Monday, March 30, 2009

National Wildlife Federation: Grazing Buyouts

Innovative Retirement Planning for Cows and Sheep

A new conservation model that minimizes litigation, sustains agriculture, and concentrates livestock grazing on public or private land where it has less impact.

Nowadays, many of us are re-thinking our retirement plan after giving away half our nest egg to people on Wall Street who don’t need it, but we should remember that the concept of retirement isn’t all about us. Those poor dumb animals need it, too, and at least one man is there for them, doing what he can to retire thousands of cows and sheep to greener pastures.

And it’s about time Hank Fischer received a little credit for it. As you’ll see, he’s obviously doing a lot better than most of us are with our retirement planning.

Hank Fischer manages a special program called Wildlife Conflict Resolution for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). In English, that means he negotiates with ranchers to sell or “retire” public land grazing allotments to minimize conflicts between wildlife and domestic livestock.

Since the early 1900s, western stockgrowers have leased public land for livestock grazing. These grazing permits or “allotments” have grown in value through time and have essentially become false equity for ranchers. They’re used for collateral in bank loans, and you’ve seen the real estate ads selling ranches touting figures like: “5000 deeded and 10,000 leased acres.” The private landowner isn’t actually selling those “leased acres,” usually federal land managed by the Forest Service (FS) or Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Instead, he/she is selling or transferring the right to exclusively run cows or sheep on certain sections of public land.

Such transactions have, in essence, created an after-market for these grazing allotments, and the NWF has become a player in buying, selling and trading them as a way to solve chronic conflicts between livestock and controversial wild animals like bears, wolves and bison.

“At first, it was all about the conflict with bears and wolves,” Fischer told NewWest.Net. “Now we’re seeing we can also address the conflict between bison and cattle as it relates to the brucellosis problem.”

And the success has been sweet. To date, Fischer and his NWF comrades have raised more than $2,000,000 of mostly private money and retired 31 grazing allotments totaling 530,000 acres of conflict-ridden public pasture. That’s a land area roughly the size of Grand Teton National Park or about 10 percent of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Three of those retirements have been in designated wilderness areas. (See map. Click on image for larger version.)

Almost half of $2,000,000 has been raised to retire a 6,000-acre section of the controversial Royal Teton Ranch just north of Yellowstone National Park from livestock grazing, mainly to address a serious dispute with bison migrating out of the park. Fischer predicts he’ll close that deal, his first involving private land, by the end of the year.

“This program offers something for both livestock producers and wildlife,” he explains. “That’s why it works. We can bank on it working in any place where there’s a chronic conflict between wildlife and livestock.”

So far, all of Fischer’s efforts have been in the Greater Yellowstone Area, but he has recently started working on conflicts in other areas. It’s too soon to publicize any specific deals; like any real estate transaction, wildlife conflict resolutions require privacy until closed.

It’s mainly the selling price that counts, of course. It always is, and Fischer says the livestock producer always gets a fair deal for the allotment and in a few cases have gotten “a small premium” compared to appraised value.

Seems like a motherhood and apple pie program? Not quite. Critics have accused the program of secretly trying to remove all the livestock grazing from public lands, a claim Fischer disputes.

“We’re not trying to get rid of livestock grazing,” he counters. “It’s completely voluntary. There is no reason the livestock producer has to do this, but we’ve always found livestock producers willing to work with us.”

In fact, Fischer notes, in most cases ranchers use the money to purchase replacement grazing, public or private. Sometimes he even finds and purchases another public land grazing allotment and trades it for the problem allotment. It’s more like “re-distributing” the grazing, he notes.

“A market approach,” Fischer emphasizes, “can turn opponents into partners.”

To seal any deals on public land, the managing agency (FS or BLM usually) must agree to permanently retire the allotment instead of simply letting another rancher run cows or sheep on it--and perpetuate the problem. This has been a bigger problem for Fischer than getting cooperation from livestock producers, and a few deals with willing sellers have fallen apart because the agency wouldn’t agree to retire the allotment.

Another reason the program works, according to Fischer, is the support it receives from “a wide spectrum of the environmental community,” which the two of us agreed is something we don’t see enough of nowadays. Witness bitter disputes between green groups over issues like wilderness preservation and wolf delisting.

When he signed on for this challenge, Fischer ranked allotments from worst to best as far as seriousness of wildlife conflicts. “We’ve already retired the top five (translate, worst five) allotments,” he boasts, justly, “and with very little controversy.”

Looking at this issue practically, dealing with wildlife conflicts is hardly happiness for ranchers, so why wouldn’t they want to get out from under a chronic conflict and move to grazing lands with fewer clashes with wildlife?

From my perspective, here’s another example of how to do it. Cooperation almost always wins out over polarization. Now, can we get the same concept to work for issues like gun rights, wolf delisting and wilderness preservation?

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