Over his two decades challenging Wyoming’s livestock industry, Jonathan Ratner saw time and again just how much political clout Jim Magagna wields. 

Magagna is the longtime executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, and he’s the most public-facing representative of a livestock industry that was once Wyoming’s largest. Ratner, until recently a staffer with Western Watersheds Project, has spent most of his career attempting to curtail public land livestock grazing — and submitting legions of records requests to advance that agenda.

“I submit FOIAs all the time, and it is amazing the level of capitulation and fear within the federal agencies for Jim Magagna,” Ratner said. “When Jim says jump, the agencies say, ‘Oh, how high would you like us to jump?’” 

Ratner had something else to say about Magagna. Disagreements about public land management aside, he likes the guy. 

“Jim is old school, from back when people used to be a little more reasonable,” Ratner said. “We can have a decent conversation and discuss things.” 

Magagna, 80, is a lifelong sheep rancher, attorney by training and former Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments director who has been involved in Wyoming livestock trade groups — starting with the Wyoming Wool Growers Association — since 1976. He’s helmed both the Wool Growers and, for the past 25 years, the cattle-focused Wyoming Stock Growers Association. He has presided over the boards of the national American Sheep Industry Association and National Public Lands Council, and in 1994 made a run for Wyoming’s U.S. House of Representatives seat. Through it all, he’s built up the name Jim Magagna to the point where it’s basically synonymous with Wyoming’s livestock industry. 

Jim Magagna is a sheepman leading a cow group as the longtime executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. “I owned one milk cow one year,” he said with a laugh. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“He is the face of the industry, and he’s very effective,” said David Kane, a Sheridan cattle rancher and past president of the stock growers association. 

Judging by his year-in, year-out lobbying and close coordination with legislative committees, Magagna’s fingerprints are all over Wyoming statute books. Kane didn’t have to look back further than the Wyoming Legislature’s most recent session to illustrate the point. 

“We were having a lot of issues with the state land board and the way they were handing grazing leases,” Kane said. “Jim took the bull by the horns. I believe there were five separate bills in the Legislature last year that Jim was instrumental in [drafting] to help correct a lot of the issues.” 

Four of those bills — HB 116 – State land leasing-improvements, HB 117 – State lands-grazing of non-owned livestock, HB 21 – State lands-use of land qualification requirements and HB 22 – State land lease deficiencies-cure process — were routed through the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee, and every one of them is now state law.   

Magagna didn’t take too long of a breather after the session. In the interim ahead of the Legislature’s 2024 budget session, he’s been lobbying for increased compensation to private landowners and state land lessees who lose grass to overpopulated elk

Longtime Wyoming Stockgrowers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna testifies at a June 2023 meeting of the Wyoming Legislature’s Select Natural Resources Management Committee in Rock Springs. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

From his family’s ranchland along the west slope of the Wind River Range, Magagna told WyoFile that he doesn’t like to think of himself as the powerful face of the livestock industry, but he conceded that he gets a lot of attention. 

“I’ve been at it for so long, everybody knows me,” Magagna said. “They don’t always agree with me, but they’re usually willing to listen.”

Although Magagna has helped buoy the clout of an industry that has declined significantly as a portion of Wyoming’s GDP as the decades have lapsed, he points out that its might is not what it once was. 

“It’s never going to be what it was back in the 1880s, when we ran the state,” Magagna said. “But I think we’re in a good place today.” 

Magagna, who’s of Italian and Slovenian descent, has a somewhat unconventional life arc for a Wyoming sheep rancher. On little more than a whim — a friend was applying, so he did, too — he took off to Indiana to earn an undergraduate degree in business administration from the University of Notre Dame. 

“My parents took me on the train to South Bend,” Magagna said, “and that was the first time I’d ever been east of Cheyenne.” 

His heart wanted to take over the family business back in Wyoming, but he didn’t pass up a chance at law school after logging a stellar LSAT score and being admitted to Stanford.  

“I didn’t want to be a lawyer,” Magagna said, “but I figured if I failed and went broke as a rancher I’d have a career fallback.” 

