increases or decreases to public access for hunting, fishing and other current recreational activities.”

The Kelly parcel in Grand Teton National Park “arguably offers the most recreational opportunity of all the State Trust Land parcels in Teton County,” Losch’s letter to Jason Crowder, deputy director of the state land office reads.

The school section on the road to Teton Village is close to expensive real estate developments at the base of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (top). Photo: Teton County GIS

The federal government and conservationists teamed up to buy and conserve a nearby 640-acre state school section inside the park for $46 million in 2016. The Kelly parcel “provides important access for hunting recreation and elk and bison management,” Losch wrote. “Regardless of agency ownership (Grand Teton National Park or OSLI), this parcel provides a significant amount of public access for various outdoor recreation opportunities, and we support continued management of this parcel to allow public access for hunting,” her letter reads.

South of Wilson, the Munger Mountain/Butler Creek school section abuts Forest Service property on two sides providing important access for hunters, Losch’s letter says.

“It is heavily used by sportsmen during the hunting season for elk, deer, moose, and mountain grouse,” the letter reads. “This parcel provides crucial winter habitat for both elk and moose, and is adjacent to an elk calving area.”

The glamor-camping company Under Canvass has proposed leasing part of the property for 25 years to operate a 90-tent seasonal “luxury camping experience.” The Jackson Hole Land Trust has advocated for conservation instead.

Game and Fish apparently agrees with the land trust. “Commercial development that is incompatible with existing uses may negatively impact wildlife and wildlife-oriented recreation within this parcel,” Losch wrote. “The Department supports conservation-oriented proposal options that would maintain existing public access and uses.

The Cache Creek and Flat Creek sections — both surrounded by federal land — also should be managed to allow public access for hunting and recreation and are both crucial winter ranges for wildlife, Losch wrote. She advocated similarly for the 640 acres in Porcupine Creek where national forest borders three sides of the state property.

“The … parcels …  provide crucial habitats (either singly or in combination) for moose, elk, mule deer, or bighorn sheep,” said Amanda Losch. Wyoming Game and Fish habitat protection supervisor

Game and Fish also supports conservation of four East Gros Ventre Butte parcels which add up to about 355 acres.

The high-profile Teton Village parcel was the site of a development proposal by members of the Resor family, which developed the high-end Shooting Star golf course and neighborhood on their ranch just to the north. But that plan was quickly withdrawn.

Game and Fish Wildlife Coordinator McWhirter wrote that all the state lands in Teton County are important for wildlife and recreation.

When judged through the lens of size, habitat and public recreation, however, the nine high-priority parcels Game and Fish identified stand out. They “have a larger impact on conservation of local ungulate populations” than the other state parcels, McWhirther wrote in documents  obtained by WyoFile through a records request.

Teton County representatives in the Legislature have said that the state should not focus on Teton County, but apply scrutiny statewide. Nevertheless, lawmakers and state officials have forged ahead, seeking proposals for development and conservation.

The board is scheduled to meet next in an executive session Dec. 1 and in an open meeting Dec. 2. No agendas have been posted for those meetings.

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