Chris Cline began construction on a cabin located in a conservation easement on the former Carney Ranch where the Path of the Pronghorn traverses the private property. The cabin, seen here as it was being erected, was built to the point it was covered with a roof. It has since been removed. (John Fandek)

A ranch owner has removed a cabin that was being built on a conservation easement protecting the Path of the Pronghorn, the only federally recognized wildlife migration route in the U.S.

The cabin on the Upper Green River ranch owned by Chris Cline disappeared from the landscape this spring and summer, taken down over the course of several weeks. It had been clearly visible from Wyoming highway 352, but is no longer.

“It’s gone,” Ranch manager Bob Griffith said Thursday.

The cabin, which was being built on the former Carney Ranch north of Pinedale, violated a conservation easement designed to prohibit development, the Jackson Hole Land Trust said earlier this year. Cline was a coal miner who became a self-made billionaire in that industry.

The Path of the Pronghorn links summer habitat in Grand Teton National Park with winter range in southwestern Wyoming. Some 300 to 400 pronghorn use the route to migrate 125 miles or farther twice a year.

Cline had asked the Land Trust to amend the protective easement and carve out a 15-acre parcel to allow the cabin, officials with the conservation group told WyoFile last year. In exchange, Cline was to donate a separate, new conservation easement covering 115 acres of his property that is currently not protected. A portion of the new easement would have covered a small part of the mapped Path of the Pronghorn.

The conservation value of the new easement exceeded that of the 15-acre cabin parcel, Land Trust board chairman Pete Lawton and executive director Laurie Andrews argued in an op-ed piece, published by WyoFile and the Jackson Hole News&Guide. “With the amended [old easement and new] 115-acre easement, the Land Trust found a net-gain for wildlife, for the Path of the Pronghorn, and for the future connectivity of protected lands in Western Wyoming,” they wrote.

The Carney Ranch easement protects an important part of the Path of the Pronghorn, as confirmed by this detail of a map showing the routes of various antelope migrating to and from Grand Teton National Park. The star, added by WyoFile, indicates the approximate cabin site. The Wyoming Migration Initiative at the University of Wyoming produced this map using radio-collar data from Grand Teton National Park. (Map from Atlas of Wildlife Migration: Wyoming’s Ungulates [in production], Oregon State University Press © 2017 University of Wyoming and University of Oregon).
The deal would have diminished the Path of the Pronghorn by inserting a 15-acre development in its center while promising no future intrusion on another mapped segment of the route owned by Cline.

But no amendment to the existing easement, and no new easement, had been filed with the Sublette County Clerk as of late as last week, a check of online land records revealed. Meantime, the cabin, which had been constructed to the point it was covered with a roof, was apparently disassembled and certainly removed. Land Trust board chairman Pete Lawton confirmed the obvious by echoing Griffith’s words. “It’s gone,” Lawton said.

Neither the Land Trust nor Cline’s manager would detail what developed after WyoFile reported about the cabin construction and proposed exchange at the beginning of this year. WyoFile has learned from sources close to the issue that publicity about the cabin generated spirited discussion among members of the Land Trust board of directors regarding the pending deal with Cline.

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One group believed the Land Trust should remain faithful to the plain language and details of the original conservation easement and the cabin should go. Others sided with the Lawton and Andrews’ views — that the proposed amendment and new easement was an overall conservation gain.

Griffith characterized the resolution as follows. “We are abiding by everything we were told to do by the Land Trust,” the ranch manager said. That includes “reclaiming and reseeding” the cabin site.

The Land Trust would not confirm whether it told Cline to do anything, or whether the ranch owner decided to remove the cabin of his own volition. Nor was any information available on whether Cline would still agree to the new 115-acre easement.

A conservation legacy

Cline bought the 5,500-acre ranch in 2014 from the Otis Carney family, which had pieced it together over decades. Several family members signed conservation easements protecting parts of the ranch between 1995 and 2009, including Elizabeth Rohatyn, John Otis Carney, Peter R. and Frederika F. Carney and John O. Carney.