Magagna never did practice law. Instead, he built up his family’s business. Longtime friend and fellow wool grower Mary Thoman recalled Magagna’s ambition as a young rancher. 

Jim Magagna, who has led the Wyoming Stock Growers Association for 25 years, still likes to stay active on his ranch at age 80. Here he tries to steer a flock of sheep toward the larger band grazing down toward Lander Creek. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“He said he wanted to be the biggest sheep rancher in Wyoming,” Thoman said, “but then he decided to go to Cheyenne to do politics.” 

Around the turn of the century, Magagna ran in the realm of 8,000 sheep, which was “one of the largest if not the largest” operation remaining in Wyoming, he said. 

Magagna doesn’t run his own commercial flock anymore, but leases his land out to other sheep ranchers who’ve stayed in the game. On July 3, he was at his property overlooking Lander Creek helping Thoman’s sister, Kristy Wardell, unload about 750 lambs and ewes that had been trucked in from Fremont County. 

Sheep-moving operations, like the industry, have changed dramatically. In the old days, he said, they’d “trail” much larger flocks on foot to the same pasture before moving up to more mountainous grazing allotments in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. 

“There’s just not the sheep there used to be here,” Magagna said. “In the 1940s, there were more sheep in Wyoming than there are today in the United States.”

Jim Magagna poses at his Sweetwater County ranch in this undated photo. (Courtesy/Jim Magagna)

Wyoming’s domestic sheep numbers, he said, have shrunk from 6-plus million to a few hundred thousand over that span. Numbers of smaller supplementary “farm flocks,” however, are increasing. 

And Magagna’s contributing to that dynamic. He’s kept a small flock, which last numbered 17. Essentially, Thoman said, he’s held onto those animals as a hobby for a good friend and business partner of his, Jose Rodriguez.

When Magagna bowed out of commercially running sheep a couple decades ago, some of his allotments were bought out by conservation buyers interested in seeing the range recover. Later, he led an effort to get Bridger-Teton officials to consider restocking bought-out allotments, which critics worried could collapse future interest in the conservation tactic.  

“If that’s not hypocrisy,” Ratner said, “I don’t know what is.” 

Ratner’s former employer, Western Watersheds Project, has come to blows with Magagna and the Wyoming Stock Growers repeatedly. Eight years ago, Magagna and others asked the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality to remove three streams’ listed as “impaired” from potentially hazardous levels of E. coli bacteria. Their rationale was that the problematic water samples came from Ratner — and the state agency obliged

By Western Watersheds Project director Erik Molvar’s count, Magagna and the Wyoming Stock Growers have intervened in at least eight lawsuits the Hailey, Idaho-based nonprofit has initiated since 2006. The vast majority of the time, he said, like with the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent ruling over grizzly conflict in the Upper Green River drainage, the intervenors came out on the losing end. 

In the statehouse, however, the Stock Growers bat at a high clip. No doubt it’s due in good part to Magagna. Senate President Ogden Driskill (R-Devil’s Tower) and Speaker of the House, Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) — both cattlemen — praised the longtime lobbyist when WyoFile asked for comment. 

“He’s non-traditional in some ways,” Driskill said, “in that he’s a sheep guy in a cow organization.”

In his time at the Wool Growers and Stock Growers, Magagna “reached across boundaries” and helped modernize trade groups that were “really stodgy and staunch” in their ways, Driskill said. The approach has been effective, he said. 

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, at the Wyoming State Capitol in 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“Without a doubt he’s had a big influence on Wyoming statute, and that goes beyond ag,” Driskill said. “He’s had a pretty large presence.” 

Sommers was equally complimentary. Magagna’s background on the ranch and in the legal world gives him a leg up in understanding statute, he said. 

“He’s been a valuable ally for the industry,” Sommers said, “but he’s also been a practical ally for many things related to conservation.” 

Sommers cited Magagna’s board position on the Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust. He’s also been an advisory board member of the University of Wyoming’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources. 

Yet, not all legislators were as glowing in their description of the lobbyist. Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) said that he hasn’t always appreciated  Magagna’s conduct. 

