Thursday, August 28, 2008

Grazing lawsuits spawn talks
Costly litigation has cattlemen searching for new answers

Ranchers and environmental activists have taken steps toward a dialogue over grazing on public lands, although the path has been rocky so far.

Concerned about ongoing lawsuits challenging grazing, a few ranchers from Grant and Harney counties approached the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) earlier this summer to see if they could resolve the organization's concerns.

The outreach came after similar talks brought a compromise in the deadlock between timber and environmental interests over wildfire salvage sales on Forest Service land in Grant and Harney counties.

Ken Brooks, a Fox Valley rancher, said Grant County Judge Mark Webb and the ranchers were seeking ways to prevent ongoing lawsuits from undermining the cattle industry in the region.

"We can't afford to just keep litigating, so we thought we could try to find some common ground," Brooks said.

The ranchers met with ONDA representatives in June. They came away from the meeting with the sense that ONDA wasn't pushing to eliminate all grazing, but did want to "retire" some land considered to be critical habitat for steelhead-salmon runs.

The grazing permittees expected that as a next step, ONDA would review areas that it would propose for retiring, set priorities and identify the grazing allotments that would be affected.

In July, the permittees received a draft proposal from ONDA that they say went beyond that. Harney County rancher Jeff Hussey, a participant in the talks, said the proposal was "more extreme than what ONDA has requested in the court cases."

The ONDA proposal called for eliminating grazing on 33 percent of the Malheur National Forest land now being grazed, restrict grazing on another 33 percent, and require implementation of conservation plans for the other 33 percent.

"The economic impact of this proposal could be severe," said Brooks. "Agriculture is the only viable industry left in Grant County and most of Eastern Oregon. Our area is already economically depressed. We can't sustain any more economic loss."

Webb also was concerned after viewing the ONDA draft. In a news release, he said the County Court would not support a proposal that eliminates most of the grazing on federal lands in the county, "especially one that lacks scientific credibility."

The proposal also calls for the Forest Service to permanently close an allotment or area where a grazing permit has been relinquished, and to follow specific National Marine Fisheries Service "mitigation terms" - measures that define stubble height and other factors.

The ranching community has protested the use of some of those standards, contended that they are a "one height suits all" approach that doesn't account for differences in plant species and specific habitat and terrain.

In a response to ONDA last week, the ranchers said the proposal seems both unfair to the permittees and unrealistic. They questioned the rationale for the reallocation percentages, closure of grazing permits, and other aspects of the proposal.

However, they didn't close the door on further talks. The response said the county and the permittees would continue to work with ONDA, but only if the litigation over grazing ends. They also want the discussion to deals with other factors - such as wild horses, fishing, and poor forest health - that have an impact on fish recovery.

The ranchers remain critical of monitoring by the Malheur National Forest, contending that it has been inconsistent and that makes it difficult to defend their grazing practices.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Rains reopen grassland for foraging

Recent rains have led to improved forage conditions on the Pawnee National Grassland in rural Weld County, allowing more cattle that were removed earlier this summer to return to graze. Because of drought conditions, 12 of 76 grazing allotments on the Pawnee National Grassland were vacated this summer, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Cattle were removed when forage dropped below 300 pounds per acre, a standard used for range management to provide sustainable grazing, habitat and forage for other grassland animals, the Forest Service said. The number of cattle returned to each allotment is less than 100 percent, but still provides relief for those with grazing permits, said the Forest Service. The two remaining allotments are vacant because of low forage production. On other Pawnee National Grassland allotments, cattle will remain unless available forage drops below 300 pounds per acre or will be removed in the fall at the end of the grazing season.

Friday, August 22, 2008

NM Game and Fish's version of Catch-22

It turns out that 8-8-08 really was a lucky day, at least for New Mexico's lesser prairie chicken population. On that day, the news headlines proclaimed "State puts prairie chicken hunt on hold," except the actual headline should have been "What was the state Game and Fish Department thinking?" I guess the thought from the department is that there certainly should be lesser numbers of the species.

Ten years ago, in an effort to increase the prairie chicken population in southeastern New Mexico, the state declared millions of acres off-limits during the bird's 90-day mating season. Fast forward to July 2008, when through some unexplained reasoning the Game and Fish Department recommended and sought approval from the Game Commission for a nine-day fall hunt. And it was approved! The decision was done without consulting any of the working groups involved, which includes the Bureau of Land Management which was caught totally by surprise by the July decision.

Fortunately, an outcry from a wide group of people ranging from environmentalists to oil and gas companies prompted Game and Fish to reconsider the planned hunt. The department issued a news release in early August stating that permits will not be issued while a decision to list the species on the federal endangered list is pending. We understand the role of the Game and Fish department as it pertains to the species population and the department's desire to foster hunting in New Mexico, but not a bird that is on the threatened list of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department.

