Monday, October 13, 2008

Anti-grazing activists take on BLM
Critics say grazing plan threatens some ecosystems

The Bureau of Land Management's proposal for long-term management of its land in southwest Wyoming has prompted plenty of debate over how much oil and gas drilling should be allowed.

But one group protesting the plan isn't concerned about energy development. The Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project says the BLM plans for both the Pinedale and Kemmerer areas lack sufficient study about the negative affects of livestock grazing on the ecosystem.

"Our angle is to speak up for the soil, the plants, the watershed function, the sage grouse, the mule deer, the kinds of things that can't speak up for themselves basically," Jonathon Ratner, director of the Wyoming office of the Western Watersheds Project, said in a telephone interview from Pinedale.

In response, ranching representatives say modern grazing practices actually enhance the ecosystem.

Ratner said the organization will be contesting about two dozen similar BLM plans in Utah, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Oregon on the livestock issue.

"They all suffer from the same problems," he said.

Southwest Wyoming contains rich deposits of natural gas, habitat for wildlife and thousands of acres of grazing land.

The BLM is issuing new plans for the area that will guide the agency's long-term management of federal lands in the area, whether it be used for oil and gas development, grazing, recreation or other activities.

The agency is now in the phase of its planning where it considers protests of its plan before issuing a final decision. The most contentious plan involves the Pinedale area, encompassing about 1,875 square miles of mineral estate.

Kellie Roadifer, BLM planning and environmental coordinator for the Pinedale area, said the agency's Pinedale plan drew 13 protests, 12 of which deal with oil and gas and sage grouse issues.

Grazing used to be the overriding point of contention for BLM lands, but that has shifted with the oil and gas boom, Roadifer said.

"Attention has shifted from livestock grazing to oil and gas," she said. "Years ago it was common for a lot of the stuff that we got to be involving livestock grazing."

But the Western Watersheds Project is keeping the grazing issue alive. It contends grazing does slow, long-term damage to the sensitive ecosystem and over a vastly larger area than oil and gas development.

"Now I'm not discounting the impacts of oil and gas, but oil and gas at this point has severely impacted a tiny fraction of our public lands acreage in the state of Wyoming," Ratner said.

He said grazing alters the soil, upland and riparian areas, and affects how the ecosystem handles water, changing the land into more of a desert environment.

Western Watersheds Project maintains that if the BLM just enforced its regulations, it would result in a reduction in livestock grazing on federal land.

"In the long run livestock grazing in the arid West is neither economically feasible and sustainable, nor ecologically feasible or sustainable," Ratner said. "So in the long run it's got to go."

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said ranching in much of Wyoming isn't possible without grazing on federal land.

Losing the grazing allotments would force ranchers out of business. That could result in the subdivision of rural areas or force working ranchers to sell their land to recreational ranchers, Magagna said.

"From an economic perspective, maintaining agriculture in the state, most of which is livestock grazing, is critically important to a long term future," he said. "And then aside from those economics, I think you have to look at the fact that a lot of the local communities continue to be built around agriculture."

Magagna said overgrazing in the past did cause damage to ecosystems.

"But the livestock grazing that's done today is done under some very sound, well-established science as to impacting the resource," he said. "And in fact I would argue and I think there is plenty of information out there from range professionals to support it, that properly done it enhances the ecosystem. It does not degrade the ecosystem. And most livestock grazing today is done under those types of principles, both on federal land and on private land."

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