“As a legislator, I don’t appreciate when lobbyists try to pick the most favorable committee — not the committee that should be addressing the issue,” Hicks said. “When I was chairman of the ag committee, he would bypass me and go around to other members of the Legislature to try to get things through.” 

The ag committee taking up the issue of elk overpopulation, he said, is one example.

“[Magagna] just knew that he had a favorable audience and they’d rubber stamp whatever he wanted to do,” Hicks said. 

Jim Magagna encourages sheep to leave a tractor trailer at his ranch on July 3, 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Other bridges are intact. Relationship building is key to Magagna’s statute-shaping success, said Carolyn Paseneaux, a former Wyoming Wool Growers executive director and close friend of his for nearly 40 years. 

“Even when he is on the opposite side of an issue,” she said, “he’s willing to listen to what the other side thinks and see if there’s a way to come together.”  

Replacing Magagna won’t come easy, said Kane, the former Wyoming Stock Growers board president. 

“I’m not sure that one person can do everything that Jim does,” he said, “not to the same degree of success.” 

Magagna, however, has no intention of stepping away. Retirement age, he said, “is when you feel like it.”

“It’s going to come someday, but I’m not ready,” Magagna said. “I still like what I do.”

WyoProfiles examine the remarkable, notable and fascinating lives of state residents — both living and gone. If you have an idea for an individual you would like us to profile, email editor@wyofile.com.

Mike Koshmrl reports on Wyoming's wildlife and natural resources. Prior to joining WyoFile, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures for the Jackson...

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  1. My association with Jim Magagna goes back to a period 1956 to 1981during my tenure with the Wool Section at UofW. A great sheep and wool producer among many other endeavors Magagna was always a great and willing cooperator in our work when we contacted him.
    Thank you, Mr. Magagna.

  2. Jim was a pleasure to work with when I was in Rock Springs, with the BLM. He was supportive of our grazings plans to improve riparian areas along the Wind River Front.

    Stay with it Jim!

  3. 99.5 % of the time I was in the opposite direction from Jim, but I liked Jim. He was always a gentleman in our disagreements and at the end of the day we could shake hands and wait for the next disagreement.

  4. I am glad Jim is still around. A throwback to real politics in Wyoming instead of the nonsense here now.

  5. A great story about a man who is a real Wyoming state treasure. But you left one thing out, WyoFile – Jim is also a great cook and baker, and it’s a special day in the Capitol Club in Cheyenne, during the session, when Jim brings in some edible treats to share with his fellow lobbyists!

  6. Lobbying is a game for kings not for pawns. My lobbyist has more stroke than yours. Money talks BS walks

  7. I joined the high school debate team in Saratoga, one of my best ever decisions. Tournaments were held in Rock Springs. At the time Jim Magagna and Pete Menghini (?sp) were probably the best high school debate team in Wyoming. Jim’s future success no surprise. Amazing ethnic diversity and solid democratic politics (Teno Roncalio) defined Rock Springs. Of course those days are long gone.

  8. 12-13 years ago, Wyoming Trout Unlimited very unwisely paid Mr. Magagna something close to $200k to “buy out” his forest service sheep grazing allotment. At the time, Magagna was going out of business (sheep) and TU could of just waited him out for the price of $00.00. A couple of thoughts, is this the same allotment that Magagna wants “restocked” with livestock and why/how can someone “own” a public land grazing lease allotment? Gotta hand it to Magagna for recognizing a group of fools but even he knows that the days of the welfare public rancher is limited

    1. “Welfare rancher”? Obviously Mr. Peake does not know the meaning of either word, which is understandable since he is referencing the actual work that goes into producing food and wool for clothes.

      1. No one is discounting the work required in running a ranching operation.

        Magagna has taken government subsidies for decades. His operation wouldn’t survive without the welfare he receives from the federal government.

        The idolization of welfare ranching operations is silly..

    2. the sheep ranchers in these allotments were paid astronomical amounts of money, some over 7 figures to retire these allotments. Repermitting them for cattle is the definition of cronyism

  9. A good friend who always has time to help people and he has a good sense of humor. Nice article.