Why are the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association members involved in this issue? It's simple, we practice what we preach, we are indeed "good neighbors," and that extends to our state's native wildlife. The New Mexico oil and gas industry works with state and federal agencies as well as conservation groups to protect all species of wildlife.

The industry and the state of New Mexico lose millions of dollars ever year during the 90-day prairie chicken mating season. Together we all worked hard to raise those numbers. Consider this: currently there are about 8,000 prairie chickens in the state and seven years ago there were just 3,000.

How did the state oil and gas industry assist in saving the prairie chicken for future generations? Our member companies participated in land management planning efforts. The companies modified their development practices and protected certain areas where the species live. The industry also contributed financial assistance for projects to enhance habitat conditions, provided funding for legacy oil field restoration and contributed dollars to research.

If the lesser prairie chicken is put on the federal endangered list, nobody wins. Ranchers, farmers, the state oil and gas industry all lose, and in the end all the citizens of New Mexico are harmed. The economic effect from the loss of jobs, lost production and lost revenue would be hundreds of millions of dollars and would ripple across the state. All because the New Mexico Game and Fish Department decided that there are way too many lesser prairie chickens in the state. Thank goodness wiser heads prevailed and stopped the agency from sending the wrong message to the general public. I trust we will soon not see a fishing season for the silvery minnow?

Bob Gallagher is president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association and is also president of the NMSU Board of Regents.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Grazing talks bog down

Officials with the Sheyenne Valley Grazing Association say talks with the U.S. Forest Service have stalled as the two sides try to negotiate a new grazing agreement.

A district ranger for the federal agency says he thinks progress is being made on a new 10-year agreement to replace one that expired in 2003.

“We’ve done a lot of work,” ranger Bryan Stotts said. “You’re dealing with people’s livelihoods. It should be a thoughtful process.”

Stotts said one of the main issues still to be worked out is eligibility rules for grazing permits.

“You get a group of people, I don’t think all of them will agree on what the rules should be,” he said.

Mark Huseth, a director of the grazing group, said the association feels it is getting “the short end of the stick.”

“We had made some headway at portions of time where we thought we were almost to an agreement, and we’d send our notes back to each of our ... legal counsel,” he said. Huseth said the Forest Service would then ask for changes, and “We just seem to be hitting a stone wall.”

The grazing agreement with the Sheyenne Valley group would cover nearly 78,000 acres of land in southeastern North Dakota. Until a new deal is in place, ranchers are working under terms of the agreement that expired five years ago, Stotts said.

He said discussions do not include the amount of grazing that will be allowed on the grasslands. Officials plan to start work on stocking rates on the 53 grazing allotments in a few months.

“In the agreement (the grazing association) agrees to participate in it,” the ranger said.

In addition to grass for cattle, the Sheyenne National Grasslands provide habitat for a rare prairie orchid and a rare prairie chicken. The area is considered a vestige of the once-sweeping tall-grass prairie on the Great Plains.
Ranchers seek Smith's help in grazing battle
Cattlemen face ‘perfect storm’ over public lands

Cattle ranchers gathered in John Day Monday to press their case for proactive monitoring by the Forest Service in the face of what U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith termed a "perfect storm."

"Whether it's the peas or trees, or cows, times are good or times are bad," said Smith. "Right now there's sort of a perfect storm as it relates to cattle, and the cattle industry."

Contributing to that storm are rising hay and fuel prices, a sluggish market, and - the subject of the Aug. 18 meeting - environmentalists' litigation over grazing practices on public lands.

Smith's comments came at a meeting called by the Oregon Cattlemen's Association to discuss the difficulties facing the cattle ranching industry. About two dozen ranchers from Grant and Harney counties attended the session, held in a meeting room at Old West Federal Credit Union.

The session, moderated by Long Creek rancher Sharon Livingston, included a panel of area ranchers who talked about their concerns and experiences.

Smith said he hears the concerns of ranchers and also sees that the Forest Service is caught in the middle, facing lawsuits from environmental groups over grazing and also from ranchers defending themselves.

"I know you'd rather meet at the cattle yard than the courtrooms, and I would like that too," he said.

Smith said he shares both the concerns and the questions, the latter including a query about why other national forests are working with Oregon State University scientists on monitoring programs, but that has not been done on the Malheur. Monitoring the conditions and impacts of grazing in riparian and streamside areas is a focal point in recent lawsuits.

Bill Moore, OCA president, said this is a time "of great concern" for the cattle industry.

He told Smith that federal judges are creating laws, rather than interpreting them. And he asked for help in resolving that situation.

