PINEDALE—Sublette County Commission Chairman Joel Bousman questioned if it was necessary to delve into wildlife issues as the board mulled whether to OK a grocery store-sized medical facility on a parcel that harbors portions of the longest-known mule deer migration path in the world. 

After all, he told the crowd in a Sublette County Library conference room, Wyoming’s migration policy “does not apply” to the private land where the development would occur. When a neighboring resident, Kevin Roche, later questioned the commissioner’s remarks, Bousman, a lifelong rancher, recoiled. Bousman’s voice stiffened as he told Roche he’s been working with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to help manage wildlife his “whole God damn life. 

“Don’t accuse me about not caring for wildlife,” Bousman snapped back the afternoon of Oct. 4. 

Sublette County Commissioner Joel Bousman at an October 2022 meeting. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

The tense exchange, one of several, preceded a vote in which Bousman and two fellow commissioners, Sam White and Tom Noble, voted to defy their unanimously opposed planning and zoning board and approve a conditional use permit allowing a 32,400-square-foot trauma therapy center for girls and young women to be built on land zoned agricultural just south of the Hoback Rim. The building footprint, an estimated 133 adjoining parking spaces and the accompanying human activity could soon be reality on the outskirts of a famous, protected corridor used by mule deer that migrate 150 miles from the Red Desert to the Hoback Basin.

It’s the third development encroaching on the migration path — Wyoming’s first designated corridor — that the three county commissioners have set in motion in the span of 10 months. A zoning change that’s now in litigation greenlighted an exclusive resort on deer-trodden ranchland owned by TD Ameritrade billionaire founder Joe Ricketts. Down Highway 189/191 toward Pinedale, the same trauma therapy center developer, Jason Moyes, convinced the Sublette County board to rezone 299 acres of former agricultural land that overlaps with the migration corridor to make way for a 51-lot subdivision. 

The flurry of development highlights shortcomings in Wyoming’s policy, a Gov. Mark Gordon executive order that’s been held up as a national gold standard in the emerging field of migration conservation. Private landowners “should be encouraged and incentivized” to keep migrations functional, according to the order, but ultimately decisions fall to counties and the landowners themselves. So far in the Green River basin, the needle has leaned toward economic growth and providing housing for a community sorely lacking places to live. County officials have declined to outright preserve the open spaces that deer and pronghorn herds have thrived on for generations. Instead, developers like the Moyes family are weighing whether to make voluntary concessions for the ungulates.

A view of Jason and Melinda Moyes’ 614-acre parcel near the Hoback Rim captured from adjoining Bureau of Land Management property. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Meantime, the slow pace of getting corridors designated and protections in place is also on display in Sublette County. The 51-lot subdivision likely also intersects with the Sublette Pronghorn Migration, also known as the Path of the Pronghorn, used by animals that famously migrate all the way to Jackson Hole. The route has been known by researchers for nearly two decades, but political pressure has stymied the protection of southern segments, both on the federal level and via Wyoming’s migration designation process

Decisions favoring development on open agricultural lands that harbor “national treasure” migrations have left wildlife advocates like Muley Fanatic Foundation co-founder Josh Coursey “frustrated.” The risks and consequences are “immeasurable,” he said.

“When you have overwhelming support one way or another, and then [the decision] goes against the grain of the voice of the people — which this has — it just leaves you in defeat,” Coursey said. “You just shake your head in disgust.” 

Disruption

The migration policy’s lack of teeth on private land has put wildlife managers who oversee the Sublette Mule Deer Herd in an awkward position. Brandon Scurlock, the agency’s Pinedale Region wildlife coordinator, said he’s been pressured by development opponents to come in and “stop it,” but that no such authority exists. In commission and planning and zoning meetings this fall, he presented information about the various types of wildlife habitat on both tracts of land where the Moyes family seeks to build. But even that level of involvement has been scrutinized. 

“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.” 

