Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Grazing strategy could be key to reducing wild land fires, researchers say

New Mexico State University researchers and experts from other universities are looking into the possibility that a targeted grazing strategy for range cattle could significantly reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. "Behavior of wildfires is affected by the abundance of what we call 'fine fuels,'" said NMSU rangeland expert Derek Bailey. "Our assumption is that moderate levels of grazing can be used to strategically reduce the levels of fine fuels and correspondingly limit impacts and economic losses of wildfire."

Bailey teaches in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences and is the director of NMSU's Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center north of Las Cruces. He and other investigators are halfway through a three-year study on targeted grazing.

In some areas, the grasses that fueled normal and periodic low-intensity surface fires in the past have been replaced by densely packed trees and brush that fuel the raging prairie and forest fires seen in recent years, including record-setting 2011 fires in the Southwest.

The Albuquerque Journal (http://bit.ly/uHEbPY ) reports the study is based on the premise that cattle tend to graze unevenly. Their natural tendency is to stay close to water sources, which can lead to deterioration of riparian plant life while leaving an abundance of forage material in more rugged areas or areas away from water. In some cases, the neglected forage exacerbates fire danger.

Targeted grazing at four locations in New Mexico and Arizona involves manually herding cattle into more rugged and remote areas of fuel buildup and determining if the availability of forage, along with the strategic positioning of protein supplement blocks, encourages the animals to spend a higher percentage of their time away from the overgrazed areas around their water source.

To track cattle, Global Positioning System collars are being used to monitor where the cattle in both the control group and the experimental group spend their time.

The project has been implemented at NMSU's Corona Range and Livestock Research Center in central New Mexico and on a U.S. Forest Service grazing allotment in the Santa Rita Mountains of Arizona.

Preliminary results suggest that the combination of herding and strategic supplement placement can effectively reduce biomass of fine fuels, Bailey said.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Aging Sagebrush Rebel Keeps up Fight Against Feds

A 75-year-old lawyer who fought private property rights battles alongside Idaho U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth and her Nevada rancher husband Wayne Hage in the 1990s is still cultivating the Sagebrush Rebellion's roots.

Fred Kelly Grant has been slowed by age and heart surgery, but he's in demand from counties — and tea partyers who attend his $150-per-person seminars — as conservative elements in the West's continue to clash with the federal government.

California's Siskiyou County is paying Grant $10,000 to help block removal of four Klamath River dams. Montana and Idaho counties have enlisted him to trim hated wolf populations and thwart U.S. Forest Service road closures.

What Grant preaches is "coordination," the theory that federal agencies by law must deal with local governments when revising their public land travel plans or protecting endangered species. Grant insists he's not reviving the discredited "county supremacy" movement, in which a Nevada county once threatened federal employees with prosecution.

"This is not nullification," simply ignoring federal mandates, he told The Associated Press. "Coordination is working within the system to try and make the system work."

Hage, who died in 2006, epitomized the Sagebrush Rebellion by battling the federal government over water rights. Chenoweth, killed the same year in a car crash, worried that federal agents would arrive aboard black helicopters to enforce the Endangered Species Act.

Grant is promoting a strategy for counties that he says will help them take on the federal government, on hot-button issues including wolves, U.S. Forest Service road closures and the removal of dams on the Klamath River in California. (AP Photo/John Miller) Close

Grant, a former federal prosecutor in Maryland who once helped guide Stewards of the Range, the Hage family's property-rights nonprofit, started his own foundation last year. He, a son and daughter-in-law now give seminars, often to tea party groups, on how locals can demand coordination when Washington, D.C. isn't listening.

Grant insists he's no radical, but he's not above fanning the flames. In 2009, he told a crowd angry about road closures in California's Shasta-Trinity National Forest that he once dismissed those who claimed the United Nations and U.S. government sought to eliminate people from public land as crackpots who saw "a communist behind every sagebrush."

"I thought it was a conspiratorial theory," Grant said, in video footage. "It's not."

