Editor’s note: This is the 10th article in a 13-part series exploring public lands grazing in the West, using the Tongue District of the Bighorn National Forest in north-central Wyoming as a case study.
Jonathan Ratner and other environmentalists who want to end public lands grazing love it when ranchers continually fight federal land management agencies over livestock grazing programs and when ranchers themselves are at odds with each other. That makes the missions of these groups a little easier.
A case in point is the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming, one of many areas in the West that is being closely monitored by the environmental group that Ratner works for, Western Watersheds Project, which has become a big thorn in the sides of many ranchers and even the agencies that oversee grazing on federal lands.
Ratner, WWP’s director for Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, says he’s well aware that some ranchers holding permits to graze livestock on the Tongue District of the Bighorn are taking steps to improve rangelands and watersheds, and they are doing their best to work with the U.S. Forest Service.
But, Ratner contends, a few permittees have overgrazed their allotments for years and have battled the agency every step of the way, which has divided the ranching community. The Tongue dispute and similar situations across the West, he adds, make it that much more difficult for ranchers and their close allies, as a whole, to protect public lands grazing.
“Many permittees have a certain hatred for the federal government. It’s sort of a standard Western Libertarian view,” Ratner says. “Their business model depends on federal subsidies and handouts, but at the same time they loathe the federal government.”
That, combined with poor stewardship of the range on the part of some permittees, says Ratner, angers many, including ranchers and federal agency folks who are trying to do the right thing, the general public and some politicians.
Monitoring rangeland - >>>
Ratner says he spends his summers monitoring rangelands and watersheds in Wyoming and his winters perusing USFS and Bureau of Land Management documents and photos obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act.
“I have found that the entire Bighorn National Forest and many other public lands in Wyoming have been heavily degraded by livestock grazing over the past 130 years. It really wasn’t until the late 1970s that USFS and BLM began to think about changing this.”
Ratner says that when the Tongue District started extensive range monitoring in the 1990s and found that many areas fell far short of standards and guidelines, some ranchers were immediately on the fight. He specifically mentioned Chas Kane and several members of his family, who hold three grazing permits that are in jeopardy because of non-compliance. (As reported earlier in this series, Chas Kane died suddenly in June while attending a meeting of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.)
“Kane and a couple of his sons have been highly vocal, stirring up the situation,” Ratner said late last year.
On the flip side, he emphasized at the time, permittee Bob Berry voluntarily started reducing stocking rates and adjusting the time and timing of grazing knowing that short-term cuts would pay long-term dividends in a variety of ways, including improved conditions in uplands and riparian areas, increased forage for livestock and wildlife and better relations with both USFS and the public.
“I don’t know Bob, but you can tell by reading agency documents and looking at photos that he understands how ecosystems function,” Ratner says. “You just can’t look at the grass resource. You need to look at everything together, including hydrologic function. Livestock spend much of their time in riparian areas, and these are the areas often most degraded.”
Ratner adds: “Given the critical nature of riparian areas to watershed health, these areas must receive greater protections.”
One of Kane’s sons, John, has been quoted throughout the series, but Berry declined to comment when contacted by Western Farmer-Stockman, saying stories on the Tongue District grazing dispute do nothing more than stir the pot and sell magazines.
Ratner says he is encouraged by what the USFS and some permittees have done on the district.
“In certain instances, there have been significant improvements in the conditions of both uplands and riparian areas in the last 10 to 15 years, but other areas aren’t showing nearly the level of recovery.”
He imagines upland and riparian conditions will also improve on other USFS ranger districts in the West—including the Bighorn National Forest’s other two districts—if similar actions are taken by the agency.
When that happens, he speculates, there will be even more division between ranchers.
“The permittees on the Tongue District are being somewhat held accountable for their permit terms and conditions, but other permittees on the Bighorn National Forest are getting a free pass to do whatever they want whenever they want,” Ratner argues. “One day soon, that will come to an end.”
'Get all cows and sheep off public lands' - >>>
'Get all cows and sheep off public lands'
Jonathan Ratner, Wyoming/Utah/Colorado director for Western Watersheds Project, starts out the interview with Western Farmer-Stockman by stating: “Some consider us a radical environmental group that wants to shut down public lands’ uses, such as livestock grazing.”
That’s not the case, stresses Ratner, who notes: “If grazing does take place on public lands, we’re trying to make sure it’s done in accordance with the laws and regulations on the books. If compliance with the law is considered radical, then who really is radical? It’s a very low bar to achieve.”
Two bright pink policy memos on Western Watershed Project’s website seem to muddy Ratner’s waters. The group’s stated mission is to protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife, but as one digs deeper into the website, the two memos flash up.
The first one says: “To Do: Get all cows off public lands ASAP.”
That is followed by policy memo 2, which states: “To Do: Get all cows—and sheep—off public lands ASAP!”
Wyoming Wool Growers Association executive director Amy Hendrickson says that there are statutes requiring BLM and USFS to include livestock grazing as part of the multiple uses of lands they manage.
“But Western Watersheds Project and other radical environmental groups want to end that use,” Hendrickson says.
Looking at how cattle and sheep stocking rates on public lands are being slashed across the West, she asserts, “It’s easy to conclude that litigious environmental groups like Western Watersheds and others are having a tremendous influence over federal lands’ policy.”
But haven’t livestock groups also had a big influence on that same policy?
“Yes,” Hendrickson answers, “but there is a difference. The grazing industry has been willing to sit down, work out differences and compromise, but there is no negotiation in the eyes of these radical environmental groups. If they don’t get what they want, they file suit against the agency in question.”
Adds Brett Moline, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation’s director of public and governmental affairs: “A lot of groups out there don’t want multiple use on public lands, and Western Watersheds Project is one of the most active. The minerals’ industry is facing attacks. So is the timber industry. And one of Western Watersheds’ stated goals is to remove livestock grazing from federal lands.”
No zero-grazing, and what people are saying - >>>
Kathleen Jachowski, executive director of the Wyoming-based rancher advocacy group Guardians of the Range, charges: “Western Watersheds is not solution-oriented. How can you negotiate a zero-grazing position? You can’t, plain and simple.”
Western Watersheds Project has filed numerous lawsuits over livestock grazing on BLM and USFS lands in the West, including an unsuccessful federal suit that challenged grazing on the Bighorn National Forest.
As reported earlier in this series, Western Watersheds is now on the receiving end of a lawsuit filed in June 2014 by 15 landowners in western Wyoming who claim that Ratner and others with the group trespassed onto their lands to collect water samples.
A district court spokeswoman in Lander, Wyo., said in early August that a trial was scheduled to begin Oct. 5, but that could change as motions were still being filed.
What they're saying...
“Without our grazing permit, our ranch probably wouldn’t survive. We would have to start selling parcels for houses, but I don’t want to do that. In fact, I would have to move and let other family members take care of that because it’s something I just couldn’t watch.”
Livestock grazing permittee
“Everyone who visits their public lands have an idea in mind of what they want those lands to look like, and most people tell us they don’t want their lands grazed to the point that resource damage is occurring. Whether we like it or not, we have to consider aesthetics in our management, just like we have to consider how resources are being protected.”
Rangeland management specialist
Bighorn National Forest