In an interview, Scurlock explained that it’s not just deer migration he’s concerned about. The 51-lot subdivision, he said, overlaps with core sage grouse habitat and contains both low-use and medium-use designated migration corridors, as well as a mule deer “stopover” habitat on the property where houses aren’t planned up on a hillside. A second attempt to get the pronghorn migration path designated awaits, but the GPS collar data already amassed suggests the coming subdivision “probably” would be in their path, he said. 

Pronghorn scatter at the slowing of a vehicle on the fringes of Jason and Melinda Moyes’ 614-acre lot on the southwest side of Highway 189/191 near the Hoback Rim. County commissioners have authorized a 32,400-square-foot mental health rehabilitation center on the parcel, which is zoned agricultural and used by mule deer that migrate from the Red Desert. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“There’s migrating pronghorn that go through there, but it’s also spring, summer and fall range for pronghorn,” Scurlock said. “Our biggest concern is that there’s already a pretty substantial subdivision to the east of the highway, and that’s forcing a lot of the pronghorn to the west side of the highway where there is no development.” 

Now that’s likely to be built on, too. 

The Moyes property at the Hoback Rim — where the therapy center was approved — is equally wildlife rich. Every acre of that land, according to Scurlock, is classified as crucial moose range, both winter and year-long. Low-use portions of the Red Desert-to-Hoback migration cover “most” of the property, he said, and medium-use corridor treads over the southern half of the property. Again, there’s no officially designated pronghorn migration path, but biologists know that pronghorn move through the area. 

“There’s an open grassy pasture on the east side of this property adjacent to the highway,” Scurlock said. “They use that, as well as the other side of the highway, to get down into Bondurant for summer range and also to get out of Bondurant during the fall.” 

Deer movements depicted here were collected via GPS tracking collars through the Wyoming Range Mule Deer Project and the Red Desert-to-Hoback Mule Deer Project. Sublette County commissioners have authorized a 32,400-square-foot mental health facility to be built just south of the Rim Station. (Courtesy/Muley Fanatics Foundation) Mule Deer Project. Sublette County commissioners have authorized a 32,400-square-foot mental health facilit to be built just south of the Rim Station. (Courtesy/Muley Fanatic Foundation)

According to Scurlock, there have also been reports that the property could be classified as crucial elk winter range, too. The Roosevelt Fire altered that species’ distribution by making unburned forest on the property more valuable, he said. 

‘Mother, God and apple pie’

A few years ago John Carter moved to the Hoback Ranches subdivision just up the road from the proposed therapy center to wind down a career as an environmental engineer. 

Carter, who has a track record of environmental activism— he founded a nature preserve — said the therapy center’s public appeal makes it tough to fight. “It’s like mother, God and apple pie,” Carter said. “Nobody will oppose it.” 

Hoback Ranches resident John Carter, aside standing dead timber killed in the 2018 Roosevelt Fire, overlooks land owned by California transplants Jason and Melinda Moyes. The parcel contains crucial moose winter range and habitat traversed by mule deer migrating from the Red Desert to the Hoback River basin, and may soon also host a 32,400-square-foot mental health rehabilitation center and associated infrastructure. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Even some neighbors who aren’t keen on the therapy center see it better than the alternative: the Moyes family could break up their 614 acres into ranchettes on 35-acre parcels. 

“A hippy hospital sounds a lot better than 8,000-square-foot mega mansions and third homes for the Jackson folks,” neighbor Tracy Tominc told commissioners at the Oct. 4 meeting. 

Still, Tominc was unhappy about the change afoot in his neighborhood. 

“I’m not down with lawyers and I’m not down with California real estate investors,” he said. “Nobody’s ever come and said, ‘Hi, I’m your new neighbor.’ Nobody’s ever come and said, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about doing this, what do you think about it?’” 

Hoback Rim-area resident Tracy Tominc was blunt when sharing his input about development that’s forthcoming on a neighboring property. “I’m not down with lawyers,” he said, “and I’m not down with California real estate investors.”

Jason and Melinda Moyes, a real estate agent, left San Joaquin Valley in central California and came to Sublette County after searching for a place where they could raise their kids and see through their vision for the therapy center, dubbed The Sanctuary. 

“I think we were here for about eight hours before our whole family knew this was the place,” Jason Moyes told WyoFile. 

