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The Cody area has tough conversations about how to balance development with protecting wildlife

The frame of a house on a wide Wyoming plain. Hills rise in the background.
Olivia Weitz
Wyoming Public Media
A new house being built near the Copperleaf subdivision in the North Fork area a few miles west of Wapiti.

After more than two years of work, officials in Park County will decide on March 19 whether or not to adopt a document that will guide future land use decisions.

Residents who live near Yellowstone’s East entrance have said that protecting wildlife habitat is important, but there’s been disagreement over how much data on big game animals to include.

Wyoming Game and Fish wildlife biologist Tony Mong pulled up some big game use data on his computer.

“With this data we used a mix of both collar locations, which we’re putting collars on animals that give us locations at a certain rate throughout the year, and we’re using data that we collect from the ground,” he said

The “Big Game Use Overlay” uses GPS collar data to show how often elk, mule deer, and pronghorn use certain areas of the county for winter habitat.

Mong said the North and South Fork areas in particular are a winter haven for animals that typically summer in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

When the county was in the land use plan review process, he presented low, medium, and high use data to county commissioners. Basically areas on a map where there is a high probability of big game usage versus lower levels of usage.

“With low use that indicates less than or equal to about 50 percent of the use of that group of collars whereas a medium use layer would be 50 to 75 percent of use and then high would actually be 75 percent or more,” he said.

Planning and Zoning Director Joy Hill said that all three use categories were included in an earlier draft, but the versiongoing before the commissioners next week only has high use in the main part of the plan. Low and medium use are in the appendix.

“The hard point here is you’re asking because the medium and low have been removed, does that mean they can never come back again and the answer is no,” she said.

Hill said that the plan can be revised or updated at any time even after it's adopted.

Early on in the process, the county surveyed the public on what mattered most to their quality of life. More than 700 respondents said that their top priorities were access to public lands and recreation, followed by protecting wildlife habitat and corridors and then property rights and freedom from government overreach.

Atpublic meetings some residents asked that the low and medium use big game data be kept in the plan while others worried that having all of it in there could lead to future regulations like rancher and commissioner Lloyd Thiel.

“Do I want the possibility of the county or anybody else telling me what I can do on my land because of wildlife, the wildlife are here, brought in, because of agriculture, so they are gonna tell me I can’t bail hay at night because that’ll disturb the deer, kiss my ass,” he said.

Thiel said there was also worry that keeping all of the data in the plan might send too strong of a signal to future public officials who might not have been part of the land use planning process.

“If they read that plan it could be interpreted that we have to have regulations,” he said.

On a chilly day, Mong and I drove to see whether big game were out in some winter habitat in the big game use overlay. Heading towards Yellowstone National Park on the N. Fork Highway, we pulled off on the side of the road next to an irrigated meadow just past Wapiti.

“There’s kind of a ridgeline that runs around to the right here, you can follow that snow kinda to the right, go to the left you see the big group of snow, and then just to the left of them, there’s little brown dots,” he said

About a mile and a half up sagebrush hills about 200 elk are resting on some undeveloped private land that’s considered a “medium use” area on the overlay map. Mong said earlier this week he saw elk walking just East of here through the Copperleaf subdivision. It’s a development with 131 home lots and some condos.

When I got back to the office I called up Joy Hill, the planning and zoning director, to see where the Copperleaf subdivision falls on the map. She said it is in the “low use” area, but it’s also not far from both “medium and high use” areas.

The medium and high use areas actually impact very few private properties, but there’s still a lot of confusion.

“People have made their own messaging out of it ‘Oh, they are going to make us put fences up or not put fences up; they are going to make it be wildlife friendly fences; or they are gonna tell us we can’t subdivide or they are going to tell us we have to have super large parcels or whatever it might be,” Hill said.

Hill said, so far, commissioners have not shown interest in having these kinds of regulations, but rather are using the data for educational purposes.

The commissioners will meet at 2 p.m. at the Cody Auditorium on Tuesday, March 19 to decide whether or not to adopt the land use plan.

Commission Chairwoman Dossie Overfield said she wouldn’t mind seeing the low, medium, and high use areas in the body of the land use plan, but on Tuesday she said she’ll likely vote to approve the current plan to keep the process moving.

“It’s hard for people to understand the high use when you don’t show the medium and low. How do the animals get there? It’s kind of an interesting scenario when all of a sudden they're huge in this area,” she said.

After the vote, the county plans to work with a consultant to start digging into potential zoning changes. Hill said the county will ask the public questions like, “What are your thoughts on density, how big should lot sizes be, what type of uses do you want to see in these areas?”

Hill said at that point, public officials could decide whether or not the big game use overlay would be formally adopted to create regulations on land use.

Mong said including any big game data in the plan at all is a step forward.

“It’s going to take using the data that we have available to develop in a way that allows room for wildlife, but also allows people to experience what brought us all here to this area anyways, which is the wildness of what’s out in the mountains,” he said.

Mong said he’s happy to work as a partner with the county, whether or not they regulate land use based on wildlife habitat is up to them.

Olivia Weitz is based at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. She covers Yellowstone National Park, wildlife, and arts and culture throughout the region. Olivia’s work has aired on NPR and member stations across the Mountain West. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom story workshop. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, cooking, and going to festivals that celebrate folk art and music.
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