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Sublette County rejects billionaire Ricketts’ request to scrub wildlife rules, slowing upscale resort

The Bondurant community showed up again to fight a request that would hasten completion of development that’s broken ground along Upper Hoback Road.

The Jackson Fork Ranch on the upper Hoback River, pictured here in 2021, is typical of the agricultural landscape in the Bondurant basin. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

By Mike Koshmrl

A billionaire’s planned Upper Hoback Road luxury resort could take as long as six years to construct because Sublette County is not granting his request to eliminate seasonal restrictions designed to prevent the displacement of wildlife. 

Joe Ricketts, the TD Ameritrade founder whose family co-owns the Chicago Cubs, broke ground this spring on a controversial upscale resort in the Bondurant area that was denied once and has been many years in the making. But the construction season is constrained by protective wildlife stipulations requested by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department: Exterior work is prohibited between Nov. 15 and April 30 to safeguard wintering moose and elk.

Ricketts’ agent Steve Christensen on Tuesday made a proposal to the Sublette County Commission to eliminate the seasonal stipulations in exchange for several measures: limiting construction to daylight hours, imposing a 25-mile-per-hour speed limit on Upper Hoback Road, creating a “wildlife friendly migration corridor” across the ranch and screening a cement batching plant. 

Without the restrictions, the build could get done in three years, not six, he told Sublette County commissioners. 

Wildlife agency support 

Christensen sat alongside Brandon Scurlock, the Pinedale regional wildlife coordinator for Wyoming Game and Fish. Scurlock spoke in support of the amended construction plan.  

“Our typical recommendation is that the best mitigation for wintering big game would be adherence to the seasonal stip[ulations],” Scurlock said. “But given all the mitigation the Jackson Fork Ranch is offering and the shorter duration of the disturbance — three years [compared] to six years — I think the overall net impact to wildlife would be reduced by the shorter duration.” 

At Game and Fish’s request, seasonal construction restrictions were added to a Sublette County resolution tacked onto a Ricketts’ rezone request that was OK’d in 2022

The restrictions are specific to moose and elk on “crucial” winter range overlapping the Jackson Fork Ranch, which snakes along miles of the Hoback River just upstream of the McNeel elk feedground. 

Portions of the 150-mile-long Sublette Mule Deer Migration Corridor — which takes animals from the Red Desert to the Hoback River basin — also cuts through Ricketts’ ranch, though the state’s migration policy has no effect because it’s private land.

TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts addresses Sublette County residents in May 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

At a Pinedale event last year, Ricketts, whose fortune approaches $7 billion, pitched his luxury resort as a form of conservation for the migration corridor and other natural resources. “We will open up corridors across my ranch during the migration season so that the ungulates can go through,” he told a crowd in May 2023. “Now remember, I told you, we have to get tourists to pay for this stuff in order for it to be successful.”

Because it’s the site of one of Ricketts’ bison farms, extensive high fencing surrounds portions of the Jackson Fork Ranch. 

Bison chow down on hay at Joe Ricketts’ Jackson Fork Ranch in March 2023. High Plains Bison, which distributes to Costco, is among the billionaire’s investments. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Ricketts claims residency at the Bondurant ranch, which he refers to as part of “Little Jackson Hole.” Christensen declined WyoFile’s interview request after Tuesday’s meeting. A spokesperson for the billionaire didn‘t respond to an inquiry.

Public opposition 

Bondurant and Pinedale residents filled the Sublette County commissioners’ small chamber room on Tuesday. Everyone from the public who spoke opposed eliminating the wildlife stipulations currently constraining the construction season. 

Dan Bailey criticized Ricketts’ “used car salesman approach” to negotiations. 

“Does anybody in this room actually believe that after three years the construction is going to stop?” he said. “Just a few months ago, it was going to be done in three years … Now we’re saying, ‘Well, it’s going to be six years.’” 

Lisi Krall, a seasonal Upper Hoback Road resident, directed her remarks at commissioners. 

“You are engaged in a process of enabling deception and dishonesty,” she said. “This has been nothing … except a process [of] applying for something and giving approval, and then coming back and changing things and then getting approval for the changes. That’s what the process has been all along.” 

Sublette County Commissioner Doug Vickrey at a June 2024 meeting in Pinedale. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Some of Ricketts’ requested changes have been denied. In March 2023, commissioners rebuffed the octogenarian billionaire’s ask to fold another of his holdings — the 159-acre Dead Shot guest ranch — into the larger 1,300-acre Jackson Fork Ranch. At the smaller ranch, Ricketts sought to build an 8,000-square-foot restaurant for guests, bunkhouse, gymnasium, staff quarters and 10 guest cabins of unspecified sizes.

Ricketts has also tried to execute a land trade with the Bridger-Teton National Forest to bridge his primary two Upper Hoback properties. He purchased an inholding up Greys River Road as a bargaining chip for the deal, which never materialized. 

Close vote

Sublette County Commissioner Doug Vickrey, who’s been a steady opponent of the Bondurant resort, seized on the billionaire’s “piecemeal” approach to implementing plans. 

“These folks agreed to what this original resolution was,” Vickrey said. “Why would we want to change it? I don’t — and I won’t, with my vote — I can tell you that right now.” 

Commissioner Dave Stephens, who’s also been reliably opposed to the in-the-works upscale resort, said early on Tuesday that he’d be a no vote also. 

Sublette County Commissioner Mack Bradley at a June 2024 meeting in Pinedale. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

The swing vote for the five-person county commission came from Mack Bradley, who pointed out he’s “supported this project from day one.” Year-round construction in exchange for additional mitigation measures “might be a better deal,” he said. 

“But I’m not undoing these five signatures [from the 2022 resolution],” Bradley said. “When you started the planning … you knew you were up against this.”  

Ricketts’ request to eliminate the seasonal wildlife stipulations failed 3-2, meaning that construction crews will have until Nov. 14 to complete their work in 2024.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.