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Cutthroat Creek Preliminary Plat Comment Letter

January 2, 2017

Teton County Planning & Zoning Commission

150 Courthouse Drive

Driggs, Idaho 83422

Re: Preliminary Plat Application for Cutthroat Creek Subdivision

Dear Commissioners:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on Cutthroat Creek Preliminary Plat. As you know, this item was continued from your July 2017 meeting to allow for the applicant to prepare an updated Wildlife Habitat Analysis compliant with Title 9 of the Teton County Code. After careful review of the application, we recommend continuing the application to a later date for the following reasons:

#1.  The Preliminary Plat review process has not run its course. Section 9- 3- 2(C- 2-c-WH-ii) states:

“A 45 -day review process by [Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG)] will begin on the date that the preliminary plat application is received and date stamped by the IDFG. IDFG will notify the Planning Department when it has received an application. IDFG will forward their comments to the Planning Department within 45 days. If IDFG comments are not received within 45 days, it will be judged that there are no IDFG comments on the application. Upon receipt of IDFG comments /recommendations, the Planning Department will forward those comments /recommendations to the applicant. The applicant will be given the opportunity to propose changes based on input from IDFG before the Preliminary Plat hearing is scheduled.”

We do not know when the application was received and date-stamped by the Idaho Department of Fish & Game (IDFG). However, the staff report indicates that the application was sent on November 17, 2017. The legal notice for this application was published in the Teton Valley News on December 21, 2017, which is only 34 days from the date the application was sent to IDFG. As such, the preliminary plat must be continued until the 45-day IDFG review process has elapsed, and the applicant has responded to IDFG comment.

#2.  The wildlife habitat assessment is incomplete, inaccurate, and misleading. Section Section 9-3-2(C-2-c-WH-iii-f) Wildlife Habitat Assessment states:

“If the Commission determines that a wildlife habitat assessment is incomplete, inaccurate or misleading, the Commission may return the assessment to the applicant with instructions to revise. (amd. 05-11-10)”

WILDLIFE HABITAT ANALYSIS DISCUSSION

The submitted wildlife habitat assessment is incomplete, inaccurate, and misleading for the following reasons:

Reason #1:

Riparian habitats are some of the most important wildlife habitats in the Mountain West due to the seasonal or perennial presence of water, and the associated variety of vegetation that provides abundant forage and cover for wildlife. The wildlife habitat assessment contains little if any discussion of the well-documented general importance of riparian habitat in sustaining wildlife in a larger landscape, particularly in the Henry’s Fork Basin[1]. This is a key omission since it communicates to decision-makers the relatively high stakes, at the landscape-level, of developing in or near riparian habitats. Also, the importance of the South Leigh Creek corridor is documented in IDFG Technical Reports and other communications as a significant habitat for the maintenance of numerous species/habitats in Teton Valley, including wetlands, big game, trout, songbirds, raptors and other species (please see Appendix A7 of the Teton County Comprehensive Plan A Summary of Key Fish and Wildlife Resources of Low Elevation Lands in Teton County, Idaho[2]). Here, the wildlife habitat assessment ignores widely accepted ecological principles and local knowledge from the state wildlife management agency, and supplants it with observations based on site visits with dogs.

Reason #2:

After consultation with several local wildlife biologists in Teton Valley, we have learned that some dogs are trained for wildlife detection of a specific species and can effectively lead human surveyors to occurrence evidence (typically scat) of rare species such as wolverine. The connection between the dog and data is the evidence (usually scat). The wildlife habitat assessment bases many of its findings on site visits with dogs. However, the use of dogs in a general wildlife survey is not a legitimate way to determine wildlife presence and/or frequency of use by wildlife species, since a dog has no way of validating or communicating what it is detecting.

Reason #3:

The South Leigh Creek corridor is important seasonal habitat for black bears. There are also two documented grizzly bear conflicts in the corridor. There is no discussion of bear use of the South Leigh Creek corridor in the wildlife habitat assessment and the high potential for conflicts with development and eventual homeowners. This is key information for decision-makers and should probably be fundamental to any wildlife habitat assessment submitted to the County.

