Sunday, January 27, 2008

Ranchers say they're being squeezed out

Billings Gazette

GREYBULL -- Ranchers operating around the Bighorn National Forest say ongoing drought, tougher environmental oversight, disputed monitoring techniques and growing legal challenges are making it increasingly difficult to effectively use their federal grazing allotments.

U.S. Forest Service managers say they are working to support grazing in the Bighorn National Forest, but must balance it against a host of other appropriate public land uses.

Dozens of ranchers met with Forest Service managers this week for the first of what is likely to be a series of discussions aimed at improving relations between the two sides.

There are 91 permit holders operating on grazing allotments in the Bighorn National Forest, said Bernie Bornong, a Forest Service resource specialist.

Allotments are measured in agricultural unit months, or the amount of forage required to sustain a 1,000-pound animal for one month. The Forest Service may reduce the number of AUMs available to a rancher based on weather, wildlife activity, grazing intensity or other conditions on various sites.

But ranchers said Wednesday that the trend for decades has been to permanently reduce available AUMs and close allotments, causing a continuing decline in available public grazing land.

Figures in the forest plan generally support that argument, and it cites factors behind the trend, including changes in ranching economics, management practices and environmental priorities.

"The trend has been declining since about 1920," Bornong said, but he added that livestock grazing remains one of the primary uses of Forest Service land, and a goal the agency supports.

"We want to maintain or exceed the 2004 permitted stocking level, while maintaining and meeting the guidelines and desired conditions" for appropriate range management, he said.

That can be done only by close cooperation between ranchers and the Forest Service, said Kathleen Jachowski, director of Guardians of the Range, a grazing advocacy group that represents about 100 member ranchers operating on public lands in the Big Horn Basin.

The Bighorn forest has been targeted for special attention, including litigation challenging allotment management plans, by the Western Watersheds Project, a group seeking to limit grazing on public lands, Jachowski said.

"If we don't organize and work together, we're going to lose the battle. These people are working hard to ruin us," Big Horn County Commissioner Keith Grant said of legal challenges filed by Western Watersheds.

"The Bighorn National Forest has the highest stocking rates of any forest in the nation, and twice the average stocking rate of the Forest Service system on average," said Jonathan Ratner, Wyoming director for Western Watersheds.

Speaking by telephone from Pinedale, Ratner said grazing on public lands amounted to bad fiscal and environmental policy.

"In general, we feel that livestock grazing on much of public lands is inappropriate and should be phased out," he said.

Carol Kane, whose family ranches near Dayton, said new range use monitoring requirements in the Tongue District are based on flawed techniques, and have erroneously resulted in drastic reductions in available AUMs.

"Thirteen permittees will have huge cuts, 50 percent or more, in their allotments by 2011. Some of them could be completely put out of business. But we are not overgrazing, and we're not ruining the resource," Kane said.

"How are these ranches going to withstand the loss of the livestock and income? You can't just run a ranch one year with 300 cows and the next year with 50," she said.

Bornong said the new monitoring technique was mandated by the forest plan and had been proven valid in scientific studies and court challenges.

The Forest Service should work more closely with ranchers to collaboratively test range monitoring techniques before mandating their use, said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.

Bighorn Forest Supervisor Bill Bass said the industry generally does a much better job with range management than it did decades ago, adding that "grazing is why there's good grass."

He encouraged ranchers to work with legislators to draft laws that protected grazing on Forest Service land.

Bornong said the Forest Service will work more closely with Bighorn-area ranchers to effectively administer vacant grazing allotments and range improvement funds.

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