The natural beauty, nearby national parks and Wind River Range were all a draw, he said. So were the locals, who the family found “unbelievably friendly” and welcoming, he said. The wildlife, too, was part of the allure. 

“I think that’s a neat element to see,” Moyes said. “And certainly, it’s an element we don’t want to damage or destroy in any way.” 

A case for development 

Moyes also has local backing as he’s moved toward developing the two controversial parcels plus a third within the town of Pinedale. The developments on the drawing board would add housing to a community that desperately needs it, High Mountain Real Estate owner and broker Chase Harber said. The housing market, like in much of Wyoming, is “extremely tight,” he said. 

“When I look for something for first-time homebuyer types, it’s hard to find something for under $500,000,” Harber said. “With interest rates climbing, that’s a $4,000 [monthly] mortgage. There’s not a lot of people that can afford that.” 

Harber predicted homes in the 51-lot subdivision will be in the $500,000 to $600,000 range. The lots are large enough that they’ll likely accommodate horses, and properties on acreage with those attributes are in high demand. The development, he said, would be attractive to people who live in Pinedale and want to size up, and in the process it could free up entry-level housing in town. 

Moyes is also planning a more affordable subdivision, which he calls the Bloomfield Project, near Pinedale Elementary School. “What we’re looking at is more of a first-time homebuyer option to create some housing stock that’s desperately needed,” he said. 

The family is eyeing 60 units total, including some multi-family homes, on 16 acres. 

Although the large majority of people who have spoken up about the therapy center have contested the facility, that project has its proponents, too. Melinda Bobo, a rector at Pinedale’s St. Andrew’s in the Pines Episcopal Church, advocated for the Moyes’ Hoback Rim plan at the county meeting. 

“This is not a hospital, this is not a retreat center — this is a sanctuary,” Bobo said. “The definition of what it’s about necessitates it being in wild space.” 

Young women who have been traumatized, abused, threatened and beaten would be there to “try to get their lives back,” she said.  

Jason Moyes, left, listens to a neighbor criticize him for moving to the area and proposing a major development that would change the nature of the Hoback Rim area. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Commissioner Bousman agreed that the therapy center would be a benefit to Sublette County. 

“I’m not worried about the wildlife,” Bousman said. “I’d be far more worried if there was a house on every 35 acres and how that might disrupt wildlife migration.” 

Accomodations  

Although Wyoming’s migration policy doesn’t have the force of law on the Moyes family’s private land, Renny MacKay, the governor’s policy director, said “we hope and believe” consultation with Game and Fish will guide the development. 

“The private landowner is looking at it and trying to create space,” MacKay said. “There have been discussions and consultations.” 

Migration science, according to MacKay, doesn’t show that preservation is always necessary to keep a corridor functional. 

“There are development thresholds,” he said. “As we look at the components and the risks and the threats [to a migration corridor], it may necessitate different approaches in different places.” 

Scurlock and Moyes have visited the sites together and are in talks. 

At the Rim parcel, Moyes is planning to put the building in the northwest corner of the parcel outside of the Red Desert-to-Hoback deer migration path. 

“He’s trying to at least show that it’ll have as little impact as possible,” Scurlock said. 

When a disconnected buck-and-rail fence went up on the south side of the property, wildlife managers asked for some voluntary modifications so pronghorn could scoot underneath. Moyes said he’d remove every other bottom rail if the fence ever gets fully enclosed. 

There are talks of an ungulate bypass path through the subdivision, too. 

“I know it’s not going to be popular with him to have a 250 or 300-meter-wide buffer,” Scurlock said, “but I’m trying to sell it like, maybe he could charge more for those lots because you’re right next to the Red Desert-to-Hoback migration. They’re right in your backyard.” 

Moyes is considering it. Blocking out building pads on lots through deed restrictions and adding conditions that mandate wildlife fencing are both possibilities, he said.   

