SHERIDAN — The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission lease of Lake DeSmet to secure it as a prime fishery and boating area in northeast Wyoming remains in the limbo it entered nearly a year ago, but the end is in sight.
“The water, right now, is being appraised. Once that appraisal comes back, then it’s up to the Fish and Wildlife Service to approve that appraisal, and then I think we’re pretty darn close. We’ll have very few hurdles left to go,” Fisheries Supervisor for the Sheridan Region Game and Fish Department Paul Mavrakis said.
Mavrakis presented at the annual meeting of the Wyoming Water Association and the Upper Missouri Water Association Thursday at the Holiday Inn Convention Center about the history and status of the Lake DeSmet lease.
The appraisal was slated to be finished in November, but the partial shutdown of the federal government pushed that deadline back, and it now looks like the appraisal will be finished in January, Mavrakis said.
Once the water appraisal is finished and approved, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission will make a decision on a Game and Fish lease that will secure a majority of the shoreline and surface area of the lake for fishing and boating activities.
The $2.9 million lease will be paid by the Game and Fish Commission to Johnson County over five years. It is a 99-year lease but can be terminated by Johnson County after 50 years, if desired, Mavrakis said.
If the lease is approved, the Lake DeSmet Counties Coalition Joint Powers Board — a board of representatives from Sheridan and Johnson counties that oversaw lake management for both counties — will be dissolved and Johnson County will assume full ownership of the lake and be the sole participant in the Game and Fish Commission lease.
Even now, the LDCC JPB is not meeting and Sheridan County holds no financial obligation for lake maintenance, County Commissioner Bob Rolston said. Rolston served as treasurer on the LDCC board. Rolston continues to sign checks for small amounts (often less than $100) for maintenance and operation costs, but only because two signatures are required and it was logical to keep Rolston as one of the signatories, he said.
Johnson County has assumed all operation costs, and once the lease is approved will also pay in full the debt owed by the counties coalition to the Wyoming Water Development Commission for evaluations and renovation projects conducted on Lake DeSmet in the last 10 years.
During his presentation to members of the Wyoming Water Association, Mavrakis focused on the importance of Lake DeSmet as a fishery and the reasons the Game and Fish Commission chose to pursue a lease option on the lake.
With 3,400 surface acres, Lake DeSmet is one of the largest bodies of water for boating in Wyoming. It is stocked yearly with 100,000 rainbow trout and 50,000 Yellowstone cutthroat trout, Mavrakis said. It typically produces 35,000 angler days per year and 60,000 trout are caught per year. This contributes approximately $2.4 million to the local economy in food, hotel, license and other purchases by anglers, Mavrakis said.
Mavrakis said the Game and Fish Commission got involved because it didn’t want to sit around and assume public access to recreation on Lake DeSmet would always be available. Several industry interests such as Nerd Gas and Sasol Synfuels International, owner of M&M Ranch, already own portions of the lake and, at one point, expressed interest in purchasing all LDCC interests, which could have jeopardized recreation access.
The lease on Lake DeSmet is the most ambitious and expensive water leasing project ever undertaken by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, Mavrakis said, noting that the commission may consider future leasing options around the state on a case-by-case basis.
“If the lease goes through, we’ll be able to protect that recreational value out there at Lake DeSmet. Like I had said, most of the years the water will be high enough that we’ll be able to launch a boat even if all the remaining water gets used some other way, industrial, agricultural, however,” Mavrakis said. “It’s just a good thing for the recreationists to be able to have that secured for at least the next 50 years and maybe even the next 100.”