BLM hoping to buy mountain

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Federal government should purchase Sheep Mountain property, groups say

It’s not often that you find Park County commissioners urging the federal government to buy up private land.

But there’s an apparent overwhelming consensus that roughly 1,800 acres of land on top of Sheep Mountain west of Cody should be put in the hands of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The toughest obstacle may be getting federal officials in Washington, D.C., to acquire the Sheep Mountain property amid limited budgets.

More than a dozen organizations, agencies and individuals — ranging from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition to the Park County Commission — have written letters supporting the local BLM’s efforts to convince their leaders to make the land a priority.

“To have that in private ownership would be devastating. It really would,” County Commissioner Joe Tilden said last month.

Technically, the land is privately owned today, being held by The Nature Conservancy. But the nonprofit organization acquired the land with the intent of eventually transferring it to the federal government.

“We were afraid somebody was going to buy it and then shut off all access, and we just thought that would be a loss to the community,” said Katherine Thompson, The Nature Conservancy’s northwest Wyoming program director.

Located west of the Buffalo Bill Reservoir — and landlocked by roughly 17,000 acres of other public lands — Sheep Mountain provides crucial winter range for many animals.

Bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer and other species all call the mountain home during the winter, traveling there from the North and South Forks of the Shoshone River and Yellowstone National Park. The land on Sheep Mountain is particularly important in hard, snowy winters like the one Park County just experienced, Thompson said.

“Just the way it’s oriented and the way the wind hits it, it’s often clear when the mountains around it are covered in snow,” she explained. “So it’s a great winter refuge for wildlife.”

The property is also popular among people — as a place to hike, hunt and, for the Bales family, a place to graze cattle.

“It’s kind of a hard hike, but it’s relatively short, and you get on top of that mountain and it’s just incredible,” Thompson said.

Local BLM leaders recently put Sheep Mountain’s good looks to use during their effort to secure money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. On May 4, a couple of BLM officials took their agency’s lead staffer for the fund — Kathy Lawson of Washington, D.C. — on a horseback trip up the mountain.

Cody Field Office Manager Delissa Minnick said it was an important trip.

“She [Lawson] recognized the uniqueness of the parcel and the importance of it, which was great,” Minnick said.

Park County commissioner/private outfitter Lee Livingston helped guide the group to the site.

“Hopefully it will move forward,” Livingston said of a purchase. “It’s getting a lot of support from different organizations.”

The BLM says it’s received letters of support from the county commission, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Shoshone National Forest, National Park Service, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Wild Sheep Foundation, Wyoming Outdoor Council, Wyoming Wildlife Federation, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, Shoshone Backcountry Horseman, Wyoming Audubon Society, Wyoming Native Plant Society, Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association, Cody Country Outfitters and Guides Association and Arthur Middleton.

Livingston said he’s heard that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke even got some in-person lobbying on the Sheep Mountain property from Middleton — an assistant professor of wildlife ecology, management and policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a research associate with the Wyoming Migration Initiative.

“Maybe the stars will align,” Livingston said.

When The Nature Conservancy initially acquired the 1,828 acres, it planned to trade the land for other BLM property. But after trying and trying, the organization concluded it would never be able strike a deal, Thompson said. The BLM, she said, couldn’t come up with enough land in this area that would make for an even swap for the Sheep Mountain property.

“Eventually they [the BLM] convinced us, ‘Would you please just try to sell it?’” Thompson said.

The discussions were put on hold for several years, as the BLM finished its new land use plan. The final document designated Sheep Mountain as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern and opened the door for it to be acquired with Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars.

Minnick thinks the local BLM’s Sheep Mountain proposal will compete well with other applications seeking money from the fund.

Lawson, from the BLM’s D.C. office, offered a few tips “on how to key in on the ‘buzzwords’ or the hot topics right now as far as sportsmen’s access,” Minnick said; Zinke has made access for hunters and anglers a part of his agenda as secretary.

Even if the application rises to the top, though, there’s still the issue of finding enough federal money.

The Nature Conservancy guesses the land is worth somewhere between $1 and $2 million, and Thompson suspects it may take years for the government to amass all the funds.

“It’s a lot of money,” she said, also noting that the Sheep Mountain property “is big; it’s half of an entire mountain.”

The land won’t be officially appraised and a fair market value determined until things are much closer to a sale, as appraisals are valid only for a limited period of time.

Thompson added that it may be hard to find property sales that are comparable to Sheep Mountain.

“There aren’t very many of them,” she said. “And they don’t sell very often.”

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