A panel of ranchers - Ron Burnett, Loren Stout, Jeff Hussey, and Pete McElligott - discussed their experiences and their long tenure on the land.

Burnette told Smith of his family's history of stewardship. He said his granddaughter - if she chooses to follow in the family's chosen lifestyle - could be the ninth generation to run cattle in John Day country.

But the challenges are many. He said that despite the investment he has made to improve his grazing allotment, he has been stymied by vague or changing rules and standards. This year he was one of several Malheur National Forest permittees locked out of some allotments for the grazing season.

Burnette said the permittees can't be sure they will meet standards if the Malheur National Forest staff doesn't keep good statistics and set reliable protocols. Handshake approvals and verbal OKs no longer assure permittees that that they are in compliance.

"Six months from now, someone can come in and want to see what took place - on a piece of paper," he said.

Ranchers said that proof is not being provided by the Malheur.

Stout urged the senator to help the Malheur get a monitoring system that's reliable in court, and that "throws out the personal agendas."

Concerns raised Monday were that forest staff haven't monitored the allotments consistently, and haven't used scientific standards that will hold up in court. That leaves judges to decide grazing challenges based on the proofs submitted by environmental groups, the ranchers contend.

The ranchers also said the attempts at monitoring don't take into account damage to the habitat by other animals, particularly the wild horses that roam parts of the MNF.

The threat to grazing goes beyond the livelihood of individual ranchers, the panelists said.

"I feel that our culture, our heritage, is at stake," said Hussey.

Ranchers cited the cost of litigation they bear, as well as the impact that lawsuits have on the Forest Service.

"If they're litigating, they can't work," Hussey said. "If I'm litigating, I can't work, either."

He and the others pushed for a monitoring protocol that would work.

MNF Supervisor Doug Gochnour, on the job just two months, told the group that he understands the struggle they face.

While he wasn't able to discuss ongoing litigation over MNF allotments, he said he believes the Forest Service will vigorously defend the legal challenges.

"The grazing program on the Malheur and in Eastern Oregon is important to me," he said.

He said the staff is working long hours on the current cases, and that there will be changes in the legal defense.

"I understand that the attorney from the U.S. Department of Justice didn't do a very good job," he said of the most recent case. "She's since resigned."

Gochnour also said the MNF monitoring has been challenged by staff turnover. The ranger coordinator, Chance Gowan, recently left his post due to health problems, and the forest is bringing in a new coordinator from California.

In additon, the MNF and all the other forests in the region are facing a financial hit to pay for some $24 million in firefighting costs. The MNF's share of that bill is about $1.6 million, said Gochnour.

Larry Larson, a professor in range ecology for Oregon State University, said the bottom line on the grazing issue is that the Forest Service has not been doing an adequate job of monitoring or permit administration.

Larson said he wasn't speaking for the university, the Forest Service or the permittees, but from his own research.

On the Malheur, good data is not available, he said, and that's what the courts are demanding.

Gochnour compared the situation to the challenges facing the timber industry 20 years ago, when the agency was continually defending itself in court.

Smith noted that it takes three branches of government to make change, but he urged the ranchers not to give up hope. He noted that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, criticized for embracing environmental positions, is starting to reverse its past trends toward rulings that went "beyond science."

He also said that if the rules for grazing change frequently, as claimed by the ranchers, "you're not getting due process of law."

He said it sounds as if the agency is working to cope with the threat of litigation, rather than working proactively to protect the environment and keep ranchers in business.

Smith said he has contacted Sen. Ron Wyden to arrange for a joint hearing on resource issues including grazing. Wyden chairs the Senate's Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests.

He said it takes all branches of the government to bring about change, but Congressional hearings "can also bring heat and light to these issues."
Editorial: Ranchers, county need solution to monitoring gap on national forest

To say that one of Grant County's most important industries - cattle ranching - is threatened by environmental litigation is just too simplistic. The fact is, the immediate threat stems not so much from the demands of environmentalists, but from the lack of adequate monitoring of grazing practices and their effects.

The issue of monitoring is at the heart of still unresolved litigation over grazing allotments on the Malheur National Forest. Without adequate monitoring, the Forest Service - and the permit-holders - are at a loss to prove that their grazing program is a positive aspect of the forest's management.

The issue is getting some attention in high places. U.S. Sens. Gordon Smith and Ron Wyden recently sent a joint letter to Mark Rey, Department of Agriculture undersecretary, supporting a proposed collaborative effort to develop appropriate monitoring that will draw on resources at Oregon State University and also involve the permittees.

The letter confirmed the importance of ranching and of forest grazing programs to Grant and Harney counties - and to Oregon's rural economy.

"The absence of Forest Service monitoring data on grazing activities in Malheur National Forest prevents objective confirmation of the success and sustainability of these grazing programs," the senators wrote.

