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EDITORIAL: Sheep Mountain is a public investment worth making

When people who often disagree on how to manage local lands find something to agree on, it’s a sign that there’s a pretty compelling cause to support.

Recently, both the Park County Commission and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition — entities that often find themselves on the opposite sides of an issue — sent letters calling on the federal government to buy land on the top of Sheep Mountain west of Cody.

We hope our Congressional representatives and federal officials in Washington, D.C. take note — and take action by finding the money to buy the roughly 1,800 acres of critical wildlife habitat.

It’s not as if there’s a shortage of public land in Wyoming; the federal government already owns more than 48 percent of the state’s acres. That ownership is especially pronounced here in Park County, with Yellowstone National Park, the Shoshone National Forest and various Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation lands.

We share some of the concerns about growing federal control, but in this case, the importance of Sheep Mountain should trump those.

The acreage west of the Buffalo Bill Reservoir is already surrounded by public lands and is a haven for species that include grizzly bears, birds and migrating bighorn sheep, elk and mule deer.

“It’s such important migratory range for all those animals coming out of both the North and South forks [of the Shoshone River] and especially in winters that we just had, where there’s so much snow,” said The Nature Conservancy’s Katherine Thompson. Because the mountain is somewhat sheltered from the snow, “it’s a great winter refuge for wildlife,” Thompson said.

The Nature Conservancy bought the acreage roughly 17 years ago to ensure it wasn’t sold to someone who might want to develop the property. To its credit, the conservancy initially tried to trade the land for other BLM holdings in the area, but a sale now appears to be the only viable option.

The Nature Conservancy has guessed that the land could be worth between $1 and $2 million, but that figure would hinge on an appraisal near the time of the sale.

Funding would come through the Land and Water Conservation Fund budget for acquisitions, which President Donald Trump has proposed cutting by 75 percent, to $61 million.

We don’t know about other purchases being proposed across the country — or whether President Trump’s recommendations will be adopted by Congress — but it looks to us like, whatever the budget, Sheep Mountain should rise toward the top of the list.

Yes, it will likely be a pretty expensive acquisition. But beyond its natural beauty (the kind of beauty that could theoretically make it a nice place for a mansion), the mountain plays an important role in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in supporting wildlife. Conservation priorities shouldn’t be a popularity contest, but if you’d like one measure of the value of this ecosystem’s wildlife and natural wonders, look no further than the millions of tourists who flock here each year.

Perhaps the most exceptional thing about Sheep Mountain is the widespread consensus that it would be a good thing for the land to wind up in federal hands.

It’s no secret that people in Wyoming have mixed views about who should be managing public lands and where to draw the line between development and preservation. But when it comes to the BLM buying Sheep Mountain, the county commission and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition are just two of 16 entities and individuals who formally backed the idea. That says something about how critical this land really is.

We don’t see any losers if a sale to the BLM goes through, but we can think of plenty if we fail to find a way to permanently protect Sheep Mountain.

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