Homeowner told to stop feeding wildlife
JACKSON — A longtime resident of the Solitude subdivision has been officially warned that her backyard moose feeding operation violates Teton County zoning regulations and that an enforcement case may unfold if she doesn’t stop.
The 24-year resident, Barbara Magin, was recently in the spotlight because she was the subject of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation that showed evidence of eight grizzlies visiting her property in 2020 — including world-famous Grizzly 399 and her four cubs. Those bears were drawn in to feed on grain, potentially in violation of the Endangered Species Act, though federal prosecutors in January declined to press charges. While that criminal case came to a dead end, now the Teton County Planning Department has kicked off a process that could culminate in the enforcement of a county-level feeding ban that neighbors say has been ignored at a Death Canyon Road residence for two decades.
“According to photos, videos, and neighbor concerns received, there have been numerous occasions where you have intentionally placed food and other supplemental feed attractants outside of your home, which has attracted moose, grizzly bears, and black bears to your property,” Josh Butteris, the county’s code compliance officer, wrote to Magin in a March 1 notice of complaint.
“Please immediately refrain from feeding wildlife,” the warning reads. “Further enforcement action may be required as the review of your case continues, which may include fines of up to $750 per day.”
The county’s written notice is intended to alert the landowner of an alleged violation, said Teton County Planning and Building Services Director Chris Neubecker.
“This gives the property owner notice and the ability to contact us, provide any evidence to the contrary and potentially invite us out to the property,” Neubecker told the News&Guide.
As of Tuesday morning, the week-old notice had not elicited a response, he said.
Also on Tuesday, Magin told the News&Guide she “just got” the letter, and that once she received it she called and left a message with Butteris. The longtime denizen of the neighborhood north of Jackson Hole Airport denied that she’s been feeding wildlife other than putting out birdseed that’s not covered by Teton County’s ban.
“There’s nobody here eating that other than birds and squirrels,” Magin said. “I do know that people, back in the day, would throw food on my property to attract animals and then say that I was feeding.”
Magin also claimed that she hasn’t been physically in Jackson Hole.
“I have been here three years out of 23 years,” she said. “I’m not here. I had a mother who’s dying in New Jersey. I spent 18 years there and then two years in Pocatello. Last year I was here, and that’s it.”
But U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 148-page investigation report and accompanying correspondence shows ample evidence of years of wildlife feeding at the 7-acre property owned by Magin, which also has quarters for a caretaker.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, according to the federal investigation, has incorporated that property into its annual wintertime moose surveys for years. During a February 2018 helicopter flight, there were 10 moose counted by the house. Last winter there were a dozen. This Feb. 25, a Game and Fish flight documented five moose on the premises.
Brian DeBolt, a Game and Fish warden, and Steve Stoinski, a now-retired Fish and Wildlife Service special agent, also observed Grizzly 399 and her four cubs feeding on molasses-enriched grain at the property for two hours on the afternoon of Oct. 23, 2020. A GPS collar fitted to Grizzly 962 also shows evidence that bear repeatedly visited the Death Canyon Road abode many days last fall.
Several Solitude residents reached for this story say they’ve been dealing with the consequences of Magin’s backyard congregation of moose and mule deer for decades and that they’re tired of it. The feeding, neighbor Katherine Johnson said, has persisted regardless of any proclamations otherwise.
“She lives in extremely close proximity to my property,” Johnson said. “After U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Wyoming Game and Fish Department investigated her in October, she continued to feed — and is feeding moose currently.”
Large deer and moose feeding operations at the Solitude subdivision were center stage during a two-year debate about a county ordinance in the early 2000s, during which time mountain lions were being drawn to the neighborhood by the congregations of prey and killed at least one local dog. The issue was divisive, with the deciding Teton County Board of County Commissioners vote held at Snow King Resort before a crowd of more than 50 people. That vote was to ban feeding of deer, elk, moose, grizzlies and a dozen other wildlife species.