Reason #4:

There is no consultation with IDFG in the report to determine wildlife occurrence information that could easily be overlooked during site visits. For example, IDFG has documented hundreds of big game animals routinely wintering in the South Leigh Creek corridor including deer, elk and moose. South Leigh Creek riparian habitats support wintering Columbian sharp-tailed grouse. The South Leigh corridor, due to its relatively intact vegetation, is considered by IDFG and others as some of the richest songbird breeding habitat in Teton Valley. It is also important for some wintering songbirds. The South Leigh Creek corridor is considered crucial raptor nesting habitat in Teton Valley by IDFG and others, and supports documented nesting of bald eagle and several other raptor species. The South Leigh Creek Corridor supports significant wintering habitat for raptors including bald eagle, great gray owl and rough-legged hawk. The perennial section of South Leigh Creek is a stronghold for Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout. Development impacts in riparian areas such as the South Leigh Creek corridor can be profound; A Summary of Key Fish and Wildlife Resources of Low Elevation Lands in Teton County, Idaho, notes the following:

“Research conducted on the Snake River in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (Smith 2002), suggests that residential development in riparian areas may have numerous negative landscape-level effects on breeding bird populations, including an overall decline in species richness and diversity, an increase in avian nest predators, and increase in food generalists (e.g. magpies, robins) at the expense of more vulnerable specialist species (i.e. MacGillivray’s warbler, willow flycatcher). Therefore, increased residential development in riparian areas of Teton County has the potential to cause habitat degradation not just on private lands but also on adjacent protected public lands.[3]

On a more general note, the South Leigh Creek corridor represents one of the most prime wildlife habitats in the valley. There is scant amount of private lands within Teton County that are within Big Game, Songbird/Raptor, and Waterway Corridors, and the purpose of the Wildlife Habitat and Wetlands & Waterways Corridors is to require development to not impact wildlife habitat when possible. In fact, Title 9 goes so far as to state that “avoidance of impacts is preferred to minimization of impacts with mitigation.[4]

Here, the wildlife habitat assessment downplays the existence of big game, songbirds, raptors, sharp-tailed grouse, and other species in the Wildlife Habitat Overlay, and uses their purported absence to locate lots within the Overlay. We are confident that if a complete, accurate, and forthright wildlife habitat assessment is submitted, it will reveal the existence of these protected species. Doing so may compel a subdivision design that meets the spirit and intent of Title 9, which, again, is to avoid wildlife impacts entirely, if possible. This preliminary plat application has placed most of the lots within or adjacent to wildlife habitat, while proposing to leave non-habitat lands as open space.

POLICY DISCUSSION

We are not making an argument for or against development; rather, our position is that in exchange for the generous flexibility granted by the Planned Unit Development Ordinance, the development should be thoughtfully designed and meet the spirit and intent of Title 9 and requisite ordinances. In other words, development should adhere to the rules.

The wildlife habitat section of Title 9 was amended in 2011 to make the review process more transparent, predictable, and consistent with industry practices. Furthermore, the preservation of wildlife habitat is a top priority in the Teton County Comprehensive Plan due to its social, and ecological, and economic importance. This development will derive much of its economic value from Teton Valley’s wildlife, a shared resource owned by the people of Idaho, and the habitat of which is protected by and for the residents of Teton County, Idaho under Title 9.

CONCLUSION

We recommend that this preliminary plat application is continued to a future date until 1) the application review process has run its course; and 2) a complete, accurate, and forthright wildlife habitat analysis is submitted and reviewed by IDFG and Teton County.

Thank you again for the opportunity to comment, and for your service to our community.

 

Respectfully submitted,

Shawn W. Hill

Executive Director

 

[1] Jankovsky-Jones, M. 1996. Conservation Strategy for Henry’s Fork Basin Wetlands Idaho Department of Fish and Game Conservation Data Center. April 1996.

[2] Idaho Fish & Game. 2012. A Summary of Key Fish and Wildlife Resources of Low Elevation Lands in Teton County, Idaho.

[3] Smith, C.M.. 2002. The effects of human development on avian communities along the Snake River riparian corridor in Jackson Hole, Wyo., USA. Teton Science School.

[4] Teton County Code Section 9-3-2(C-2-c-WH-iv-b)

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