An Albany County land exchange proposed by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management would consolidate a 38,000-acre block of public land around the Mule Creek Ranch 50 miles southeast of Casper.

The proposal would involve the BLM acquiring about 6,647 acres of the private ranch just west of the Medicine Bow National Forest in exchange for some of its many isolated parcels scattered across Albany County.

The Mule Creek Ranch property would then be public land that would be contiguous to Wyoming school trust land and BLM property in a 38,000-acre block that would be accessible for recreation, including elk hunting.

The public-access block “would be open for outdoor recreation opportunities including hunting, fishing, and hiking,” the BLM states in a description.

The Conservation Fund would serve as an intermediary in the deal — acquiring the Mule Creek Ranch and exchanging it for scattered BLM parcels of equal value. The fund would then sell those newly private parcels to neighboring ranches or those with grazing rights, according to swap proponents.

Most of the BLM parcels being examined for exchange are surrounded by private land and inaccessible to the public. One is in Carbon County, and the rest are in Albany County according to maps provided by the BLM.

Recognizing the value of the Mule Creek Ranch and its habitat, the elk foundation leased it for 15 years for hunting, providing public access through the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Access Yes program, foundation representative Leah Burgess said during an online presentation Wednesday.

“There’s a long way to go,” said Burgess, the Elk Foundation’s senior conservation program manager in Laramie, who has been working on the exchange for about six years. “[W]e feel [it] is a real win-win for the public and for wildlife habitat,” she said.

BLM land to ranchers

The BLM will prepare an environmental analysis of the exchange and is seeking comments through Nov. 12 regarding the scope of that study (see below for contact information). The exchange will be on a value-for-value basis, proponents said. The BLM made a list of the properties it would consider disposing of, selecting more parcels than it anticipates will be necessary to swap. The analysis, appraisals and other input would designate the amount and location of federal property that would go into private ownership.

The Conservation Fund, which would own the BLM parcels after the exchange, would then sell them, most likely for appraised value and to neighboring landowners. The fund’s goal, and the goal of the proposal and overarching BLM management guidelines, is ownership consolidation.

The Mule Creek Ranch, when owned by the BLM, would likely be open to grazing of domestic stock, proponents said. Public Mule Creek Ranch would not likely see expanded motorized access — new ATV trails and such, Annette Treat, the BLM’s project leader, said.

The BLM is considering many parcels for exchange and will ultimately select an as-yet-undetermined number of them to complete the transaction, speakers at the webinar said.

“They don’t have a majority of public benefit because they’re isolated, they don’t have any access,” Treat said. “They tend to be landlocked so that’s kind of what started our process of identifying these parcels.

“We are not looking at creating any larger headache than the mixed ownership has already given everybody involved, with scattered parcels,” she said. “Ideally, the people that we’re working with for potential buyers are currently those that are using those parcels for grazing purposes.

“We’re not looking for outside interest to acquire [the BLM parcels] and muddy the water, so to speak.”

The Conservation Fund is bent on the consolidation objective, said Mark Sommer, a real estate broker representing the group. “Those parcels are already being offered to the grazing lessees and the purchase price would be the appraised value and that appraisal will be done through the federal standard,” he said.

Sage grouse wander about

Maps show that some of the Mule Creek Ranch lies in what the BLM designates as primary greater sage grouse habitat, and the rest occupies general greater sage grouse habitat. The same applies to the BLM parcels that would go into private ownership.

BLM maps of the 6,647-acre Mule Creek Ranch align closely with Albany County records for four Mule Creek Ranch properties the county says cover 6,659 acres, a difference organizers said would be resolved as the exchange progresses.

County records list the 2021 market value of the ranch acreage at $394,864. Taxes for 2021 amount to $2,438.23, based mostly on agricultural uses, according to Albany County records. The ranch is owned by Mule Creek Ranch LLC, a Wyoming corporation with an address in Fort Collins, Colorado, county records state.

“The only people that are being considered for the [BLM] parcels are the ranchers that are utilizing them as a grazing use now,” Treat said. “There will not be a competitive bid,” she said of the plan for the parcels once The Conservation Fund owns them.

If a ranch owner or lessee decides not to buy a BLM parcel, “we will move on and find other parcels or other willing participants to other parcels to work with,” Treat said. “Those parcels within that ranch would then fall off our list for selection.”

Sommer outlined the appraisal process.

If a BLM parcel is surrounded by a subdivision, “the appraiser would likely determine the highest and best use [as a] subdivision and appraise it accordingly,” he said. “If it’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere, just some grazing land, then [the] highest and best use may be grazing.

“If that [parcel] has water features, or [is] near a river or up against a forest or has some recreation amenities, then that would be the highest and best use and appraised accordingly,” he said.

“Many of these parcels are landlocked [surrounded by private property], and the appraiser will reduce their value accordingly,” he said. “That varies depending on the situation, but I’ve seen maybe 20, 30, 40, 50% [reductions] case-by-case.”

The BLM side of the deal could be finalized by the summer of 2023, Treat said.The BLM will accept comments to Dennis J. Carpenter, Rawlins field manager, 1300 3rd St., Rawlins, Wyoming 82301. Comments may also be emailed to BLM_WY_RFO_MuleCreekRanchAcquisition@blm.gov.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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