There are more resources available than ever before for making accommodations for wildlife migration through private land. In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture committed $15 million for a Wyoming pilot project that incentivizes willing landowners to conserve private lands for the benefit of migratory big game. A migration researcher with Wyoming ties, Arthur Middleton, has also been named a senior advisor to that federal executive department (Disclosure: Middleton is married to WyoFile board of directors member Anna Sale.)

Researchers didn’t discover the 150-mile-long mule deer migration route connecting the Red Desert and Hoback River basin until 2011, when GPS-collared animals made the journey. (Courtesy/Wyoming Migration Initiative)

Early this year, Middleton authored a Wyoming Law Review article that breaks down the role of private land in conserving the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wildlife in the 21st Century. He recently spoke to the topic in an online Montana Institute on Ecosystems forum, during which the Sublette County migrations and the pending developments came up. There’s an “enormous” amount of implementation work ahead, he said, and a sense of urgency to protect private land swaths of ecological marvels like the Red Desert-to-Hoback migration. 

“I do feel like it’s a race, and I feel a lot of stress about that and a lot of pressure,” Middleton said. “We have to do a lot of quick work to build up that delivery system.” 

Meantime, Sublette County wildlife advocates are lamenting what they see as a series of defeats. Bondurant resident Dan Bailey said the commissioners’ approval of the therapy center, in defiance of their planning and zoning board’s recommendation, was a “tragedy.”

“It’s blind to think our development is not going to have a huge impact,” Bailey said. “We’re going to lose what’s special about Wyoming unless we wake up.”  

Mike Koshmrl

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

Join the Conversation

31 Comments

Want to join the discussion? Fantastic, here are the ground rules: * Provide your full name — no pseudonyms. WyoFile stands behind everything we publish and expects commenters to do the same. * No personal attacks, profanity, discriminatory language or threats. Keep it clean, civil and on topic. *WyoFile does not fact check every comment but, when noticed, submissions containing clear misinformation, demonstrably false statements of fact or links to sites trafficking in such will not be posted. *Individual commenters are limited to three comments per story, including replies.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Like it or not, the change is coming to our state. Locals who value certain the things we have taken for granted forever, like open deeded lands that in their natural state, may win a few battles. But these changes are inevitable in the super charismatic portions of our state. I challenge anyone to give me an example of a badass, natural, good livin’ place anywhere in the west that is the same now that it was thirty years ago. Don’t tell anyone if you got an example.

  2. The best way to preserve land in this state is to keep family farms and ranches profitable. Wildlife thrives, sportsman get to share it, wildlife migrate, and people with multigenerational investment in land are the best folks to decide if and how their private property should be developed. It is monumentally ironic that the enviros that are after private land ownership and seek to harm family farms and ranches are the same ones crying now about development that profitable agriculture would have prevented.

    1. Family farms and ranches are already subsidized by the government enough. If your business can’t survive without the financial help of the government, you need to find a new job.

      1. Amen. Everyone should research/review the largest “entitlement” auspices in ameerika…..the USDA annual budget dispersals…..agrabiz corporations and massive, historical farm/ ranching take more offsets than anything else annually.
        Do the data search….if you can get honest govt. figures…..

    2. I’d agree with you, were it not for the fact that many of the ranchers I know want to kill most wildlife that they can’t legally hunt. Small-scale ranches are better than subdivisions but, technically, the best way to preserve this area would be for a single wealthy individual (or a few wealthy individuals) to buy all of it, and leave it alone.

  3. GUESS WHAT ELSE NEEDS PROTECTION!!! The Green River drift is a unique Wyoming cultural phenomena that also needs inclusion is county, state and Federal land use plans including the actual ” stock trail ” which it encompasses. Please note that stock trails can and should be formally recorded in the records of the County Clerk and absolutely included in the Sublette County Land Use Plan. The legal status of the drift needs to be firmly established and maintained as a Wyoming cultural tradition.
    There is a remarkable similarity of the drift to the wildlife migration corridors – both allow for the free movement of critters. I personally recommend that both types of corridors be recorded in the public records of Sublette County.
    Landowners that have the wildlife migration routes/ corridors traversing their private property have several scenarios to consider. One, they can face the possibility that Sublette County might adopt land use restrictions for migration corridors for which they would receive no compensation; or two, they could enter into formal conservation easements allowing for migration across portions of their land for which they would receive compensation from wildlife advocacy groups such as the REF or Mule Deer Foundation. Myself, I’d rather work with the advocacy groups and write a conservation easement which I could live with than chance the public adoption of reasonable restrictions across my land without compensation. If the county would even start considering wildlife migration provisions it might encourage private land owners to work with the advocacy groups.
    Anyway, stock trails are just as important as wildlife migration corridors and I encourage Sublette County to protect your ranching industry from encroachment by private land development.

