Wildlife bill survives spending fracas

Billy Arnold with the Jackson Hole News&Guide, via the Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — Last week, state Sen. Mike Gierau cast the deciding vote against spending $1 million earmarked for a long-sought set of wildlife crossings in his district.


But after lunch, the Teton County Democrat and six other Wyoming senators revived the bill.


Now it’s headed to the Wyoming House of Representatives, which will have a chance of its own to review the spending package that would authorize about $5 million in grants for wildlife and conservation projects across the state.


Gierau said he voted against the measure because he and other senators were attempting to get back at a group of 10 or so spending-averse Republicans and get them to back projects in their own districts.


But they didn’t. When Gierau changed his vote, the 10 senators didn’t budge.


“A group of us got a little mad,” Gierau said. “We were just trying to send a message.”


The senators’ game of political football was played over a traditionally noncontroversial bill: a measure authorizing the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust to spend money on large conservation projects across the state. 


The bill would authorize the trust to put $1 million toward wildlife crossings that will be constructed when the Wyoming Department of Transportation rebuilds the Snake River bridge and intersection of highways 22 and 390 in Teton County, construction that’s supposed to start as soon as this summer.


But the bill also would put millions toward securing thousands of acres of conservation easements statewide to protect seasonal habitats for elk, moose, antelope, mule deer and wintering eagles. 


And it earmarks around $1 million for projects intended to improve fish habitat and allow fish to access key tributaries and streams that have been blocked by human development. 


One of those projects is on the Bear River in Uinta County, where Trust Executive Director Bob Budd said there have been “constant attempts” to list Bonneville cutthroat trout as endangered. Advocates have said the fish don’t have access to historical spawning range.



Typically the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the state’s conservative legislators prefer state management to federal regulation. Budd said the project would address some of those concerns.


“We, by doing this, create that access for hundreds of tributary miles all throughout the Wyoming Range and that part of the state,” Budd said during a late January meeting of the Senate Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee. “We will see more of these in the future.”

For a brief moment, the senators’ gamesmanship jeopardized the fate of the bill.


Budd was not able to return a request for comment before press time Tuesday.


But Gierau said Budd had “steam coming out of his ears” when he saw the spending bill go down.


“I know that we scared the hell out of Bob Budd,” Gierau said. But, he added, “nobody was going to let that program die.”


In committee, Sen. Fred Baldwin, a Republican who represents most of southeastern Wyoming, roundly praised the trust’s work. The fund primarily spends money earned on interest from investments. It also holds other people’s money as a way of increasing its investment and annual return.

In exchange it offers matching grants for entities like Teton County that store funds in the trust.


“It benefits them, it benefits us, it benefits across the board,” Baldwin said. “It’s not something the state’s just throwing money at and says, ‘Hey we’re going to do this.’ It’s something everybody contributes to.”


Budd, in response, said that for every dollar the state fund spends, six dollars come from someone else.


That’s how Teton County officials are hoping to use the trust this year. As WYDOT gears up for rebuilding the 22-390 intersection, county officials are on the hook for two of the four wildlife crossings that state transportation officials plan to build. In total they’re looking at paying $2.7 million for the crossings.


Of that, $1 million will come from the Natural Resources Trust — if the bill moves out of the Legislature.


The remaining $1.7 million is set to come from money Teton County has raised through a specific purpose excise tax that voters approved in 2019. That measure passed with 78% of the vote.


Of that $1.7 million, $1 million was stored with the trust, enabling the county to receive the grant.


In total the reconstruction of the bridge and intersection is supposed to cost roughly $60 million.


Bob Hammond, WYDOT’s resident engineer in Jackson, said Chris Colligan, the project manager who heads up Teton County’s wildlife crossing work, was making a smart move by investing in the trust.


“He’s just trying to make sure those $10 million go further than they normally would,” Hammond said of the 2019 SPET collections. “It seems like a lot of money, but it will only go so far.”


Colligan and Teton County Public Works Director Heather Overholser said they plan to continue investing in the trust, particularly as they begin to eye other wildlife crossing projects in Teton County.


“It’s a remarkable success story for the state of Wyoming,” Colligan said of the trust.


Teton County officials have been trying to maintain a low profile on the bill, knowing that bills that come from Jackson Hole legislators often have a target on their back in the Wyoming Legislature.


Senate File 106 was sponsored by the Select Natural Resource Funding Committee, on which Gierau sits. Gierau said he broadly supports the bill — and the trust. “It’s one of the best programs we have,” he said.


Gierau said he was hoping to get the goat of the 10 senators that “go home to their districts and get all uppity” about spending, even when projects are in their districts. Ultimately, he didn’t succeed.


“We were trying to send them a message, a message that they didn’t receive,” Gierau said.


This story was published on Feb. 1, 2023.


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