Dec 18, 2015

Commissioners not interested in discussing local Wilderness Study Areas

Count Park County commissioners as uninterested in a new effort to figure out whether any more Wyoming lands should be turned into wilderness.

Getting involved with the commissioner-led Wyoming Public Lands Initiative “would be a lot of work with almost a zero percent chance of a positive outcome,” said Park County Commission Chairman Joe Tilden on Tuesday.

Commissioners doubt they'd be able to get parts of the McCullough Peaks Wilderness Study Area returned to general management under the current political climate. Photo courtesy Wyoming BLM
“I think it’d just be an effort in futility, unless you guys just like to go to a lot of meetings,” Tilden later told his fellow commissioners.

The main goal of the Wyoming County Commissioner Association’s initiative is to have commissioners get together with different people interested in public lands (such as environmental groups, the energy industry and grazing interests) to try reaching a consensus about their county’s Wilderness Study Areas.

Study areas are patches of federal land that have been identified as being “wilderness-like.” The Wilderness Study Areas are managed with nearly all of the same restrictions as wilderness. The intent is to preserve the lands until Congress decides whether they should become official wilderness or be released back to general management.

“It’s going to be a lot of work for nothing,” said Commissioner Lee Livingston.

Wyoming has 45 study areas — two are in Park County. One is the High Lakes Wilderness Study Area, some 14,700 acres, located in the Beartooth Mountains inside the Shoshone National Forest. The other is the McCullough Peaks Wilderness Study Area, made up of 23,290 acres of Bureau of Land Management property in the peaks south of Powell; commissioners have long complained about the restrictions there.

With no action by Congress, the state’s study areas have stayed in the protective limbo for decades, drawing repeated complaints from commissioners across the Big Horn Basin.

The Wyoming County Commissioners Association launched the new public lands initiative as an effort to build a county-by-county consensus and make recommendations to Congress for each study area.

“The last time Congress passed a major lands bill specifically for Wyoming was more than 30 years ago,” Fremont County Commissioner Doug Thompson said in a statement from the association. “We believe it’s time for a new effort that tackles the temporary Wilderness Study Areas in Wyoming and faces head-on some of Wyoming’s most difficult land designation challenges.”

“This will be a long and sometimes difficult process, but if we don’t work together to make decisions about these lands, eventually someone else will do it for us,” added the association’s executive director, Pete Obermueller.

Park County commissioners said Tuesday that they aren’t interested in the process.

“It’s going to be a lot of work for nothing,” said Commissioner Lee Livingston.

The commission’s view was that environmental and other advocacy groups like the McCullough Peaks being a de facto wilderness area and won’t want to give up any of those protections.

Even if commissioners were able to reach a local consensus that some or all of the McCullough Peaks should be released to general management, Commissioner Loren Grosskopf questioned whether Wyoming’s Congressional delegation could get such a bill passed.

“I don’t see that happening — not with the present Congress,” Grosskopf said.

Commissioners said they may consider getting involved if a President and Congress with a different attitude is elected in November 2016.

Another push to delist grizzly bear looking likely

As the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decides whether to remove Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears from federal protections next year, there are various perspectives from proponents and opponents.

Even if delisting procedures move forward without a hitch, it would be 2017 before the bears could be hunted in Wyoming.

Fish & Wildlife believes that the Yellowstone grizzly population is biologically recovered and are considering whether to move forward with a delisting proposal, said Serena Baker, Fish & Wildlife Mountain-Prairie Region 6 public affairs specialist in Lakewood, Colorado.

“We continue to work with states, tribes and other partners to ensure that a robust conservation plan is in place to maintain a recovered grizzly bear population in the absence of ESA (Endangered Species Act) protections,” Baker said.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is considering removing grizzly bears from the Endangered Species List. Photo courtesy Rennett Stowe
The estimated grizzly population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem increased from 136 in 1975 to 674-839 in 2014, according to the National Park Service.

A proposed delisting would only affect the Yellowstone grizzly bear population, Baker said. “Any proposed delisting would include opportunities for public comment and peer review prior to a final decision. We will only delist this population if we have a very high level of confidence that the population will remain recovered and never again need ESA protections.”

“This decision is clearly driven by political expediency, not the sound science that has made the Endangered Species Act so successful,” said Bonnie Rice, Sierra Club Greater Yellowstone/Northern Rockies senior campaign representative in Bozeman, Montana.

Population growth has slowed in recent years inside the Demographic Management Area (DMA). In the 1990s, the population was growing at 4 to 7 percent yearly. In the last decade it has been 0.3 to 2 percent annual growth.