Some environmentalists are dubious of Grant's "coordination," saying it's so much fodder on the conservative rubber-chicken circuit for a restive Western audience long unhappy with federal management of vast tracts of public land.

"He's saying a county should adopt its own plan, and the federal government is obliged to make sure its plan is consistent with the local plan," said Jon Marvel, Western Watersheds Project director in Hailey, Idaho. "It's nullification by another name."

Grant insists federal courts side with him.

In 2001, a U.S. District Court judge in Utah ordered the Bureau of Land Management to remove wild horses resettled in Uintah County, in part because the agency didn't coordinate with local officials.

"Coordination does not mean the county gets its way," Grant said. "What it means is, the federal government should be discussing policy with the county, and considering alternatives."

He cites Idaho's Owyhee County, where he says coordination between locals and the BLM beginning in 1990 resolved grazing disputes — and led to ranchers' support for 500,000 acres of federally protected wilderness created here in 2009.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cattle group counters Interior grazing claims

The Public Lands Council is commissioning a study to determine the true economic value of public lands grazing.

The study seeks to scrutinize a Department of Interior report that claims grazing is only responsible for a miniscule amount of the jobs and economic impact created by the agency's programs.

According to the "Department of Interior's Economic Contributions" report, which was released in June, the agency's programs were responsible for 2 million jobs and $363 billion in economic activity during fiscal year 2010.

The report makes much ado about the estimated 388,000 jobs and $44 billion in economic activity generated by recreation and tourism on DOI-managed lands and the 1.3 million jobs and $246 billion in economic activity created by energy development and mining.

But it barely mentions the impact of public lands grazing, estimating it is responsible for 2,500 direct jobs and less than 5,000 indirect jobs and has an economic impact of $640 million.

The PLC, which consists of state and national cattle, sheep and grasslands associations, believes those numbers are way off and has hired an outside company to do an independent analysis of the report.

"This report talks about recreation from beginning to end," PLC Executive Director Dustin Van Liew told Idaho Cattle Association members Dec. 15 during their annual meeting in Sun Valley. "Grazing was basically an afterthought in this report."

He pointed out the BLM administers 18,000 federal grazing permits. The fact that the report credits grazing for only 2,500 direct jobs shows that ranchers themselves weren't counted as direct jobs, he said, despite the fact that most "of those jobs don't exist without access to federal forage."

He also noted that the report's 5,000 jobs total for gazing works out to less than a third of a job per permit.

"We all know common sense wise that doesn't pass the smell test," Van Liew said. "Those are grossly under-reported figures in this study."

He said the PLC will use county and state tax data and case studies "to show exactly how much economic activity is created by grazing."

ICA Executive Director Wyatt Prescott said the industry welcomes PLC's independent analysis and agrees with its criticism of the DOI report.

"As an industry, we know the economic difference we make in communities by being on rangeland," he said. "The biased nature of this report was appalling to our industry. We were extremely disappointed to see that because it was so misrepresentative of our industry."

BLM officials could not be reached for comment Nov. 15. But the report's executive summary admitted that some DOI services can't be fully counted in terms of output or jobs.

REVA (H.R. 3432) Would Provide Cash Option for Grazing Permittees

Conservationists hailed the introduction of the Rural Economic Vitalization Act (H.R. 3432) in Congress, a bill that would allow federal grazing permittees to voluntarily relinquish their grazing permits back to the managing federal agency in exchange for compensation paid by a third party. The bill was introduced by Representative Adam Smith (D-WA-9th) and six original cosponsors.

“When enacted, this legislation will help resolve endless conflict on public lands, while providing ranchers with opportunities to restructure their operations, start new businesses, or retire with security,” said Mike Hudak, author of Western Turf Wars: The Politics of Public Lands Ranching and leader of the Sierra Club Grazing Team.

Domestic livestock grazing is the most pervasive and damaging use of federal public lands. On public land across the West, millions of non-native livestock remove and trample vegetation, damage soil, spread invasive weeds, despoil water, deprive native wildlife of forage and shelter, accelerate desertification and even contribute to global warming.