They asked that money be allocated to provide the necessary monitoring, and that adequate protocols for it be developed before the end of this year's grazing season.

The Grant County Court last week added its voice to the effort. Judge Mark Webb and Commissioners Scott Myers and Boyd Britton wrote a letter Aug. 13 to Smith and Wyden, lauding the senators for recognizing the need for sustainable management and the critical importance of grazing.

"We appreciate your willingness to draw attention to and address the lack of appropriate protocols or monitoring by the Malheur National Forest," the Court wrote. "The lack of appropriate protocols or monitoring causes potentially serious consequences for many of our ranching families."

The plea for more funding for monitoring comes at a difficult time, as wildland firefighting across the West saps the Forest Service budget. That's an issue that also needs addressing. But the larger question of how to separate firefighting costs from other forest operations could take a long time and a lot of Congressional maneuvering to sort out. Our ranching communities may not be able to wait that long.

It's time for the Forest Service to step up on the monitoring issue, make use of the resources available through Oregon State University, and work with the permittees to solve the problem. It would be a travesty if an industry that has long been a mainstay in Grant County foundered because of something so fixable.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

New Mexico Environment Department Hosts Series of Public Meeting on NM’s Surface Water Quality Standards Triennial Review

WHAT: The New Mexico Environment Department’s Surface Water Quality Bureau (Bureau) will hold informational meetings to discuss proposed changes to State of New Mexico Standards for Interstate and Intrastate Surface Waters (20.6.4 NMAC). The Standards establish designated uses for surface waters of the state and water quality criteria to protect those uses. To gather input on the proposed changes, the Bureau has scheduled five public meetings. The meetings are being held in advance of the Water Quality Control Commission’s Triennial Review of Water Quality Standards Hearing, which is tentatively scheduled for fall 2009.

Proposed changes include new narrative biocriteria, revision of designated uses for unclassified waters, revision of segment descriptions to exclude waters under tribal jurisdiction, updates to human health and domestic water supply criteria, clarification of recreational designated uses, addition of public water supply as a designated use and revisions to segment-specific criteria.

The Bureau will publish its discussion draft of the proposed revisions by August 12, 2008, at For more information, contact Pam Homer, Standards Coordinator, Surface Water Quality Bureau (contact information below).

WHERE & WHEN: Statewide

Carlsbad - Monday, August 25, 2008, 6:00 p.m.
Riverwalk Recreation Center, Powerhouse Room, 400 Riverwalk Dr.

Two Pecos River proposals may be of particular interest to people in the Carlsbad vicinity: to raise the criterion for boron downstream from the mouth of the Black River and to set benchmarks based on existing conditions for preventing salinity increases from Santa Rosa downstream to the state line.

Las Cruces – Tuesday, August 26, 2008, 6:00 p.m.
NMSU Campus, Hernandez Hall, Room 106.

Statewide revisions only, no area-specific changes proposed.

Albuquerque – Wednesday, August 27, 2008, 6:00 p.m.
NMED District 1 Office, 5500 San Antonio Dr. NE

Proposals that may be of particular interest to people in Albuquerque and surrounding areas include: the addition of public water supply designations and radionuclide criteria for the Albuquerque, Santa Fe and EspaƱola reaches of the Rio Grande; new segments for the Rio Puerco, the lower Jemez River, and the Rio Nutria and Ramah Lake in the Zuni basin; and a revised pH criterion on lower Sulphur Creek.

Farmington – Thursday, August 28, 2008, 6:00 p.m.
Farmington Civic Center, Meeting Room C, 200 West Arrington.

Proposals that may be of particular interest to people in the Farmington vicinity include a new segment for Lake Farmington (Beeline Reservoir), and the addition of public water supply designations for the El Rito, Rio Brazos, Rio Chama, Rio Vallecitas, the Los Pinos and Navajo Rivers, Heron and El Vado Lakes.

Raton – Wednesday, September 3, 2008, 6:00 p.m.
NM Game & Fish Conference Room, 215 York Canyon Road.

Proposals that may be of particular interest to people in the Raton vicinity include revised classifications for the Dry Cimarron River and Corrumpa creek and the addition of public water supply designations for Cimarroncito and Chicorica Creeks.