“Politics have no place in wildlife management,” Baker said. “The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service relies on the best available science in making decisions, including the potential delisting of the Yellowstone grizzly bear.”

Grizzlies are expanding outside the management area, indicating carrying capacity has been reached and there is a surplus of grizzlies, said Brian Nesvik, Wyoming Game and Fish Department chief of the Wildlife Division.

The management area is essentially grizzly habitat across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in northeast Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, Nesvik said.

“It has taken 40 years of ESA protections and considerable investment to recover the grizzly population to where it is today,” Rice said. “Allowing the Yellowstone grizzly population to be reduced by over 100 bears would seriously undermine that progress and threaten true recovery, and is unacceptable.”

Nesvik said he doesn’t believe a total of 100 grizzlies would be killed annually in all three Demographic Management Area states (Wyoming, Montana and Idaho).

Even if 100 grizzlies were removed annually through hunting and other deaths, the population would continue to produce offspring, said Renny MacKay, Game and Fish communications director.

“Recovery is based on more than just the number of bears in the ecosystem,” said Baker. “It depends upon a combination of factors including quantity and quality of habitat, adequate regulatory mechanisms, and a good balance of male and female bears that are well-distributed throughout the ecosystem.”

The Yellowstone grizzly bear population suffers from increasingly fragmented and disconnected habitats, according to a report recently released by the Endangered Species Coalition. Without wildlife corridors, migration routes, and other connected habitat, grizzly bears cannot continue to reproduce, find food, disperse, and maintain enough diversity in their populations to survive into the future.

“Allowing the Yellowstone grizzly population to be reduced by over 100 bears would seriously undermine that progress and threaten true recovery, and is unacceptable,” said the Sierra Club's Bonnie Rice.

“You don’t have to be a scientist to understand that declining population, loss of food sources, and isolation from other bears are threats to the long-term survival of the Yellowstone grizzly,” said Sylvia Fallon, Natural Resources Defense Council senior scientist in Washington, D.C. “Yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is poised to remove these bears from the Endangered Species list, an action that would likely leave the population isolated forever.”

Fish & Wildlife considers 600 bears to be the lower limit at which there is no management and discretionary mortality is no longer allowable, Baker said.

“The goal would be to manage for approximately 674 grizzly bears to ensure a sustainable and resilient population that utilizes the entire available habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” Baker said. “We do not anticipate population numbers to dip down to 600 bears.”

The state of Wyoming has discussed mortality limits with Fish and Wildlife, Nesvik said; mortality limits are based on the population average from 2002-14 inside the management area.

• With 600-674 grizzlies, mortality limits would be 7.6 percent for adult females and 15 percent for adult males, MacKay said.

• At 675-747, mortality limits would be 9 percent for adult females and 20 percent for adult males, Nesvik said.

• With more than 747 grizzlies, it would be 10 percent for adult females and 22 percent for adult males, Nesvik said.

The above numbers only apply in the Demographic Management Area, Nesvik said. Grizzlies outside the area wouldn’t be counted.

“We do not anticipate population numbers to dip down to 600 bears,” said Serena Baker, a regional spokeswoman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Assuming the delisting process happens, which takes one year, hunting in Wyoming wouldn’t begin until 2017, if OK’d by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission. However, Nesvik said he doesn’t know if the commission would authorize hunting.

According to Section 4 of the ESA, downlisting or delisting the species may occur if threats have been determined to be eliminated or sufficiently reduced.

First, a proposed rule would need published in the Federal Register for review and comment by other federal agencies, state biologists and the public, as well as the advice of independent species experts.

After analyzing the comments, Fish and Wildlife would respond to them and announce its final decision in the Federal Register, either completing the final rule or withdrawing the action and maintaining the current species’ status.

The commission would have to weigh seasons, quotas and pubic input prior to making a decision, MacKay said.

Game and Fish management would probably recommend grizzly hunting to the commission. If there is a season, it’s unknown what the quota would be.

“Suffice it to say it would be a very conservative number,” Nesvik said.

State law requires licenses to be $600 for residents and $6,000 for non-residents, MacKay said. Hunters would probably be chosen through some sort of drawing, Nesvik said.

There’s no estimate on how much it would cost taxpayers if a decision to delist the Yellowstone grizzly bear were litigated, Baker said.

According to the Department of Defense, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Mountain-Prairie Region defended 23 lawsuits relating to the ESA filed by conservation groups between fiscal years 2009-12, at a cost of $1.87 million in attorney fees, Baker said.

Not all ESA lawsuits are filed by conservation groups. Private land owners, pro-development interests, and states are a few of the other entities.

“No group receives federal funding to file lawsuits,” Baker said. “The courts can award costs to a party who prevails against the federal government. The Department of Justice has authority for negotiating fee claims.”