Unfortunately, antiquated federal law generally prohibits closing grazing allotments to benefit fish, wildlife and watersheds. The Rural Economic Vitalization Act would authorize federal agencies to permanently retire grazing permits if requested by ranchers.

“Grazing permit retirement has been implemented in a few places around the West with marked success, but there is much greater need—and demand from ranchers—to retire grazing permits,” said Mark Salvo of WildEarth Guardians.

One landscape that has benefited from grazing permit retirement is the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where grazing allotments have been closed to reduce conflicts with wolves, grizzly bears and bighorn sheep, and to expand winter range for bison outside Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone bison, the last remaining genetically pure wild herd in the U.S., are subject to intensive management and control based on the irrational fear that they will transmit disease to domestic livestock.

“Bison are hazed, captured, shot and slaughtered to protect grazing interests on public land in Yellowstone country,” said Josh Osher of the Buffalo Field Campaign. “REVA is the tool we need to finally, permanently address these conflicts.”

Whether it be bison, sage-grouse, big game, wolves, fish, wild horses, clean water, or any number of additional environmental values which prompt conflict in the west, REVA opens up a new opportunity for stakeholders to come together and utilize an innovative, free-market tool to resolve natural resource conflicts.

In addition to being the source of immeasurable environmental harm, the federal grazing program is a fiscal boondoggle for federal taxpayers. The Government Accountability Office reported that the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service annually spend $132.5 million on grazing management, but collect only $17.5 million in grazing fees for a net loss to taxpayers of $115 million.

“The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest service run an annual deficit administering grazing permits and managing private cattle grazing operations. My bill eliminates wasteful spending, gives ranchers the choice to retire permits, allows public lands to recover natural habitats and fosters the return of native plants and wildlife,” said U.S. Representative Adam Smith (WA-09).

“We want to save public lands and do our part to solve the deficit,” said Brian Ertz of Western Watersheds Project. “We just need Congressional approval to buy out willing ranchers and retire their grazing permits.”

Grazing permit retirement is a voluntary, non-regulatory, market-based solution to public lands grazing conflicts. Permittees determine if and when they want to retire their grazing permits. Permittees and third parties separately agree how much a permittee will be paid for relinquishing their permit. And federal agencies facilitate the transaction by immediately retiring grazing permits received from a permittee. The Rural Economic Vitalization Act caps the total number of grazing permits that may be retired each year at 100.

“This is a win-win-win for ranchers, the environment, and taxpayers,” said Rose Chilcoat of Great Old Broads for Wilderness. “Let’s pass this bill so that we can finally take some common sense steps to ensure healthy public lands.”

Rural Economic Vitalization Act (H.R. 3432)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Protecting the Path of the Pronghorn

Conservation groups defend ancient critical migratory corridor

Western Watersheds Project, represented by Western Environmental Law Center, has taken legal action to protect a 6,000-year-old, critical migratory corridor necessary for the survival of North America’s fastest land animal, the pronghorn. The groups allege that the Forest Service unlawfully authorized the building of structures for private livestock on the public lands, which have the potential to impede pronghorn migration and block the movement of other large mammals.

The structures -a permanent corral, holding pasture, and additional fencing – are to be located at the confluence of Slate Creek and the Gros Ventre River in Wyoming. This area is a critical link in the “Path of the Pronghorn,” an annual migration corridor for the species between the Upper Green River Valley (near Pinedale) and Grand Teton National Park. The Path of the Pronghorn is the longest remaining migration of any land mammal in the lower 48 states.

Numbering only a few hundred, this dwindling herd relies on the ancient Upper Green River Valley migration corridor for its very survival. In 2008, in recognition of the importance of this corridor to the pronghorn, the Forest Service designated this area as the nation’s first wildlife migration corridor. At the time, former Forest Supervisor Kniffy Hamilton proclaimed, "This migration is an important part of Wyoming's history and we want to do all we can to maintain it."