HOW: The public is invited to submit written comments on the discussion draft. Please submit written comments (email preferred) by Tuesday, September 30, 2008 to:
Pam Homer, Water Quality Standards Coordinator
Surface Water Quality Bureau
PO Box 26110, Santa Fe, NM 87502
Phone 505-827-2822
Fax 505-827-0160

Additional information about water quality and the standards in general is available on the Surface Water Quality Bureau’s website:

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Disputed federal rangeland insurance discontinued

The USDA’s Risk Management Agency has discontinued a crop insurance program that farmers and ranchers in Teton County say cost them thousands of dollars in premiums, but failed to protect them in the extreme drought years of 2006 and 2007.
Collins-area farmer and rancher Brett DeBruycker is still trying to get the state’s congressional delegation to require the Risk Management Agency to go back and “fix” the underlying problems with the Group Risk Plan Rangeland insurance, but officials with RMA say they don’t think a review and retroactive changes are likely.
John Lockie, a risk management specialist with the RMA office in Billings, said the GRP Rangeland policy was offered as pilot program in 39 counties in central and eastern Montana for the crop years of 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. The plan was offered in partnership with private insurance agencies with the federal crop insurance program subsidizing the plan. An estimated 22.5 million out of 45.6 million acres of rangeland in these counties were insured through the program.
The GRP Rangeland offered farmers and ranchers the opportunity to purchase crop insurance on their rangeland so that if drought occurred and they had little or no rangeland production, they could file a loss claim and receive an insurance benefit that could be used to buy hay for their livestock to replace the lost pasture.
The program used statistics gathered by the USDA’s Montana Agricultural Statistics Service to calculate rangeland conditions in each covered county. Since there is no standard measurement of rangeland production, the GRP Rangeland policy based its coverage conditions on dryland hay production, figuring that dryland hay production would echo rangeland production. In other words, if there wasn’t enough rain to grow much dryland hay, there probably wasn’t enough rain to produce grass on rangeland.
As a group risk plan, the “trigger” or base loss level at which the plan would cover farmers and ranchers for their losses was based on dryland hay figures throughout a county, not on the individual dryland hay production of each covered farm and ranch. In the first year of the program, 2005, the trigger was based on tons per acre of production; and in the 2006, 2007 and 2008, the trigger was based on net hay production countywide.
Lockie said the program was based on a similar crop insurance product used in the Midwest, where it worked well. Counties in the Midwest are generally smaller than those in central and eastern Montana, he said, and weather patterns are likely to affect all or none of farmers in a given county. Since this is a “group risk” plan, he said, it is based on production (or loss of production) in a county. In the Midwest, the plan worked as it should have because, in general, all the farmers’ production levels in a given county coverage area were very similar.
Central and eastern Montana, however, proved to be a different situation. Because the counties are so large, it is common for weather to vary widely from one corner of a county to the other. In Teton County, for example, spotty rain showers meant that some dryland hay production was average to good while in other parts of the county dryland hay production was zero in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Based on the net hay production figures for Teton County from Montana Agricultural Statistics Service, the plan did not pay for any losses in 2006 or 2007 despite the fact that those two years were extremely dry and rangeland production in many areas was awful.
Beginning with the denial of loss claims for the 2006 crop year, Lockie’s agency in Billings started getting calls from producers across the state and in Wyoming, where the program was also offered in select counties. “I totally can commiserate,” Lockie said.
But, even though the RMA was aware of concerns, the federal agency continued to market the plan. Some producers, however, deemed the plan unworkable and did not try to insure through it in 2007 and 2008, Lockie said.
In the wake of these concerns, Lockie said the RMA and a private insurance contractor held a series of meetings on the GRP Rangeland policy in this year in Lewistown, Malta, Glasgow, Miles City and Billings and in Gillette and Cheyenne, Wyo. The RMA listened to comments from farmers and ranchers and crop insurance agents, and after getting an earful, the private insurance companies recommended the RMA “terminate” the program, Lockie said.
For the 2009 crop year, the Risk Management Agency is offering a new insurance plan called the “Pasture, Rangeland and Forage-Rainfall Index” program. This plan will again insure pasture against production losses, but the trigger will not be net countywide dryland hay production. Instead, the trigger will be weather data with the actual figures compared to historic average. The coverage area will no longer be based on counties, but will instead be based on 12-square-mile areas and will be a “group risk” plan within each 12-mile square unit.
Weather data will be recorded in two-month intervals with six index intervals each year. Farmers and ranchers who choose to participate must insure their rangeland in at least two of those six intervals. The smaller geographic units plus the flexibility in insurance levels and the choice of intervals should make this plan much more accurate and a better product for producers, Lockie said. More information on the new plan is available on the RMA Web site. Enrollment in the plan will be open soon and will close at the end of November.
Lockie said he has never seen the RMA go back and adjust a program to change the coverage triggers in the past and he is not hopeful, now that the old plan has been terminated, that RMA will undertake a review. “The likelihood at this point is virtually none,” he said.
For some farmers and ranchers in Teton County, however, the creation of a new program is not encouraging.