    1. Excellent idea Lee to create land use restrictions and conservation easements for private property landowners with wildlife migration routes/corridors traversing their properties. It happens now for the improvement and expansion of human migratory routes, (roads and highways). It’s called eminent domain in this case. At least with restrictions and easements you would retain your land and receive compensation as you stated.

  4. Sadly, this is a reflection of our society that worships the almighty dollar. I recently had a conversation with an appraiser who works on valuing agricultural lands for conservation easements among other things. He was working on a valuation on a smaller ranch in southern Carbon County that is going to implement a conservation easement on the property. He stated that the highest and best use of the land was subdivision. That statement just blew me away. The landowner could make a ton of money by subdividing in to small lots along the creek and forest areas and larger lots up on the sagebrush hilltops. Our priorities are a mess.

  5. I have no doubt that deer will easily navigate around a 32,400-square-foot grocery-store sized building. Lander, Dubois, Jackson, Pinedale, et al are overflowing with deer that seem very comforable around buildings of all sizes, and they are thriving.

    There are an estimated 36 million deer in the United States. Wyoming could easily have 500,000. I don’t need more threatening my front end. If you are truly worried about deer, stop hunting them.

    This appears to be, on the surface, all about people who don’t want their neighbors developing their land. As with Jackson, people will fly the “protecting wildlife” or “protecting the ecosystem” flag to prevent anyone from developing private property near theirs. It is usually all about protecting property values and self-interests. NIMBYs thrive by using enviromental causes to disguise their selfishness.

    But let’s give wildlife and people the benefit of the doubt and say we want to protect wildlife, and should be. Is wildlife really threatened by any of this? Will this lead to extinction? In Wyoming? Nope. Highways will continue to kill more deer than any of these developments. Hunters far more.

    Wyoming could use some economic development. This certainly isn’t the best kind, but exercising private property rights in the middle of nowhere on private property that wildlife can still use and that has minor effects on the greater community seems like a right worth protecting, and exercising.

  6. 2008 on steroids and the developers are completely unaware. Who advises people to develop parcels into rising interest rates and falling prices? Same thing happening up here. These plans will buckle as the true economic disaster of 2023 unfolds. Predicting they will pare the project by 75%. The lots that will sell will just break even. California realtor mentality never sees the recession coming. Watch the Big Short. It is happening again.

  7. Portions of Sublette County can be preserved only by electing a majority of the county commissioners who are in favor of land use restrictions in the high value areas of the county – not necessarily in all of the county. I believe that means 3 of 5 would be supportive of restrictions. Basically, a land owner has the right to do as these desire with their land SUBJECT TO REASONABLE RESTRICTIONS. The courts have ruled that zoning is a reasonable restriction – should the restrictions become unreasonable it becomes a TAKING of private property without compensation. Zoning is a very unpopular subject in Wyoming – a strong private property rights state to such an extent it is impossible in some counties. However, if a majority of the residents in one community/area of Sublette County are opposed to unrestricted development it might be possible to impose reasonable restrictions in that portion of the county only which implies some form of zoning. In order to do so, the majority would need to become very active with respect to electing commissioners that favor reasonable restrictions and by serving on the land use planning board.