For the last 40 years, Wyoming hunters have contributed $40 million in license fees, or 80 percent of the funding for grizzly recovery efforts.

The Game and Fish says it can manage grizzlies.

“You can look at our track record with large carnivores and it’s pretty darn strong,” said Brian Nesvik of Wyoming Game and Fish.

There are more black bears and mountain lions now in Wyoming because of Game and Fish management efforts, MacKay said.

“You can look at our track record with large carnivores and it’s pretty darn strong,” Nesvik said.

Mike Hirsch of Powell killed the first wolf in Wyoming on opening day in 2012 after the canine was temporarily delisted. Human-bear conflicts would cease, if grizzlies feared being shot by hunters, he said.

“Lets hunt them,” Hirsch said. “I believe it’s our state’s right to manage them.”

Fallon, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, listed several things that she believes are necessary to protect grizzly bears.

“To remain viable, this population of grizzlies need a secure future with a diversity of food sources and an effective plan to help people and bears avoid conflicts,” she said. “And, above all, the bears need the freedom to roam so they can maintain genetic diversity by breeding with other grizzly bear populations found to the north and west.”

Renting from county now easier: Commission stops requiring proof of insurance from some groups

After getting an earful from the public, Park County commissioners are making it less difficult and more affordable to rent buildings at the fairgrounds.

No longer will individuals and non-profit organizations have to get $1 million of liability insurance coverage before renting county facilities, commissioners decided last month.

“I think we’re going down the right path, because a lot of people can't afford the insurance,” said Commissioner Tim French. “And they’re viewing it as a public facility that their tax dollars went towards.”

Millie Sheldon of Meeteetse arranges wooden figurines during the annual Kappa Kreative Krafts Fair at the Park County Fairgrounds' new exhibit hall last month. Commissioners are making it easier to rent out the building. Cody News Co. photo by Ilene Olson
For-profit events (such as those put on by businesses) will still need to get the $1 million of coverage; commissioners figure that most commercial ventures already have or can afford the insurance.

County officials originally assumed that getting the coverage was a fairly simple and inexpensive process for individuals and non-profits. However, in later checking with local insurance agents, Park County Events Coordinator Echo Renner found event coverage can be hard to get and can “easily” cost $300 a day. That’s particularly significant when you consider that renting, say, the fairgrounds’ Bicentennial Hall, is only $120 for non-commercial use.

Renner said the insurance requirement was “becoming a stumbling block” and preventing some people from renting.

Commissioners, who’d heard complaints of their own, unanimously voted to ease the policy Nov. 17.
“Personally, I think requiring it for individuals and nonprofits ... is an overkill,” said Commission Chairman Joe Tilden. “I think it will hinder and restrict a lot of the use down there, which is what we don’t want.”

It's long been the fair’s official policy that renters need $1 million of insurance coverage, but Renner said it generally had not been enforced until this year. That’s when commissioners took greater control of the grounds’ management and started requiring it.

Commissioners reaffirmed that position as recently as their Oct. 6 meeting, when they declined a request to waive the requirement for a Stomp and Company clogging recital.

“Personally, I think that anybody that has a function over there needs to provide insurance,” Tilden said at that time.

“It’s always been that way,” Commissioner Lee Livingston had agreed. “It’s time that it was enacted."

Just a week later, however, Renner asked commissioners to reconsider, saying the policy was proving “prohibitive to people wanting to utilize the very facilities I’ve been hired to market for use.” That request culminated in last week’s decision.

A couple Park County Fair Board members welcomed the change.

“That was one thing that people were really irate about,” said Fair Board President Steve Martin of the insurance requirement.

During last month’s discussion, commissioners wondered if they really need to require insurance from anyone.
“That was one thing that people were really irate about,” said Fair Board President Steve Martin of the insurance requirement.
Tilden said it’s his understanding that, with the county’s own insurance, “when anybody is on county property, we’re covered.” He also quoted Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric as basically saying that the county is fine either way.

In the end, commissioners opted to keep requiring the additional coverage with for-profit events.

“We’re all going to get sued, but it’s just maybe one layer of protection that keeps us from having to spend money defending something stupid,” Livingston explained.

Commissioners indicated they may continue to tweak the insurance requirements, perhaps to differentiate between smaller for-profit events and bigger ones.

Dec 17, 2015

Wyoming farmers see possible good news, opportunities in new Trans-Pacific Partnership

Wyoming and American livestock and crop producers are gearing up for increased trade with Asian countries through the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

After seven years of negotiations, the agreement was finalized Oct. 5 to increase trade between 12 Pacific Rim countries: United States, Vietnam, Chile, Brunei, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico and Peru.