In late June, Brett DeBruycker, whose family has large farm and ranch holdings in several areas in Teton County, started a petition drive, asking other farmers and ranchers to sign a letter to U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, asking them to question the RMA about the program’s failures, to require the RMA to make changes in the program before continuing to market it and to review the 2006 and 2007 claim denials that significantly harmed producers insured through the program.
The RMA needs to go back and help producers in the county who bought the insurance in good faith and then did incur losses that should have been indemnified, DeBruycker said. “Ranchers paid a premium for this insurance coverage and we deserve to receive those payments for the 2006 and 2007 losses,” he said.
Now the RMA has come back with a new insurance program, DeBruycker said, but if the federal agency doesn’t repair the rangeland insurance program’s credibility, sign up might be nil. DeBruycker says every farmer and rancher he’s talked with says there is no way they’ll waste more money on a rangeland insurance program that probably won’t help them in a drought situation.
“Their trust in the system is gone,” DeBruycker said. “It won’t matter how good the new program is, unless they go back and pay the past indemnification.”
Part of what bothers DeBruycker and others, like Joe Dellwo, who ranches with his family in the Blackleaf area west of Bynum, is the way the RMA set the loss-payment trigger. They argue that using the MASS statistics for net dryland hay production was faulty, and that better, more accurate hay production figures were available from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.
Dellwo says his family’s ranch was insured through the GRP Rangeland program in 2006 and 2007. “In 2006, we were shocked that it didn’t pay because it was the worst grass year that we’d ever had up to 2007, which was even worse,” he said. After the 2006 claim was denied, he called Tester’s office and was assured that the matter was being looked into.
After the 2007 denial, he called the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service and talked with Director Peggy Stringer, who told him how her office gathered net dryland hay production records, which RMA used as a proxy for rangeland conditions. The MASS figures for Teton County in 2007 showed the dryland alfalfa yield as 1.1 tons per acre and all-other-dryland hay yield as 1.06 tons/acre.
Dellwo says he next called the Teton County FSA office and asked for certified dryland hay production figures from FSA. Executive Director Sherwin Smith pulled those numbers for Teton County and found that dryland alfalfa and alfalfa mixed forage production in 2007 averaged about .1 ton per acre. In fact, Smith said, for other dryland grass hay programs, his agency documented large production losses in 2007. The Teton County FSA Committee set the 2007 pasture loss figure at 50 percent for 2007, based on clipping studies completed by the local Natural Resources and Conservation Service Office and the Teton County Extension Office.
Dellwo says on his ranch, they didn’t even cut any dryland hay in 2007. “There just was nothing there.” So, he said, after spending thousands of dollars on insurance that didn’t help, his family also had to go out and buy hay or face downsizing the cow herd.
“It’ll take me five years to pay off the hay that we needed to survive,” Dellwo said. “If you want a poster child for why this isn’t working, come to Teton County because this was ground zero last year.”
DeBruycker says portions of Teton County (including the Blackleaf-Bynum area) have been in drought persistently going as far back as 1996, but 2006 and 2007 were particularly bad. “There were many grass species that just flat died during that stretch,” he said.
By the end of 2007, he said, every reservoir on his family’s ranch was bone dry and every spring was either dry or producing at just 10 percent to 20 percent of its capacity.
In 2007, with those dire range conditions, ranchers in Glacier, Toole, Pondera and Teton counties purchased all the extra hay that was produced in central and north-eastern Montana, DeBruycker says. “There was an incredible amount of hay that was brought into this part of the world over the last winter,” he said.
Ranchers who couldn’t afford hay, shipped their cattle straight to auction and heavily culled older and less productive cows, reducing their herds to minimal levels. Ranchers who could found pasture outside of the region and trucked their cattle off-ranch. Locally, DeBruycker said, some of their pastures that would usually have accommodated 100 cow-calf pairs could only carry 25 to 30 pairs. Carrying capacity was a 25 percent to 30 percent of what it is normally, he said.
This grim scenario not only affected the financial viability of local ranches, it hit the ranchers themselves hard emotionally. Guys who used to be jovial and optimistic were somber and apprehensive, he said, adding that the drought “really affected people’s lives.”
Dellwo was so concerned that he asked a representative from Tester’s office to come to Choteau earlier this summer and listen to ranchers who wanted to tell them about the failure of the GRP Rangeland program. He said four or five took time out of their day to meet with the field representative.
For her part, Stringer says her agency’s net production statistics for the county are accurate, but they are based on only on reports from ranchers and farmers who had hay production. Those who didn’t cut any hay, didn’t file any reports.
“The issue is not our data, the issue is the program,” Stringer said. “I don’t understand how you can say hay production is the same as range production and equate the two.”
Another issue is that the Group Risk Plan is “all county or none,” she said. If a few producers got rain showers and produced hay, then the production level was such that the program did not trigger, she said.
“It’s very frustrating for us and I think it’s frustrating for the RMA folks as well,” she said.
Baucus and Tester both urged the RMA to offer a more dependable and accurate crop insurance product to Montana ranchers and the Pasture, Rangeland and Forage-Rainfall Index program is the new program they requested.
In a statement on the issue, Baucus said, “I’m committed to making sure Montana’s producers have the tools they need to thrive in Big Sky Country. I’m pleased the USDA is moving forward with a solution for the coming year. Producers can rest assured, I’m watching this issue closely and will continue to push the USDA to do what’s right for Montana.”