But while Ms. Hamilton was announcing with much fanfare a plan to protect the “path of the pronghorn”, the agency was simultaneously authorizing the building of livestock facilities in the migration corridor behind closed doors, facilities it readily admits “have the potential to impede pronghorn movements through the corridor.”

The Forest Service authorized the facilities pursuant to two internal “categorical exclusion” decisions and deferred action on additional fencing in order to avoid input and the need to conduct an alternatives and environmental analysis. “This isn’t allowed” said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who is representing Western Watersheds Project. “The Forest Service can’t break its plans up into small, component parts in order to circumvent the law and avoid a meaningful environmental analysis. If it wants to authorize new facilities and other projects in the Path of the Pronghorn it must first take a hard look at the overall, cumulative impacts to the migration corridor.”

“We tried to get the agency to preserve unbroken landscapes to protect the ‘Path of the Pronghorn,’” said Jon Marvel, Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project. “Unfortunately, the Forest Service didn’t want to listen to the public, to other wildlife managers, or to science. Instead, they made an end-run around important environmental laws. We intend to hold them accountable.”

The “Path of the Pronghorn” is one of the longest large mammal migration corridors in North America, and spans over 100 miles. Numerous land management agencies, including the Forest Service, have signed a, “Pledge of Support for the Conservation and Protection of the Path of the Pronghorn.”


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Lizard loses a vote

SANTA FE — The region's most controversial reptile lost a vote Monday at Capitol, but the decision by New Mexico legislators may not carry any weight.

Ten members of the natural resources committee voted to publicly oppose listing the dunes sagebrush lizard as an endangered species. They will send a letter expressing their sentiment to Daniel Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Four Democrats on the committee dissented. They included two from southern New Mexico, Rep. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces and Sen. Mary Jane Garcia of Dona Ana. Their objection will be added to the end of the letter.

Ashe is to decide by Dec. 14 whether the dunes sagebrush lizard should be designated as an endangered species.

State Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, led the opposition to federal protection for the reptile.

He said such a move could hurt businesses, especially ranchers and oil and gas producers.

The dunes sagebrush lizard is found in a total of eight counties in the oil-producing Permian Basin. Four are in southeastern New Mexico and the others are in West Texas.

Bandy's letter, endorsed by a mix of Republicans, Democrats and an independent, asks that the decision on the lizard be delayed for a year.

Citing no sources or scientific data, Bandy wrote that listing the lizard as endangered would "delay or even curtail livestock grazing and oil and gas development in southeastern New Mexico..."

State Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, left the meeting before the vote, but he criticized Bandy's letter on his way out the door.

"Typical sky is falling, scared of science, nonsensical position," Egolf said.

Conservationists say that the dunes sagebrush lizard occupies about 1 percent of the Permian Basin, and listing it would have minimal or no effect on the economy. But the oil and gas industry has closed ranks and is unanimous in opposing federal protection for the reptile.

Rep. Andy Nunez, an independent from Hatch, voted against protection for the lizard. One reason was his distrust for a particular conservation group, the Center for Biological Diversity.

"Whatever they say, I don't believe," Nunez said.

Two Democrats, Sen. George Munoz of Gallup and Rep. Thomas Garcia of Ocate, stood with Republicans and Nunez in opposing the reptile.

The dunes sagebrush lizard is about the size of a human hand. It can live only in dunes with the shrub shinnery oak.

Bandy in a September special session sponsored a memorial calling for a delay in listing the lizard. Democrats killed that proposal in another committee, but he rebounded for a smaller win Monday.

How much weight Bandy's letter will carry is anybody's guess.

The federal government's deadline for public comments on the lizard expired in May.

As for a delay in the listing, Tom Buckley of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, said that would be unlikely.

A decision on whether to list the lizard as endangered would be postponed only if experts were stalemated on scientific data, Buckley said.

The dunes sagebrush lizard exists in the New Mexico counties of Chaves, Eddy, Lea and Roosevelt. It also is found in Andrews, Gaines, Ward and Winkler counties in Texas.

Santa Fe Bureau Chief Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@tnmnp.com or 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.