Easements Conserve Sensitive Wildlife Habitat

By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, WY–It might seem strange to consider that roller coasters in Florida could contribute to a successful elk population in Wyoming, but that’s exactly what’s happening under some innovative plans to fund wildlife habitat conservation.

The unlikely connection is the result of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Absaroka Conservation Initiative, a program aimed at raising private money to fund conservation easements for critical elk habitat.

“We’ve just received some money from Busch Gardens in Florida,” said Bill Mytton, the foundation’s lands program manager for Montana and Wyoming. “They’re interested in working on conservation projects throughout the greater Yellowstone region.”

Another program initially proposed by Gov. Dave Freudenthal will use public money to fund conservation projects throughout the state. The Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust has received initial funding of $15 million, with a goal of building a $200 million fund from state mineral taxes. The trust will announce its first projects in June.

Both programs aim to purchase perpetual conservation easements, which would forever prevent development of sensitive wildlife habitat areas by paying landowners for the development rights to their land.

Such easements can be tailored to meet the needs of different landowners or the habitat in question, said Jerry Altermatt, a Wyoming Game and Fish biologist working with the foundation on its Absaroka Conservation Initiative.

“You can purchase the development rights or a variety of other property rights, including things like restrictions on grazing or logging,” he said.

The easements let a landowner hang on to property that may have been in the family for generations–providing funds to pay property taxes or improve ranching operations–while ensuring it won’t be developed.

Altermatt, who helps identify habitat areas worthy of protection, said only a few such easements have been executed around Park County but that they generally cost about half the market value of the property.

The 20,000 elk at home in the 175-mile Absaroka Range–stretching from southwestern Montana through Yellowstone National Park and south to the Wind River region–are a top conservation priority, Mytton said.

One recent easement purchased along the Wapiti Ridge helped protect what the foundation says is the longest elk migration route in North America. Elk leaving the southeastern corner of Yellowstone follow a 60-mile route to winter range along Carter Mountain, on the South Fork of the Shoshone River. The path winds through a tangle of state, federal and private lands.

“Game and Fish called and said that they were interested in protecting the lands that we have that are in that corridor,” said one landowner, Pearre Williams, who placed an easement on about 600 acres in the migration corridor.

“This piece of ground had been on the market for quite a while at a high price. We found out the owner was talking to developers about selling at 60 percent of his asking price,” Williams said. “We decided we should take it off the table,” he said. “So we kind of took a big gulp and bought it.”

Williams said he later reached an agreement to sell an easement on the land that forbids development and severely limits human activity and vehicle access from Jan. 1 to April 15, when elk are calving. Williams said some people have the misconception that a conservation easement opens private land to public access. The land remains private, he said.

The deal was funded with federal highway money set aside to mitigate loss of wildlife habitat resulting from construction on U.S. Highway 14-16-20 along the North Fork of the Shoshone River.

Critics of conservation easements say they often amount to a public subsidy for wealthy landowners, or that such deals are elaborate schemes to avoid taxes.

“You wouldn’t do this for the tax benefit,” Williams said. But he agreed that some deals have rightfully received scrutiny when landowners sought to inflate property values before selling easements and taking deductions.

But when done correctly, such deals are an important way of protecting habitat and keeping large tracts of land in the hands of ranching families who have owned them for years, he said.

“Normal ranching doesn’t make a lot of income,” he said. “So with the tax deduction you get from such a charitable donation, the average rancher doesn’t have a financial incentive to put an easement on his property.”

But with funding from the Wyoming Wildlife Trust or groups like the foundation, he said, ranchers could afford to sell easements and keep working their property.– Billings Gazette