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Endangered Species Act Changes Give Agencies More Say

The Bush administration yesterday proposed a regulatory overhaul of the Endangered Species Act to allow federal agencies to decide whether protected species would be imperiled by agency projects, eliminating the independent scientific reviews that have been required for more than three decades.

The new rules, which will be subject to a 30-day per comment period, would use administrative powers to make broad changes in the law that Congress has resisted for years. Under current law, agencies must subject any plans that potentially affect endangered animals and plants to an independent review by the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service. Under the proposed new rules, dam and highway construction and other federal projects could proceed without delay if the agency in charge decides they would not harm vulnerable species.

In a telephone call with reporters yesterday, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne described the new rules as a "narrow regulatory change" that "will provide clarity and certainty to the consultation process under the Endangered Species Act."

But environmentalists and congressional Democrats blasted the proposal as a last-minute attempt by the administration to bring about dramatic changes in the law. For more than a decade, congressional Republicans have been trying unsuccessfully to rewrite the act, which property owners and developers say imposes unreasonable economic costs...

The new rules would also limit the impact of the administration's decision in May to list the polar bear as threatened with extinction because of shrinking sea ice.

At the time of that decision, Kempthorne said he would seek changes to the Endangered Species Act on the grounds that it was inflexible, adding that it had not been significantly modified since 1986. In a statement yesterday, the Interior Department declared that even if a federal action such as the permitting of a power plant would lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions, the decision would not trigger a federal review "because it is not possible to link the emissions to impacts on specific listed species such as polar bears."

Kempthorne said the new regulations included that language "so we don't inadvertently have the Endangered Species Act seen as a back door to climate-change policy that was never, ever intended."....

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Range tenants: Cattle and wildlife could benefit from program
Tribune Editorial
Salt Lake Tribune

State Sen. Dennis Stowell, R-Parowan, wants to take a number of trophy game tags away from the public and give them to groups of ranchers who have had grazing permits partially suspended, reducing the number of cattle they can run on public lands.
The grazing associations would then auction the hunting permits to wealthy hunters and use the proceeds to grow forage and develop water sources with a goal of improving the carrying capacity so their grazing permits can be restored in full.
At first glance, Stowell's proposed legislation sounds like a terrible idea. It seems like the little guy, the wildlife and Utah's arid, fragile public lands would be the losers. It sounds like the ranchers and the rich hunters would win again.
But what if Stowell's plan would benefit wildlife as well as cattle; Joe Hunter as well as Joe Rancher? What if it resulted in better habitat, more game animals and more permits to hunt them?
A similar program conducted by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources in cooperation with public land management agencies already exists. Permits are given to sportsmen and conservation organizations for auction, and the groups use the money for habitat improvement projects under the watchful eye of DWR.
But could projects be developed that would benefit both livestock and wildlife? State wildlife officials and federal land managers say yes.
And would the public accept more cattle on public lands? That's the great unknown.
Grazing on Utah's public lands is a touchy topic. They're marginal cattle range at best, easily damaged by plodding, four-footed plant processors. If wildlife and the environment were the sole considerations, you'd remove all livestock from the scene. But that's not going to happen.
Ranching is a Utah tradition, and in some locales an economic engine. And federal Bureau of Land Management property, by law, is managed for multiple uses, which puts cattlemen and conservationists at odds.
Stowell's proposal could bridge that gap. If he clones the existing state permit auction program, and requires habitat restoration projects that benefit livestock and wildlife equally, it could work.
For hunters, it would mean fewer permits now, with the potential for a lot more later. For grazing groups, it would mean the restoration of suspended grazing rights. And for the rest of us, a healthier economy, and healthier public lands to enjoy.
The senator should proceed, with caution. His proposal could be a winner . . . as long as there are no losers.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Otero Mesa in drillers' crosshairs

To drill or not to drill? As rising gasoline prices make consumers increasingly aware of energy issues, that's the question for environmentally sensitive areas across the West.

In New Mexico, the crosshairs are zeroed on Otero Mesa, a scenic 1.2 million-acre expanse of yuccas, cholla cactus and knee-high gramma grass.

