Beartooth Ranch management proposal turned down by Wyoming Game and Fish commission

Posted 11/19/20

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission has denied a request by a Park County committee to take over management of the Beartooth Ranch.

A committee that’s been working to improve the ranch …

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Beartooth Ranch management proposal turned down by Wyoming Game and Fish commission

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The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission has denied a request by a Park County committee to take over management of the Beartooth Ranch.

A committee that’s been working to improve the ranch asked the commission to manage the 657-acre property, which is currently in the hands of the Office of State Lands and Investments. Beartooth Ranch Committee Chairman Len Fortunato presented the idea in hopes of easing management of the publicly owned land along the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River near Clark.

The federal government seized the land from a drug smuggler in the 1990s and later turned it over to the State of Wyoming. However, that 1999 transfer came with a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that included serious restrictions. Specifically, they require the ranch be used “solely as a public area reserved for recreational or historic purposes or for the preservation of natural conditions.” Failure to follow the rules could result in the federal government reclaiming the scenic property.

Park County commissioners discussed the possibility of trying to get the land turned over to the county, raising the idea of a sale to a private owner, but that sparked an outcry from local anglers, conservation groups and area residents.

Soon after, county commissioners formed the Beartooth Ranch Committee and tasked it with looking for ways to improve the property.

The committee has led several upgrades to the public access, but has been hoping to encourage the Game and Fish to take on the management.

  

‘It’s a gift’

The Office of State Lands and Investments is “not set up to manage this type of property,” Fortunato told the Game and Fish Commission Tuesday. “They’re set up to manage the state trust land, where they are tasked ... to use the state trust lands to generate money for education, buildings, things like that.”

In contrast, he said, the Game and Fish “are in the business of habitat management and already have an easement on the property.”

Department personnel “are responsible for maintaining access. They’re responsible for maintaining those parking lots and the boat launches. They have to maintain that toilet and have it pumped out. They’re actually responsible for 50 feet beyond the high water mark,” Fortunato said. “So we would have to go through Game and Fish to even implement some riparian habitat projects. And you know, they’re responsible for the wildlife and they’re responsible for the fishery, so there’s not really a lot left for them to have to take on as a task.”

Jenny DeSarro of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition concurred with the committee, saying the Beartooth Ranch is managed by the wrong

organization and should be managed by the Game and Fish.

“Nobody wants this property,” DeSarro said, but she encouraged the commissioners to wait on a decision until they had more information about the property and its assets.

“It’s a gift,” DeSarro said.

But Commission Vice President Pat Crank was unconvinced.

“You say in your written materials this will cost Game and Fish nothing,” he said. “But that’s not what I’m hearing today.”

The costs to improve the property and make it better habitat for wildlife and fishing were at issue. In an interview after the hearing, Fortunato said the costs could be shared or largely paid for through donations by organizations supporting the property.

“The Beartooth Ranch committee would like to continue to work with trying to facilitate [improvements] by going out and asking for donations, just like we’ve done in the past,” he said.

  

The Beartooth Ranch Committee

Under the committee’s leadership, groups including the Bureau of Land Management, Wyoming Outdoorsmen, Pheasants Forever and the local Trout Unlimited chapter have spent more than $87,000 to install two covered picnic areas, vault toilets, bear-resistant food storage boxes and other amenities. Improvements have also been made to the boat launch area and to clean up the property, with several buildings, including a large log cabin, being removed.

Thanks to donated materials from the Shoshone National Forest, the committee has also started building a buck and rail fence to keep nearby cattle from trespassing; local ranch owners also donated some irrigation equipment.

Clean-up work is still ongoing, as the parties who contracted with the state to remove the buildings left the open foundation, heating and cooling system remnants and other garbage behind. Fortunato told county commissioners in August that he thought the contractors were supposed to clean-up after they salvaged the buildings.

“The state is not holding them to that part,” Fortunato said. “They left a mess and now it’s in our hands.”

Park County Commission Chairman Joe Tilden agreed with the committee’s assessment that the property needs to be in the hands of the Game and Fish. “It needs to be under their management,” he told Fortunato in August, “with your group going out and finding the money to make the improvements.”

County commissioners voted to end their formal association with the committee at the August meeting, though encouraging the group’s progress on the property.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the committee itself was a point of concern for Game and Fish officials. Commission President Pete Dube said the department would have a tough time working with the group. He asked Fortunato if the committee would disband if the property was managed by the department; Fortunato said no.

“That’s a sticking point for me,” Dube said. “Currently we manage our properties as we see priorities. I appreciate your passion for this particular piece of property, but this is priority number one for you. It wouldn’t necessarily be priority number one for us.”

“If we have a committee that’s lording over what we do and do not do on that property, I see that to be a real stumbling block,” he said.

  

Eyesore or gem

There is a separation in the opinion of the quality of the property: Some see the habitat as a liability and others view it as a hidden gem.

Crank called the ranch property a “little postage stamp place kind of out in the middle of nowhere,” during the hearing Tuesday; in 2018, county officials said the ranch had become an “eyesore” amid disrepair.

But fishermen and members of the public dispute that idea.

“You get up on a hill there to take in the panoramic view and it’s just stunning,” said Tim Wade, owner of North Fork Anglers in Cody, and member of multiple fishing conservation groups, adding, “To say it has no recreational value is not good reporting. It’s a perfect habitat for birds, deer and elk.”

The property is an extension of the drainage from the Clarks Fork Canyon to the north. The Beartooth Mountain range is visible to the north and the river valley cuts through the mostly flat property, with buttes on private land across the river. Elk and deer, at times numbering in the hundreds, use the property as a wintering ground and the sagebrush flats are good habitat for sage grouse and other upland game birds.

Game and Fish Commissioner David Rael of Cowley tried to push his colleagues to reconsider their reservations about Beartooth Ranch, noting discussions about spending money on a tract of equal size in the southwestern part of the state.

“I want to remind the commission we talked earlier about spending $1.6 million on a 648 acre section, and now we’re talking about 657 acres being given to us,” Rael said. “So, keep that in mind. I mean, I think this thing needs to be pursued and then finalized.”

But, with two commissioners absent, the board ultimately voted against the proposal, 5-1 — though not completely shutting the door. The Game and Fish leaders encouraged the ranch committee to bring the idea back and pledged assistance with developing habitat improvement plans.

The Beartooth Committee has been lobbying Rael, who was the only dissenting vote, for the past two years.

“To me, it’s a no brainer,” he said.

In a phone interview after the meeting, Rael said he thinks it’s hard for the state to take on new projects and responsibilities as it struggles with revenue shortfalls and department budgets. And during the meeting, the costs of maintaining and improving the property were brought up several times.

But John Kennedy, the agency’s deputy director of internal operations, said a lack of funding was not a reason for rejecting the proposal.

“Before it’s reported later today or tomorrow that the department is saying that the Beartooth Ranch is a low priority, that is not what we’re saying. And we’re not saying that we don’t want to participate in the management of the property and help out wherever we can. We’ll continue to do that,” Kennedy said, adding, “It’s an important habitat. It’s an important public access area. But all of the attributes of the property that we’ve been talking about, can take place already.”

(Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that, while the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission discussed spending money on a parcel of land in southwest Wyoming, they did not authorize any spending. It also corrects the spelling of Len Fortunato's name.)

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