Wildfires force grazing lessees off some federal landsBy 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.
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.
“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.”
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