Despite legislative efforts to instate a ban and guidance from wildlife manager not to feed, the Wyoming Legislature has not criminalized the activity. Feeding’s statewide legality left Teton County with the option of using its Land Development Regulations to impose the prohibition. This arrangement has not lent itself to effective enforcement.
Neubecker said Tuesday his office is still looking for “additional evidence” so they can send Magin a more formal “notice of violation” that progresses the county’s enforcement case.
“At this point, we don’t have the photographs or video or any other evidence,” Neubecker said. “That can be fairly difficult to obtain, because we don’t have the authority to go onto private property.”
The county’s looking into the use of drones to help make its case, he said, but is not yet sure if that would be legal. If ample evidence is assembled to justify issuing a “notice of violation” and feeding still didn’t stop, Magin would enter into an abatement process before the Teton County Board of Commissioners where witnesses could testify and county staff and the landowner could make their case.
“If the county commissioners issue a notice to abate and then the property owner does not stop, then they can issue a fine of up to $750 a day,” Neubecker said.
Any proceedings after that would take place in courtroom, he said, where the noncompliance would be considered a civil matter.
Butteris, the code compliance officer, is the only Teton County employee whose job it is to pursue complaints about zoning infractions like wildlife feeding — and that’s only half his job. Neubecker told county commissioners during a meeting on Monday that he would welcome more staffing for enforcement.
“In reality,” he said, “if we did have more than one full-time staff dedicated to that position I think we could respond to more cases more quickly.”
Solitude resident Bill McClure said that he tried to get Butteris’ predecessor to take action repeatedly, but his outreach had no effect.
“It would certainly put some heat on [Magin] if they were to enforce their regulations,” McClure said. “But the county has been really delinquent. They’re just not doing their job, and they haven’t helped in this situation at all.”
The recent exploitation of feed on the property by grizzly bears changes the equation, he said.
“I love the wildlife, it’s one of the main reasons we live here,” McClure said. “But to habituate bears is really a problem, and if the county and the Game and Fish were following their rules, they’d put these bears down. The whole world knows about Bear 399. It’d be a hell of a shame.”
Jane Hill is another longtime Solitude resident frustrated that authorities have not taken action to halt year-after-year backyard feeding on Death Canyon Road. A family was bluff charged by a sow bear with a cub on a walk in Solitude last fall, and sometimes-cantankerous moose are everywhere, she said. The neighborhood is “outraged” by the situation.
“Why is the evidence presented not enough?” Hill told the News&Guide. “This is not a sweet little lady who loves animals. She has been a menace and has endangered the animals and our subdivision for 20 years. Now we’re looking at a case that involves the Endangered Species Act and Grizzly 399 and her cubs. What’s it going to take?”
The Solitude Homeowners Association Board of Directors wrote to its members on Feb. 19 that it has an obligation to protect the residents. The board’s letter also pledged action will be taken to enforce the neighborhood’s covenants, conditions and restrictions, which also prohibit wildlife feeding.
“In the event action by government officials is not proving effective, we will explore all possible enforcement and legal actions under our CCRs,” the HOA’s letter said. “The board cannot ignore the potential consequences of the continued feeding.”
The Solitude HOA and Magin have history in the courtroom over violations of the subdivision’s covenants, conditions and restrictions. Between 2008 and 2011, a dispute progressed through district, appeals and then the Wyoming Supreme Court concerning noncompliant fencing and screening that had been erected to conceal the backyard feeding operation.
“We spent over $100,000 of HOA money,” Hill said. “We had lawyers, we had drones.”
Johnson, Magin’s next door neighbor, said the HOA won that case and that afterward the fencing came down. But then, some time later, it went right back up. Johnson’s noticed the same temporary pauses with feeding wildlife on the property.
“Game and Fish has asked her to clean things up, and she does,” Johnson said. “She takes away the food and puts it away, but when she is ready she starts feeding again. It’s a continual pattern of behavior.”