Teton County’s extraordinary housing costs have the Wyoming Game and Fish Department exploring the possibility of combining its Jackson and Pinedale regions and shifting its workforce out of the valley.
No official proposals are on the table, but members of the commission that oversees Wyoming’s wildlife agency want to probe the idea of redrawing regional borders to avoid having to subsidize staffing by providing Jackson Hole housing, the cost of which is inching into coastal metropolitan territory. Staff walked away from a Riverton Wyoming Game and Fish Commission meeting Wednesday tasked with coming up with options for a soft exit from Jackson Hole.
“Jackson has become the land of the billionaires, which is good for Jackson — but it’s bad for the department,” Commissioner Patrick Crank, of Cheyenne, told his colleagues. “It’s time that we seriously look at moving to Pinedale or Dubois. We can’t afford to live in the land of the billionaires.”
Commissioner Mike Schmid, of Big Piney, also spoke keenly about a potential regional union.
“Could those regions be combined? Could we save some money there?” Schmid said. “It’s only going to get more expensive to stay in Jackson.”
Pinedale and Jackson, he pointed out, share many of the same “hot-button northwest Wyoming issues” such as elk feedgrounds, wolves, grizzlies, and “damage claims” from large carnivores killing livestock and ungulates eating hay.
Although the issues faced might be similar, retired Game and Fish employee Joe Bohne said the Jackson and Pinedale regions are “two different worlds” that the agency has tried, and failed, to partially combine in the past. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he said, Bernie Holz attempted to supervise the Jackson Region while based out of Pinedale.
“How stupid could they be?” Bohne said. “They tried it once and it didn’t work, simply because it was a clash of cultures between the oil and gas and rancher mentality and the Jackson people, who have a very strong conservation community, and the park and the refuge.
“The Pinedale philosophy has always been, if it’s problem, kill it,” he said. “And that doesn’t fly very well up here.”
The data confirms that Jackson Hole housing costs have gone nowhere but up.
Wyoming’s Economic Analysis Division reported just five years ago that Teton County housing cost 157 percent of the state average. Fast forward to the present, and the expense of rent and mortgages has jumped to 213 percent of the Equality State’s mean, more than double the average.
The supervisor of Game and Fish’s Jackson Region and its highest-paid employee, Brad Hovinga, was used as a case-in-point for why the agency ought to ease its way out of the valley.
“You lease a house for Brad in Jackson,” John Kennedy, the agency’s deputy director of internal operations, told the commission.
Hovinga’s home will cost the state between $3,600 and $3,900 per month in rent over the next four years, he said.
Game and Fish also owns two homes in central and East Jackson that are occupied by two wardens: Kyle Lash and Jon Stephens. Property taxes on those homes, $6,000 to $7,000, cost between $2,000 and $5,000 more than warden homes elsewhere in the Equality State, Kennedy said.
The full-time employees who report to the Jackson office — there are 16 total — are the only Game and Fish staffers in the state who receive a housing allowance, currently $1,489 a month. Hovinga and the wardens who are housed do not receive the stipend.
Some veteran Jackson Region personnel were able to buy houses years ago, but as those employees reach retirement over the next decade it’s expected that at least five new employees will need houses. If Game and Fish were to purchase those homes, Kennedy said, it would cost between $800,000 and $1.6 million per unit. Building them on land owned by Game and Fish would still cost $540,000 to $720,000 each, figuring $300 to $400 per square foot.
Game and Fish’s South Park Wildlife Habitat Management Area was suggested as a potential site for new housing.
“If the commission were to ever want to build a house for employees,” Kennedy said, “that’s about the only place in this area that we would want to consider.”
There have also been “informal discussions” with the National Elk Refuge, Kennedy said, about some kind of land swap that would exchange the Game and Fish-owned 321-acre Teton Wildlife Habitat Management Area for assets or housing elsewhere. That property, which is north of Refuge Road but has no road access, is surrounded by the Bridger-Teton National Forest and bordered on the west by the refuge.
“This is obviously a property where if it were to leave the commission’s ownership,” Kennedy said, “they’d certainly be interested.”
The federally managed Bridger-Teton sold off 10 of its acres along North Cache Street in 2014 to raise funds for the new headquarters building that sits on the 5 acres the federal government retained. Prior to that happening, in 2012 and 2013, the U.S. Forest Service’s regional office directed the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee national forests to study a merger, partly because of the cost of the Jackson-based headquarters. The plan was abandoned.
Game and Fish’s regional office, down the road on North Cache Street, is 18 years old and is a “nice office,” Hovinga told commissioners.
Nobody who spoke at the meeting resisted the idea of leaving Jackson, though Commissioner Schmid and others said it would be important to keep employees like wardens and retain a presence in Jackson.
“I’m not sure the office is even necessary,” Schmid said. “If you combine the regions, you put the office in Pinedale. Keep game warden stations, keep folks up there.”
The high cost of housing in Teton County is “difficult” for employees and hiring, Hovinga said.
“In Jackson, maybe half the workforce commutes to either Star Valley or Idaho,” the regional supervisor said. “For instance, we had a fisheries technician who was essentially renting a closet to sleep in for $700 a month last summer.
“We have employees that came to Jackson as young biologists fresh out of college,” he said, “but as their families grow they have to consider transferring out of Jackson.”
Kennedy closed the discussion committing to start soon on proposals.
Alleviating the Jackson housing crisis has been a topic of discussion with Cheyenne for Hovinga, but he said in an interview that the potential reorganization or departure from Jackson was “new information” to him as of the Wednesday meeting.
“I haven’t talked to any of my folks about this,” he said.
Hovinga was given no specific deadline for generating a proposal.
“But knowing Director [Brian] Nesvik as I know him, he’ll have us working on that very soon,” Hovinga said. “It’s something that we need to address fairly quickly if we’re going to help our employees in Jackson.”