The Path of the Pronghorn just south of the Bridger-Teton National Forest boundary crosses private ranches, including the former Carney Ranch, now owned by Chris Cline. The Wyoming Migration Initiative at the University of Wyoming produced this map using radio-collar data from Grand Teton National Park. (Map from Atlas of Wildlife Migration: Wyoming’s Ungulates [in production], Oregon State University Press © 2017 University of Wyoming and University of Oregon).
At the site of the cabin, the easement was supposed to protect wildlife and scenery “in perpetuity.” Among the values to be preserved were an elk migration corridor and “important seasonal ranges for antelope.”

Griffith has said repeatedly that the ranch is being managed for wildlife and that Cline has made numerous wetland improvements, including undertaking a pond project for trumpeter swans. Since buying the Carney Ranch, Cline bought an adjoining ranch under the business name Seneca Industries, the same business name he employs for Carney Ranch ownership.

Since the filing of the first Carney Ranch easement in 1995, biologists mapped out how pronghorn came to Grand Teton National Park annually over a divide between the Snake and Green River drainages. In 2003, Grand Teton National Park biologist Steve Cain and Joel Berger, a scientist with Colorado State University and the Wildlife Conservation Society, mapped the Path of the Pronghorn using GPS collars on 10 doe antelope. The 11,000 points of data delineated a polygon — a path with varying widths — that wends from Antelope Flats in the park, up the Gros Ventre River Valley, over the divide between Bacon Creek and Wagon Creek, down the Green River, through the Carney Ranch and onto the sagebrush steppe around Cora, Daniel, Pinedale and points south.

The Green River Land Trust originally held the conservation easement in question. The Jackson Hole Land Trust absorbed the Green River Land Trust last summer, at which time officials discovered the easement violation on Cline’s ranch, a land trust attorney said late last year. At the time, the Land Trust was working to complete the exchange that would allow the cabin to remain.

Millions of dollars have been spent protecting the path of the Pronghorn, including $9.7 million by the Wyoming Department of Transportation for wildlife overpasses, $1 million by the U.S. Department of the Interior for fencing modification, and $23 million raised by the Grand Teton National Park Foundation to help buy and preserve 640 acres of Wyoming school trust land in Grand Teton National Park on Antelope Flats.

In 2008 Bridger-Teton National Forest Supervisor Kniffy Hamilton created the first national migration route, incorporating the Path of the Pronghorn into her forest management framework.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. The entire Upper Green needs to be summarily scoured of property warts , rude ranchettes , extracto-encroachers , and some 3 or 4- digit number of petropimping wells and tank batteries. Then the way will be clear to Ungraze the valley of welfare ranchers and livestock horde-herds.

    The intrinsic value of the wildlife far exceeds any monetary value subsumed by the hominids in the only currency that matters.

    The urgency to undevelop and reprioritize the Upper Green cannot be understated. Forget the money.

  2. No doubt the right thing to do, but it’s micro-surgery. Go up the river a little ways and see cabins that are right directly in the Path. Another threat: the possibility of damming the river and creating a large reservoir obstacle.

  3. Excellant story. A valuable addition wd be to explain the tax ramifications and benefits to landowners who gift or sell conservation easements. Clearly the owners get real dollar returns while keeping total control of the land so long as it is maintained in the condition agreed to (usually meaning no further development).

  4. Angus Thuermer continues to seek truth by digging deeply for understanding and dialog — all of which benefits all of us with interests in land and management, conservation and natural resources (not distinctly different of course). Kudos to Angus for his serious and professional investigative efforts.

  5. Congratulations to WyoFile and reporter Thuermer. It appears that shining a light on the violation of the Path of the Pronghorn easement inspired both the Land Trust and landowner Cline to change course and remove Cline’s half-built cabin. Doing so shows respect for the conservation easements created by the Carney family. The decision also should assure other landowners considering easements that the public values them and expects them to be honored.