Wildfires force grazing lessees off some federal lands

Fontenelle Fire

Biologists say benefits of fires like the Fontenelle Fire include the curbing of aggressive conifer growth. Federal land managers must “rest” tens of thousands of acres of federal grazing leases, forcing ranchers in Sublette County to find alternative pastures. (Photo courtesy of NASA — click to enlarge)

By Dustin Bleizeffer
March 12, 2013

The 65,000-acre Fontenelle fire that burned west of Big Piney in western Wyoming last summer was what land managers call a mosaic burn pattern; burning hot in some areas while leaving patches of untouched landscape elsewhere within the burn area.

Aside from lost structures, and the dangerous and costly efforts to contain the fire, the mosaic Fontenelle fire was a good burn for its potential to rejuvenate forest and vegetative growth. But in order for that natural rejuvenation to happen, federal land managers must “rest” tens of thousands of acres of federal grazing leases, forcing ranchers in Sublette County to find alternative pastures for some 1,200 head of cattle.

Fontenelle Fire

The Fontenelle Fire burned across 64,000 acres of land and forest. (Jon Mikel/Flickr – click to view)

That’s no easy task during this time of drought and with the likelihood that wildfires will continue to rage across the West. Without any help, some ranching operations dependent on those federal lands might be squeezed to death — especially if continued drought and wildfire delay the vegetative recovery process beyond two years.

In response, Chad Hayward of the U.S. Forest Service’s Big Piney Ranger District helped organize an ad hoc group of agriculture, wildlife and land managers to see what various groups could bring to the table to help the local ranching community.

“It’s been very complicated. We can’t take federal dollars and spend them on private grazing leases for permittees,” Hayward said, referring to limitations within the U.S. Forest Service.

So Hayward said he’s working within U.S. Forest Service authority to fill grazing allotments in neighboring districts, and in some cases helping place Fontenelle area cattle on federal grazing allotments that have never been used. That should take care of the majority of the displaced cattle, he said.

The rest of the cattle will have to be placed on private lands. To help ranchers cover this expense, the Sublette County Conservation District is pulling in funds from multiple sources, including $40,000 from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department Trust Fund, and $50,000 from the Sublette County Commission.

District manager Eric Peterson said he’s waiting for response on about $120,000 in grant applications, and the group has identified another $100,000 of potential grant funds that haven’t yet opened to applicants.

Fontenelle Fire burn area

A map of the Fontenelle Fire burn area. (Teton Interagency Dispatch Center — click to view)

“This coordination is very important. We’ve had lot of meetings with landowners trying to find out what they need to continue,” said Peterson.

Another need is to meet the added expense for ranchers who now have to tend to cattle that have been moved up to 100 miles away. So far, all the displaced cattle will still remain within Sublette County. But that doesn’t prevent the day-to-day maintenance costs from rising.

Federal grazing lessees forced to move their cattle due to the Fontenelle fire recovery efforts have agreed to continue to pay their lessee fees. Several wildlife groups have contributed to the effort, too, including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Organizers say the vegetation recovery effort is for the benefit of both wildlife and domestic herds.

In fact, federal agencies and others involved say they’re treating the Fontenelle recovery as if it were a normal habitat improvement project, only on a much larger scale. A normal, planned-well-in-advance habitat improvement project may cover 1,000 to 2,000 acres, whereas this project covers tens of thousands of acres.

“This was a habitat improvement project forced upon us by Mother Nature and fire,” said Peterson.

Hayward said the U.S. Forest Service could have allowed grazing to continue on some of its leases in the burn area, but the fire destroyed 15 miles of fence that separated adjacent U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) grazing allotments. And BLM decided to implement a complete “rest” on its grazing lands in the area.

“Without that fence, it would be unneighborly of us to put cattle out there knowing that they’d get on BLM lands,” Hayward explained. “We know this land needs to be rested. We could graze it with domestic livestock, but it would not get the immediate rebound.”

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. Contact him at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter @DBleizeffer.

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Published on March 12, 2013

  • Don’tthrowrocksifyouliveinaglasshouse

    To everyone commenting except ‘Get a clue’…..don’t wine about federally subsidized ag unless you don’t: 1) drink milk, 2) wear cotton garments, 3) enjoy National Parks, Forests, Grasslands, etc. at a much reduced price for admission (or no price for admission in most cases), 4) eat corn products, 5) eat rice products, 6) eat soybean products,…..ad infinitum. The reason that you enjoy the relatively low price of food and fiber products in the United States is entirely because of federal subsidies. When you’re ready to start paying $150 for a cotton shirt or pair of blue jeans, then you will get my ear……………………..

  • wyo res

    grazing on public land is a privilage not a right. There is already conversation about cutting back grazing if our drought continues-

    I agree with givemeabreak- 100%

    Well run businesses should have a plan B in place in these circumstances-

  • Carlos X

    Write a check back to the cattle barons for the amount they paid: the “fair market value” (!) of the US grass they won’t graze, extend the lease(s) for the year(s) not available at the same rate they’re paying. Fair? Unless you follow the Holder/Obama/Ryan economic plan: privatize profit, socialize loss.

  • Get a clue

    P.H. is equating his house burning down and having taxpayers pay for a new one, with the loss of livestock forage, wildlife habitat, and the livelihoods of dozen of ranching families. Those ranching families are contributing significantly to the local economy of Pinedale, Big Piney, Mabelton, and Kemmerer. Not to mention the national and global economy through the sale of beef. To say that Game and Fish should not be putting money into these operations is stupid. These ranching operations provide the majority of winter habitat for the wildlife species coming off the USFS lands, and apparently that shouldn’t account for anything in your minds. Ranchers are not slopping at the public trough, no more so that the rest of you at least. They are paying for the grazing leases on the federal lands, which the rates are set by Congress. Don’t blame the ranchers for paying rates to graze their livestock on federal lands at a so-called subsidized rate when the ranchers don’t set that rate. Look around you and see all the wide-open spaces, and then go and thank a Wyoming rancher because without them, we would not have that kind of view. You would see a whole lot of houses speckling the land in between the BLM lands. You wouldn’t see a lick of wildlife because their habitats would be so fragmented, and their migration routes disrupted that they would no longer be able to be used. I ask you this, did you make these same statements when the US Government bailed out the auto industry with public subsidies? Livestock producers provide great public benefits such as clean air and water, wildlife habitat and unfragmented migration routes, support to local economies that may otherwise not be able to survive, and breath-taking views of what Wyoming is known for.

  • P.H.

    This is so wrong. Game and Fish are making severe cutbacks but now they have to help pay for this rich cattle barons income .All at tax payer expense. It is bad enough we are subsidizing the oil , gas and coal industry with tax payers money. If a fire comes and burns down my home will the tax payers come and build me a new one? Someone call Paul Ryan quick.

  • givemeabreak

    Why should we continue to subsidize these cattle? Every producer goes into business knowing the risks, and they already get one heck of a deal on their subsidized grazing leases. So there was a fire, big deal, let the producers figure out how to keep their livestock fed, it’s not the public’s problem! If I decide to open a business in a marginal area (think livestock on sage steppe – not a lot of high quality feed) and it fails, no one helps me out. Ag producers have got to start accepting responsibility for their own risks and quit slopping at the public trough. Let them succeed or fail on their own merits, without public subsidies.

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