“We will be able to export more and the demand will go up,” said Arley George, treasurer for the Park County Farm Bureau Federation board. “That means the price will improve from a supplier standpoint.”

The implications for Wyoming’s farmers and ranchers were discussed with the American Farm Bureau Federation’s deputy chief economist, John Anderson, during the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting in Cody last month.

“It provides a lot of benefits, allows countries to get more of everything — but it does produce some winners and losers,” Anderson said.

The American Farm Bureau Federation has not yet taken an official position on the new trade agreement as it's still analyzing how the deal could impact American farmers, ranchers and citizens.

“In the end, it is going to be good for us, but we haven’t seen the final results,” said Park County Farm Bureau Federation member Scott George.

The U.S. International Trade Commission is reviewing the agreement now, then it will be sent to Congress to make a decision in May. But it is unlikely Congress will vote on it until after the presidential election, Anderson said.

“For years they have been preaching this Asian market,” said Park County Farm Bureau Federation member Keith Scheubel. “With them (Asian citizens) making more money, the first place they spend it is on better food, and that has helped. … If the markets will bear it, we can produce.”

By increasing exports, then American consumers could face higher prices in the store, Scott George said.

“In the end, it is going to be good for us, but we haven’t seen the final results,” said Park County Farm Bureau Federation member Scott George.

The American dollar has been regaining strength recently, which means it’s cheaper to buy imports in the U.S., and American-made products are more valuable overseas, Anderson said.

Wyoming’s top five agricultural exports are:
  • Beef and veal
  • Hides and skins
  • Feeds and fodder
  • Pork
  • Wheat
Agricultural exports account for 2,900 jobs in Wyoming with an annual value of about $389 million.

The countries shown in red are participants in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Image courtesy of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
“There is definitely stuff that is affected here in Park County,” said Park County Farm Bureau Federation board member Corey Forman. “It seemed to be that sugar and dairy are losing a bit right now.”

Beef and veal are big sellers in Japan. Under the new trade agreement that's anticipated to increase, as tariffs are set to drop from 50 percent to 9 percent. Nearly 80 percent of pork’s tariffs in Japan will also be dropped.

“Those are some real wins for the cattle industry,” Scott George said.

The Georges were one of two Wyoming ranching families featured in an international advertising campaign to increase beef demand in Japan earlier this year.

Many of the trade agreement’s changes will happen over the next five years and others are spaced out over 20 years, Anderson said.

Japan already had easy access to American wheat before the trade agreement. The few fees for those imports will come down as well.

“We are in great shape compared to other products, but there will be improvement,” Anderson said.

Mexico, Chile and Australia were already duty-free for American agricultural imports.

American consumers compete indirectly with the export market, Arley George said. He noted that some parts of livestock tend to go to different regions where they are considered delicacies -- such as tongues in Mexico.

“But then Japan wanted involved and it made it an interesting agreement for us,” Anderson said. “A lot of tariff lines got eliminated and all of the tariff lines are slowly coming down. For beef and pork, TPP is pretty attractive. The headlines on the meat side are pretty attractive.”

On the American side for imports, the barriers tend to be lower.

“We really don’t have much to give up and quite a bit to gain,” Anderson said.

Exporting into China is a bit more challenging.

The country's economy has slowed, but they remain a big market for pork, Anderson said. The Chinese economy has dropped from around 10 percent annual growth to around 6 percent annual, but it grew so large over the last decade that a 6 percent increase now is a bigger step than 10 percent was in previous years, Anderson said.

“That is a big issue,” Anderson said. “We want better access to China because they can take a lot of products.”

China does not take American beef, but it can be shipped to Hong Kong.

The Obama administration says the Trans-Pacific Partnership is good for the U.S.; the Farm Bureau has not yet taken a position on the agreement. Image courtesy of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
Many commodities are decreasing in price, such as corn, wheat and sugar, Scheubel said.

“That is the thing with farming, it is volatile,” Scheubel said, noting that weather activity is no longer the only factor. “We watch Brazil and Argentina and their ag has exploded, and it affects our markets.”

Sugar beet prices dropped recently, going from about $75 per ton two years ago to about $30 per ton today, Scheubel said.

“The only thing saving this year is, it is almost a record year — just one point higher on sugar content is (equal to) two more tons of beets per acre,” Scheubel said.

Cattle numbers, meanwhile, are light, but beef production is higher than a year ago because there are more pounds on every animal and more market-ready animals to choose from, Anderson said. He said cattle are coming in bigger than before at 930 pounds on average for dressed weight. 

