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Anti-grazers oppose western Wyoming grazing plan

by Cat Urbigkit for Tri-State Livestock News

The Bridger-Teton National Forest’s effort to alleviate conflicts between livestock and grizzly bears in the country’s largest national forest grazing allotment isn’t being cheered by environmental activists.

The BTNF is currently accepting public comment on a proposal to allow cattle grazing in the 30,577-acre Elk Ridge Complex of the Upper Green River region located 30 miles north of Pinedale, in western Wyoming. Domestic sheep flocks had grazed the Elk Ridge allotments for more than 40 years before the sheep permittee accepted a buyout from environmental groups and vacated the allotments in 2016. That buyout was designed to eliminate domestic sheep from the area to reduce the risk of disease transmission between domestic and wild sheep.

But the sheep allotments had been grazed by domestic sheep and cattle for more than a century. Back in 1978, the U.S. Forest Service had authorized the grazing of 3,613 sheep or 725 cow/calf pairs on the allotments. The permittee chose to utilize the allotments for sheep, but prior to that time, these allotments had been used for cattle grazing since the early 1900s.



The Forest Service now proposes to allow “currently permitted cattle within the Upper Green River Area additional acreage to better address seasonality fluctuations, weather conditions, predators and impacts from wildfire.” With the Upper Green being a hotbed of grizzly-livestock conflicts, this greater management flexibility for cattle operators “provides operators with additional tools to proactively mitigate conflict with grizzly bears by distributing cattle across a broader landscape,” according to the agency. The addition of the Elk Ridge Complex to the Upper Green cattle allotments would add additional range to the rotation for cattle, without increasing livestock herd size.

“Functionally, cattle will be present at a given location within the project area and larger Upper Green River Area for reduced periods, minimizing the potential for conflicts,” according to the BTNF environmental assessment. “This in turn may result in minimized conflict and associated reduction in lethal removals of conflict grizzly bears.”



But with a few exceptions, most of the 61 comments that had been submitted so far opposed the proposal. Many of the comments lacked relevant substance. One letter was focused entirely on Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, not the national forest located in Wyoming. One said to “leave the preserve to the animals” but the area is not a preserve. Another referred to it as a beautiful national park, which it is not. One commenter called for closing “Blue Ridge” to grazing. There is no Blue Ridge in the area.

Another commenter wrote, “Leave the grazing to the wild horses,” of which there are none in the area. A Florida naturalist wrote that cattle “should never be allowed on any federal lands” while others used similar wording: “There should not be any cattle grazing allowed on public lands.”

Another complained about lack of funding for national park infrastructure, although this is not a national park. Another wrote, “We must never let any development happen here, at all.” There is no development proposed.

A few letters came from area cattlemen supporting the agency proposal. A few letters were submitted as comments from representatives of organizations, including “Portland Books to Prisoners” and “Prince George’s County Audubon Society.” The later group is based in the second-most populous county in the state of Maryland, and borders Washington, D.C.

When the Forest Service sent out a scoping letter for this proposal earlier this year, the agency received more than 3,400 public comments, but about 2,000 were form letters. When the Forest Service reviewed the letters seeking “substantive” comments, it found only 609, of which 89 wanted to permanently end any livestock grazing in the area.

WILDERNESS WILDLIFE SUPPORTER

Much of the ire appears to be inspired by anti-grazing activist and writer George Wuerthner’s various opinion columns decrying the proposal as harmful to “wilderness, wildlife and the public enjoyment of these lands and the future of grazing permit buyouts.” Wuerthner’s opinion pieces were published on several websites and included a direct link to submit comments.

Wuerthner claimed that the “entire Upper Green” was designated as Desired Future Condition 10 (DFC 10), “which requires the Forest Service to manage the area primarily to protect wildlife values.”

In reality, 56% of the Elk Ridge Complex is to be managed as DFC 10, which the BTNF plan describes as “simultaneous development of resources, opportunities for human experiences, and support for big-game and a wide variety of wildlife species.” Under the BTNF forest plan, the management emphasis for this area is to provide “long-term and short-term habitat to meet the needs of wildlife managed in balance with timber harvest, grazing, and minerals development.”

Most of the remainder of Elk Ridge is to be managed as wilderness, in which visitors “may find some sheep, cattle in some areas” as livestock grazing on public lands is authorized through the both the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act and the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Wuerthner opined: “Suppose the Forest Service is permitted to go ahead and restock grazing allotments that were retired by grazing permit retirement. In that case, it will jeopardize all future permit buyouts because few private individuals or foundations would be willing to invest money in permanent retirement if it is not permanently closed to all livestock.”

Wuerthner previously served on the board of anti-grazing group Western Watersheds Project, which was founded by Jon Marvel. Marvel commented on Wuerthner’s column by noting that he serves on the board of the Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund (Fund) that provided a majority of the funding to buy out the sheep allotments, and said the fund would “if needed, legally challenge any final decision by the B-T to implement the shift to cattle.”

That brought criticism from another activist who pointed out that the fund had conducted the buyout without “any guarantee of permanent retirement. What a waste. What did you expect with Ruby bloodmoney?”

Marvel’s Fund was created in 2010 when Ruby Pipeline LLC, a subsidiary of El Paso Corp., agreed to pay Western Watersheds Project $15 million not to oppose or delay installation of the 680-mile natural gas pipeline project.


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