Guest column: In defense of Game and Fish and building bridges
The recently published WyoFile article https://wyofile.com/development-wildlife-collide-along-iconic-wyo-migration-paths/ titled “Development, wildlife collide along iconic Wyo migration paths” contained some problematic statements about Wyoming Game and Fish (G&F) related to their involvement in Sublette County Planning and Zoning work. Specifically the statements were:
“Game and Fish has got into the middle of it, and their statements, I felt, kind of went against what the (migration) regulation states,” Sublette County Planner Dennis Fornstrom said. “Their whole discussion was how important this wildlife corridor was, how it couldn’t be disturbed, stuff like that.”
As one of five Sublette County Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commissioners, I have some serious concerns about these statements. First, I would first like to set the record straight on the great and valuable work of G&F in support of P&Z. Second, I would like to explain why these statements are so problematic beyond the obvious reasons. Third, I would like to express my hope to G&F that any damage done by these remarks can be repaired so that P&Z and Sublette County citizens may continue to benefit from their expert input and participation in planning and zoning matters.
To set the record straight, G&F did not get into the middle of it. G&F has only participated in P&Z matters when asked and they have diligently stuck to the facts. They were invited and Brandon Scurlock, Game and Fish Pinedale regional wildlife coordinator, generously took the time to respond and show up to help us do the best job that we could do in rendering our decisions. Mr. Scurlock has been the utmost professional, providing applicants, the P&Z office, the P&Z Commission and the Board of Sublette County Commissioners (BOSCC) with the critical information we need to conduct our business and fulfill our obligation and charge on behalf of Sublette County citizens.
When presenting data and speaking before the P&Z Commission, Mr. Scurlock has always made sure to be clear about the boundaries of G&F’s authority, frequently stating that any recommendations are just that, and noting where and when the agency has, and does not have, enforcement capabilities. Mr. Scurlock has always been right down the middle, giving everyone the facts in a transparent and open way without opinion. He has told us what he knows to be fact and when he doesn’t know something he says it openly and plainly. He has never demonstrated favor or bias toward the applicants or the county in his communications and appearances in P&Z-related matters.
The statement that G&F went against what the (migration) regulation states is, first and foremost, just plain wrong. As mentioned previously, when presenting data Mr. Scurlock was exceedingly careful to acknowledge the relationship between the Governor’s Sublette Mule Deer Migration Corridor Order and private property under consideration in applications, letting us know that the governor’s migration corridor order does not apply to private property.
Furthermore, the governor’s migration corridor order was not Mr. Scurlock’s focus. The data he provided were presented because it was extremely relevant to the P&Z Commission and BOCC, representing expert information on one of the matters that we are required to consider in the Sublette County Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Regulations. The data Mr. Scurlock provided and the questions he answered could not be more relevant to the Comprehensive Plan, the Zoning Regulations, the criteria the P&Z and BOCC are asked to consider for a conditional use permit application — and the process of making a decision on a conditional use permit application.
The reference to the nature of wildlife migration corridors being disturbed and the implication that the “wildlife corridor card” was overplayed in consideration of the Moyes’ application is misrepresentative of the importance these issues are given in the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Regulations. It is also misleading since both the P&Z Commission and BOCC are required to consider these issues as part of the process and obligations detailed in the Zoning Regulations. Yes, wildlife migration corridors were robustly represented as one of multiple concerns from the public. There is nothing wrong with that and it does not represent G&F. G&F obviously focused solely on wildlife resources because that represents the scope of their expertise and the subject matter that they were asked to comment on.
So, why are these statements so problematic? The Sublette County Comprehensive Plan has two policies that speak directly to the importance of input from and cooperation with agencies such as Wyoming Game and Fish in Sublette County planning and zoning matters.
These are: On Page 18 County Policy: Encourage county cooperation/coordination with state and federal agencies concerning the management of wildlife resources.
On pages 6 and 20 County Policy: Coordinate and cooperate with other local, state and federal entities and interests to pursue mutually beneficial land use planning and development issues and opportunities.
Sublette County Zoning Regulations’ language on the conditional use process also states on page 50: The Planning and Zoning Commission may request a review by any qualified person or any public agency that may be interested in the proposed use.
The statements made in the WyoFile article go against the letter and spirit of the language in the referenced policies and regulation and I fear that they damage the relationship between Sublette County P&Z and Wyoming G&F. Damaging these relationships does more than create tension between organizations that should work together productively and cooperatively. It may also negatively impact the P&Z Commission’s and BOCC’s ability to fulfill our obligation to Sublette County citizens.
How is this? Well, let's take the recent conditional use permits referenced in the aforementioned article. The process of rendering a decision on a conditional use permit is an adjudicatory process. This means that the P&Z Commission and the BOCC must produce findings of fact, supporting our decision on an application. In an adjudicatory process the P&Z Commission and BOCC serve in a role akin to that of a judge, combining our knowledge along with the information presented to us in the process and using it as the basis for coming to conclusions on findings of fact.
To be clear, we are not investigatory bodies. We do not have budgets or capabilities for performing special analysis or studies to come to findings of fact or test the veracity of an applicant's claims. So where does this leave us? It leaves us with the information provided by an applicant, the information we, the commissioners, know and/or choose to research, and information provided by other agencies that do have experts, such as G&F.
These agencies are not required to provide expertise and not all do provide their expertise and input, assumedly because they do not have the available resources. When we do get data and input from these agencies we are exceedingly grateful. If these agencies were further disincentivized from taking the time and energy to participate at the request of Sublette County government, we would be put at a great disadvantage, ultimately doing a disservice to Sublette County citizens. This would leave us only with information provided by the applicant and what the P&Z Commissioners and BOCC either know or take the time to research. Without sufficient expert data to answer critically important questions and test the veracity of the applicant's claims, the P&Z Commission and BOCC are less able to fulfill our obligation to Sublette County citizens and follow through on our commitment to realize the vision of the Comprehensive Plan. In short, we need strong and healthy relationships with other agencies to do our job to the best of our ability. It is difficult enough as is for agencies to take the time and energy to support our work. We do not need these agencies worrying about being misrepresented and called out by their Sublette County government colleagues as further disincentive for their cooperation. Without the expertise and input from these agencies, the P&Z Commission and BOCC would be significantly hampered and Sublette County citizens would be worse off because of it.
In closing, I hope that this public outreach demonstrating the value, importance and appreciation of participation and input on Sublette County planning and zoning matters from G&F and other agencies mitigates any damage done by the comments made in the referenced article. I am extremely grateful to G&F for their faithful and diligent service to Sublette County. I hope that Sublette County planning and zoning decisions continue to be made better by their expert input, cooperation and involvement.
Please send your thoughts and comments to Chris Lacinak at [email protected].
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sublette County Planning and Zoning Commission, Sublette County Board of Commissioners or Sublette County Planning and Zoning Office. The information provided in this series does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice.