JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. – “There’s not a ton of options in Jackson. Not any cheap options, anyway, in Teton County.”
Truer words have perhaps never been spoken to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission. Certainly it was a rehashed serving of ‘same as it ever was’ as Game and Fish Deputy Director John Kennedy explained his department’s struggle with the high housing costs in Jackson.
Kennedy admitted the problem of finding and retaining employees has just gotten worse since he began looking into it four years ago. At the Commission’s last meeting in July, Kennedy presented basically two options for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s presence in Jackson: pack it up and move it down the road to Pinedale, or pray for a miracle.
Kennedy said he visited Jackson on August 14 when he spent the day in productive meetings with various local agencies. He commiserated with the Forest Service over how hard it is to convince employees they can afford to live here. Ditto the National Elk Refuge.
Kennedy also had hopeful conversations with the Community Housing Trust, confirmed by executive director Anne Hayden Cresswell who told Buckrail they’ve had very encouraging meetings with the department.
Not as promising were discussions with WYDOT, who is also in a similar situation but not quite as urgent as WGFD, according to Kennedy. A possible land-swap with the Elk Refuge or anyone else also appears to be a remote possibility.
The Commission could order the Jackson office to be sold. One commissioner has asked Kennedy to look into what that might bring. The state also holds land in Teton County in the form of Wildlife Habitat Management Areas (WHMA) that it could sell off or swap.
The Teton WHMA is two parcels adjacent to the Elk Refuge north of Flat Creek Road. The Horse Creek WHMA is a total of 153 acres, part of which is being used as a state elk feedground in the winter.
Still, even if funds were raised, the of cost doing business in Jackson Hole is likely beyond the means of the department.
“If we are staying in Jackson, we are either building or buying housing, which is not affordable as you may well know,” Kennedy told the Commission at a meeting on Monday. “Partnering with the Forest Service or the Elk Refuge on land they have may be an option. Or working on a partnership with the Housing Trust involved or some other housing agency could be something we can explore.”
State legislators Mike Gierau and Andy Schwartz, both Democrats, also made the meeting to offer their support in whatever it might take to maintain a Game and Fish presence in Jackson.
Sen. Gierau assured the Commission they were not up against an insurmountable task as he himself has managed to recruit and retain employees for his own business, Jedediahs, for 40 years now. Gierau also added that he thought the Commission could get “north of $40 million” for the state lands it holds in Teton County.
Rep. Schwartz reminded officials of the added value to tourists that a Jackson Game and Fish office has. He made a rather enthusiastic guess of about 50,000 visitors a day to neighboring Forest Service and Elk Refuge/Visitor Center locations, and there is no reason all those folks couldn’t wander into a Game and Fish office as well to learn more about wildlife, the state house representative conjectured.
“Most visitors do not understand wildlife at all. They like to pet bison,” Schwartz only half-joked. “This is an opportunity for them to learn more about wildlife and take that experience home with them.”
Bigger picture observation, Schwartz worried that Teton County’s elitism might be triggering a bona fide shunning from state agencies across the board.
“This is not a problem unique to Game and Fish. You may have seen the bumper sticker: ‘Jackson Hole, only 20 minutes from Wyoming,’” Schwartz said. “I really worry the connection between Teton County and the rest of the state, which can be a little tenuous anyhow, is going to worsen. We have a very different character. And I really worry about state offices pulling out and making that connection even more tenuous.”
Commissioner Patrick Crank of Cheyenne, who has been on the board since 2015, said he would like to see something get resolved sooner than later. A public forum will be scheduled in November. Crank wanted direction by the Commission’s January meeting as to whether the department would be moving out of Jackson to perhaps Pinedale.
“We owe it to the employees, the community, everyone involved to find answers. This has been dragging on for four years,” Crank said. “I don’t think anyone on this Commission envisions closing our Jackson office. But do we need to have a regional office there with the full complement of Game and Fish folks? Or could that job be done from Pinedale at a greatly reduced cost? That’s the million-dollar question.”
The Commission’s next meeting is Nov. 19-20 in Powell.