    Wildlife migration corridors could be designated as high value lands deserving of reasonable restrictions by the citizens of Sublette County becoming proactive. I believe the Teton County land use plan has some wildlife protection provisions for high value wildlife habitat such as moose habitat on bottom lands and swan habitat. Some of this habitat is protected by wetlands designations by the Corp of Engineers and is extensively mapped and available online. Wildlife migration corridors obviously do not qualify as wetlands; so that, another form of protection is required. The legislature has assigned land use planning on private lands to the counties which is implemented by a well known land use planning process subject to public hearings and formal approval by vote of the county commissioners. So back to the all important county commissioners – they are the elected officials that approve reasonable land use restrictions. Please note the county commissioners cannot make arbitrary and capricious land use decisions – their decisions must be based on state statues and a formally adopted land use plan which clearly spells out the reasonable restrictions in effect in Sublette County.

    With respect to land use planning, the state statues adopted by the legislature set a minimum requirement on all 23 Wyoming counties on an equal and uniform basis. However, each individual county can further adopt their own land use plan as long as it meets the states minimum statutory requirements. Therefore, the state statues do not contain wildlife migration provisions but the legislature has allowed for the counties to adopt their own reasonable provisions via the land use planning process – doing so can only be accomplished by citizen participation and election of commissioners favorable to reasonable restrictions in certain areas of Sublette County – not in the entire county. Might the upcoming elections change the makeup of the Board of County Commissioners??

  8. I have worked to prevent sage grouse from being listed. But, it appears that getting listed is all that will protect them. What I have seen is a belief we can multiple use every square inch—NOT possible if we truly what to protect our wild critters.

  9. Once you permit this development it will not stop I live the metro are Minneapolis st.paul Minnesota the city of Blaine did the same now we have 4 and story apartments popping up all over along with crime for your wonderful state stop the development

  10. Shoshoni has had growth fever the whole time I’ve lived here. Bidnesses start, then go broke. The mayors and councils have been afflicted with the fever the whole time. Fortunately, most elected officials here are totally incompetent, and their stupid efforts come to nothing…hopefully that trend will continue until I die. I moved to this fascist state and little town to get away from crowds and for easy access to public lands, not to support strip malls, trailer and RV parks, mediocre cafes, and morons who love to rap their pipes, spin their tires, and throw their beer bottles out the window…

  11. Let the Moyes ride a rail out of Wyoming. Get on back to California! Or go to North Dakota but quit trying to change Wyoming into a California copy. No way, no how. If Fish & Game doesn’t stand up and protect what very little bit of habitat our game herds need, then fire all of them and leave the wide open spaces, open. Can’t think of a less desirous use of this part of the state. A home for un-wed mothers can be put anywhere else except where the best part of the planet is found. Screw the real estate people who only see Wyoming as a great place to force their BS on the little wildlands left. Moyers get out and ply your crap elsewhere. BS

  12. Having lived in Sublette County since 1988 working in the wildlife arena I’ve experienced so many heart-breaking developments, all of which influence wildlife in some way or another. For an area as important to wildlife, you would think that the county would have made it a point in their planning to identify the most important areas and come up with strategies to protect what is needed, even on private lands. From mineral (gas) development to housing, we will love the county to death. For wildlife, it’s just a death by a thousand cuts.

  13. Another valuable article by Koshmiri. Once again, it shows that when you put human profits up against wildlife conservation, the latter usually loses. It also shows why we are lucky that there are Federal Laws like the End. Species Act to provide some (if limited) protection for species from the most invasive species of all by far-humans.

  14. This am on NPR. Since 1970s mammals on earth have declined by 69%. Due to habitat loss. There you have it.

  15. Certainly housing and a trauma center are worthy endeavors. However sounds like classic manifest destiny of looking at land where “there is nothing” and feeling entitled to make it “productive.” Just like seeing land lived on for thousands of years by NAs and calling it “unoccupied.”

  16. Between the Moyes of California and Tom Ricketts of Chicago migratory paths for Mule Deer and Pronghorn are being destroyed in Sublette County. Once you develop, the wildlife disappears. No going back.

  17. How are these people even allowed in Wyo.? Ricketts and Moyes are BAD citizens! They have no feelings for Wyo. They are only after more money. Put them on a plane and fly them the hell out of there.

  18. funny how money and private land owners dont give a dam about wild life the rich will just get richer never seemingly to have enough wealh