Shepperson easement protects ranch lifestyle
Meeteetse – Kasey and Ondi Shepperson were tempted two years ago when a hunter offered to buy their ranch outright. When they hesitated, he then offered to purchase a 50 percent share. “We turned it down,” states Kasey.
The Sheppersons were faced with making huge land payments and trying to make it work with cows, says Kasey. While the hunter’s offer was tempting, it reduced the Sheppersons’ control over their land and operation.
Soon thereafter Kasey and Ondi discovered the Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Land Trust (Land Trust) and applied for an easement through the program. “We felt it would be safer for us and give us more breathing room,” explains Kasey.
The operation is located five miles north of Meeteetse and is exclusively in Park County. The family runs a cow/calf operation and puts up 400 acres of hay. The Sheppersons opted to put all 13,858 deeded acres into the proposed easement as a means of getting some equity back out of the land, explains Kasey.
Out of all the applications submitted in 2008, the Shepperson easement was the only one funded by the Land Trust due to available resources. “Because of the mission of our land trust we are especially interested in working ranches and in the next generation of working ranchers,” explains Land Trust Executive Director Pam Dewell.
The Land Trust also looks at the ability of an easement to receive additional funding. “At this time the only funding opportunities available are to support wildlife habitat,” Dewell explains, adding, “There are a number of sage grouse leks and breeding grounds on the property and a mile of the Greybull River.”
The river is habitat for a variety of fish species, including the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout, which is currently on the Endangered Species List.
All of these aspects made the Shepperson easements very appealing to the Land Trust and other potential funders. “When you add the fact that Kasey and Ondi are young ‘generational’ ranchers committed to making their living in production agriculture, it was a project the Land Trust was very excited to take on,” says Dewell.
“A significant source of funding for purchase conservation easements is Farm Bill funding through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS),” states Dewell.
Funds are primarily received from the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP), which will cover up to 50 percent of the cost of a project based on the value of the easement. However, in order to utilize those funds, 25 percent of matched money must be cash. Thanks to the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust (WWNRT) there were cash matching dollars available.
“We are fortunate in Wyoming to be able to utilize WWNRT dollars because without a significant cash match we would be unable to take advantage of the Farm Bill dollars,” says Dewell.
The Shepperson easement applied for $280,000 from the WWNRT in cash match money. Since they fall into the “large project” category the project will go before the Wyoming legislature during the February session to be approved.
The FRPP awarded the project $560,000 and Dewell explains while the project is still in the process of appraisal, the proposed purchase price will likely be around $1 million. “One of the most important aspects of these grants is how much money they bring in from out of state that can be used to support agriculture,” she says.
The value of an easement is determined through an in-depth appraisal of the property prior to the easement and again with the easement regulations and limited development potential taken into consideration. The difference in the two appraisals is the value of the easement.
“It does devalue the land a little,” says Kasey, “That can be a positive when you’re putting everything into an estate plan.”
While the easement is still pending approval and the Sheppersons haven’t seen any tangible changes to date, they are optimistic about the future.
“The biggest thing is that we will be able to pay off some of the improvements we’ve made over the years,” Kasey explains. “During the drought I drilled several wells, put pipe in the meadows for irrigation purposes, implemented grazing systems and brought in solar panels.”
“With the advanced technology today there is no excuse for not utilizing systems like solar-powered wells,” he says, also explaining that with solar wells he is able to leave water on even when cattle aren’t in a pasture, which provides a constant water supply to wildlife. “When you take the cows out the wildlife have free range,” he adds.
The Sheppersons have been working with Trout Unlimited for several years to preserve river habitat for fish species, notably the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout. “We have one mile of Greybull River frontage and large amounts of water rights, both in the river and stored. That is something that will be a of great value to this place in the future,” says Kasey.
He and Ondi would also like to consistently expand every year if they are able. “We’re looking to increase capacity without increasing labor,” he says, adding, “We’d like to implement a grazing system that won’t pound the land to pay for it.”
“We purchased this place in 2003 and this is where we plan to spend our lives,” states Kasey. “It’s hard to find large deeded acreages and when you do they’re a drawing card to the millionaires, so you’re playing with the big boys. It is so capital intensive; basically you live below poverty all your life so you can have a piece of ground. Maybe this will help us increase our cash flow.”
The Sheppersons have three children who will have the chance take over the operation should they want to. While the process has been slow and steady, the ability to pass the operation on was a drawing point as well.
“There are a lot of things you would never think about that (an easement) limits you from doing. But is also opens up some other areas. We’re all interested in the same long-term goals and we have met a lot of great people,” says Kasey.
The Sheppersons, the Land Trust and WWNRT are all working together to see this conservation easement into reality. While the process is far from over, the future looks bright for this progressive young family and their ranching operation.
Heather Hamilton is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org