Pork is also 13 percent above where it was a year ago.

With that and the new trade agreement in mind, beef and pork production are anticipated to increase next year, Anderson said.

High cattle prices will eventually come down, but “it has been really nice,” Scheubel said.

He said there's been "huge" amounts of volatility in some parts of the cattle market.

In October, feeder cattle were $1.70 a pound, then rose to $1.95 a pound; that's a $200 difference per head.

“I don’t know who is driving this, but it has been really volatile,” Anderson said.

Current predictions for the next 12 months for fed cattle say to expect fluctuations from as low as $1.20 to as high as $1.35 per pound. Feeder cattle should remain at about $1.60.

“What goes up must come down, it has been really high,” Scheubel said, noting that high cattle prices are why the beef is more expensive at American stores. “It has been really nice.”

Drought conditions have helped drive the increase in beef prices. For instance, bred cattle could be bought for $700 three or four years ago, then it went up to $2,600. Now the price is about $2,200 a head, Scheubel said.

“It is still a decent price, it (just) went up so high,” Scheubel said.

County requires natural color for new Clark cell tower

The Clark area is getting a new cell phone tower — and Park County commissioners are requiring it to be an earthy color.

On Tuesday, commissioners approved a special use permit to allow Bridger Wireless to build a 199-foot-high cellular tower off of Wyo. Highway 294 (the Badger Basin Highway). The spot is about a quarter-mile east of the highway’s junction with Wyo. Highway 120, or, as Commissioner Bucky Hall put it, “it’s in the middle of nowhere.”

This nondescript spot is expected to be the site of a new cell phone tower. Photo courtesy Park County Planning and Zoning
Commissioners personally attested to the need for better service in that area.

“That’s terrible cell coverage out in there,” said Commission Chairman Joe Tilden.

The board made its approval contingent on the tower being “earth-toned in color” to better blend in with the surroundings. The county typically requires wind turbines to be a natural color and Commissioner Tim French said it would be “a shame” if the new cell tower was not.

Commissioners Lee Livingston and Hall agreed and voted to require an earth tone.

Commissioner Loren Grosskopf opposed the requirement, mentioning the cost and wondering if all the other cell towers in Park County would have to be repainted.

Bridger Wireless didn’t have a representative at Tuesday’s meeting and therefore didn’t get to weigh in on the color scheme.

The Dallas-based company has considered building a cell tower in Park County before: In 2014, Bridger Wireless proposed putting one up between Powell and Cody, off of John Wayne Lane. However, the company withdrew the proposal after running into opposition from neighbors and learning that AT&T had already gotten permission to build a tower in that same area.

Only one citizen commented on the new Clark area tower at last month’s Park County Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, and it wasn’t clear whether they supported or opposed the project, said assistant planner Kim Dillivan. He said the proposed tower, sited on property owned by Switchback Ranch LLC, will have no close neighbors.

Bridger Wireless’ business involves building towers and then leasing them to cellular providers. The company did not tell the county when the tower might be built or what providers might use it, Dillivan said.

Yellowstone starts winter season; East Entrance to open next week

Yellowstone National Park opened to the public for motorized over-snow travel as scheduled Tuesday morning.

Visitors can now travel the park’s interior roads on commercially guided snowmobiles and snow coaches from the North, West and South entrances. Visitors with permits can also participate in the Non-commercially Guided Snowmobile Access Program.

Travel through the park’s East Entrance over Sylvan Pass is scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 22, according to the National Park Service.

A bison and snowmobilers share the road at Fountain Flats in Yellowstone National Park back in January. File photo courtesy Diane Renkin, National Park Service

The road from the park’s North Entrance at Gardiner, Montana, through Mammoth Hot Springs and on to Cooke City, Montana, outside the park’s Northeast Entrance is open to wheeled vehicles all year.

Old Faithful’s Geyser Grill, the Bear Den Gift Shop and the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center opened for the season on Tuesday. The Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins and the Obsidian Dining Room open Sunday.

Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, and facilities, will open Friday. The Yellowstone General Store, medical clinic, campground, post office and the Albright Visitor Center at Mammoth are open all year, as are the 24-hour gasoline pumps at Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower Junction.

Communities surrounding Yellowstone are open year-round, and local businesses offer a wide range of winter recreation opportunities. The Park Service offers online information and assistance for planning a winter visit to Yellowstone.

Park staffers will continue to monitor road conditions and weather forecasts that can impact travel. Weather during the winter season is extremely unpredictable in Yellowstone and road closures or delays can occur with little or no warning. Visitors should come prepared, carry personal emergency survival equipment in their vehicles and dress appropriately for outside activities in extremely cold weather.

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