Recreational options include primitive camping, wildlife viewing, photography, horseback riding or hiking. There are pronghorn antelope, burrowing owls, prairie dogs, aplomado falcons, deer, oryx, coyotes, jackrabbits and quail.

"On the grasslands, there are particular species and different animal life that just doesn't exist anywhere else," said Deanna Archuleta, Southwest regional director for The Wilderness Society.

Otero Mesa still has rutted sections of the 1860s-era Butterfield Trail stagecoach route and a massive underground reservoir that could be tapped to supply fresh water to southern New Mexico communities.

Drilling opponents warn that groundwater could be contaminated by oil and gas production, but others insist technological advances allow extraction of petroleum or gas without harming the aquifer.

"The drilling technology makes the risk reasonable. The chances of contamination are very, very small," said Bill Childress, director of the Bureau of Land Management's district office in Las Cruces.

This isn't exactly virgin wilderness, either.

Decades of access and development are evident, including a web of roads, scattered wells and a communications tower that rises over the grasslands. There are pipelines for exporting natural gas and oil.

Still, The Wilderness Society listed Otero Mesa among 17 locations in eight Western states that the group says are threatened by plans for drilling. Each is documented in a 2006 report, "Too Wild to Drill."

Along with Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, other sites include the Upper Green River Valley of Wyoming, Utah's Red Rock Wilderness, Carrizo Plains National Monument in California and Colorado's Roan Plateau and Vermillion Basin.

High-profile public lands, according to The Wilderness Society, are in immediate danger from drilling proposals. Group members worry about roads, drill pads and staging areas that accompany oil and gas production.

"Given the current pressure to drill domestically, the risk is the biggest it's ever been," Archuleta said. "At Otero Mesa, it's a threat to the aquifer, to wildlife and to the landscape."

Yet high gasoline costs apparently are swinging public opinion in favor of drilling. A July 1 poll by the Pew Research Center showed a significant change during a five-month span on the drilling question.

The number of those polled who said they considered increasing energy supplies more important than protecting the environment climbed from 54 percent in February to 60 percent over the five-month span, according to the poll. The number who favor oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge also increased.

After a one-hour drive east from El Paso, Texas, a cattle guard at the Texas-New Mexico border marks the southern boundary of Otero Mesa.

Glance at a map, and it's a checkerboard of federal, state and private lands. There are remote ranches that have been managed by families for generations. Cattle graze on the grasses or collect at stock tanks.

The area also has an 80-year history of drilling. One well, dating to 1929, is located along a graded road, identifiable by a rusty pipe that extends skyward from a mound of concrete in the ground.

Two modern gas wells — one drilled in 1997, the other in 2001 — were leased before a BLM resource management plan was drafted in 2005.

Compared with the surrounding landscape, the roughly three-acre sites are visibly different. Gravel has replaced topsoil that was removed for drilling operations. Childress said both locations will have to be restored.

"These wells have gas in them," Childress said. "How much gas is anyone's guess."

Indeed, Otero Mesa is what those in the oil business call a wildcatter area, meaning the wells are exploratory and reserves are undetermined.

The BLM has proposed leases for 13,000 acres on Otero Mesa. Most are for 10 years, through terms can lengthen if a well produces. The current proposal allows drilling on a maximum 1,589 acres.

Archuleta said the policy is shortsighted and won't produce an immediate reduction in gasoline prices. Echoing a sentiment expressed by numerous environmental groups, she said oil companies already have enough wells on public lands elsewhere.

"If we think that's going to save us from $4 gas, we're dreaming," she said.

That BLM's plan was controversial, with diverse groups that included sportsmen, ranchers, environmentalists and state agencies urging stronger protections.

Gov. Bill Richardson, supporting an effort by a group called Coalition for Otero Mesa, asked the BLM to designate 500,000 acres of grasslands as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern.

"This type of designation would provide another way to protect the area's wildlife habitat, wilderness characteristics and critical groundwater supply, focusing on the importance of this thriving desert ecosystem," Richardson said.

However, there already are numerous areas designated as ACEC that are protected from drilling, including scenic buttes at Alamo Mountain, Cornudas Mountain and Wind Mountain, along with several grassland sites.

Childress, whose office is responsible for oversight of Otero Mesa, noted the agency's mandate is to open the land and oversee it for all interested parties, including oil companies.

Childress defended the BLM proposal, saying no more than 5 percent of grasslands can be disturbed at any time and sites must be remediated to help disturbed soil and plants grow back.

While up to 90 percent of BLM lands are open to drilling under the plan, Childress said only 800 to 900 acres of Otero Mesa's 1.2 million would be permanently disturbed by roads, footpads and other drilling-related activities.

"I think that's a pretty reasonable percentage," he said.