The Gros Ventre Wilderness. (lord the air smells good today/FlickrCC)

In a breach of trust and faith, the Bridger Teton National Forest proposes to stock 30,577 acres of vacant grazing allotments with cattle in the Elk Ridge area of the Gros Ventre Range. 

Approximately 44% of the site is within the Gros Ventre Wilderness. These allotments were previously grazed by domestic sheep and are within the Upper Green River valley.

These allotments were closed in 2016 when private interests paid millions of dollars to the ranchers to voluntarily retire their grazing privileges in the area to reduce conflicts between livestock and public values like wilderness integrity, bighorn sheep and grizzly bears.

The assumption of those who donated to the allotment buyout is that the area would never be grazed by livestock again.

It is important to note that the Upper Green River area is not just any typical national forest landscape. It contains some of the best wildlife habitat in the West and is an area of increasing conflicts with wildlife like elk, grizzlies and wolves.

In its Forest Plan, the BTNF recognizes the significant wildlife values of the area by giving 93% a special management designation under which wildlife protection is supposed to be the primary management emphasis.

A recent final environmental impact statement that reviewed livestock grazing in the Upper Green River area concluded that the no grazing alternative had the most benefits and least impacts on dozens of resource values.

In every instance, the no grazing alternative would bring about more rapid improvement, more favorable benefits and better ecological outcomes than any other option. Indeed, the only negative impact reported would be on “traditional uses,” which is a euphemism for livestock grazing.

Now the Forest Service is planning to restock those allotments in a breach of trust that not only jeopardizes the ecological integrity of these public lands but the entire voluntary grazing retirement system. It also raises the question of who the BTNF thinks they work for? The public interest or private ranching interests?

The Upper Green has been the scene of numerous livestock conflicts with wildlife. There are endangered and rare species found here, including sage grouse, Colorado River Cutthroat trout, Kendall Hot Springs Dace and various amphibians like the boreal toad. The area is also a significant migration corridor and summer range for pronghorn, elk and other larger ungulates.

However, the most immediate conflicts involve predators like wolves and grizzlies. In the past decade or so, dozens of grizzly bears have been killed to appease the ranchers utilizing our public lands for their profit.

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At present, the BTNF permits 18,000 cattle to graze in the Upper Green area each summer. The BTNF suggests that reopening the Elk Ridge grazing area to approximately 700 cattle can reduce conflicts between grizzlies and livestock. But all this will do is create the opportunity for more conflicts. The Forest Service sought comments on the Elk Ridge plan last month as it launched an environmental review, garnering 3,256 letters by the close of the comment period.

The BTNF should do a complete Environmental Impact Statement and demonstrate they put the public interest ahead of private industry. Grazing the Upper Green, one of the best wildlife areas in the entire West, makes no economic or ecological sense. Time for the BTNF to honor its commitment to the public and at the very least not expand grazing in this area.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published 38 books including three on Yellowstone and two others on national parks as foundational to conservation, including "Protecting the Wild."

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  1. Thank you for the simple and clear timeline of this affront. Would you please add/explain though HOW IT IS POSSIBLE That these MILLIONS were spent without assurance of NEVER GRAZING again. That sounds so unprofessional on the side of the Parties buyout.

  2. The BTNF did the same thing with drilling permits/leases. Private parties pay millions to protect land, BTNF then undermines those efforts. The BTNF does the same thing with the Snow King ski hill in Jackson. Put a small group of for-profit interests first, ahead of the desires of the majority and the health of the forest resources. I like a balanced approach to forest management but there is a time and place for an unbalanced approach when it serves the majority of stakeholders and protects resources.

  3. To add perspective: There are only 16 grazing permitees in the Upper Green River allotment as shown here:

    Virtually all of these permitees own land and other assets worth multiple $millions.

    These permitees are only paying $1.35 per animal-unit-month (AUM), or about $7 for an entire summer of grazing for each cow/calf pair. They are effectively being allowed to graze their herds for free on public land (in fairness, there is nothing new about this).

    So the entire effort by the BTNF to degrade a large part of the Gros Ventre Wilderness is for the sole purpose of further enriching just 16 wealthy land owners.

    Since the BTNF is not (yet) proposing additional cattle (just more range for the existing allotments), they don’t even stand to increase their own revenue from this change. But their expenses will surely increase sharply.

    This leads me to wonder why the BTNF ever took this idea seriously in the first place. Its more work and controversy for them, for the same revenue.

    Is the BTNF staffed by competent and truly unbiased professionals? Or aren’t they?

  4. To Earle Layser: I hadn’t heard that terminology ” mortality sink ” before. It refers to my concern that Game and Fish is increasingly becoming committed to long term, perpetual predator management expenses that could bleed money for hundreds of years. The department is already heavily involved in grizzly bear management and reimbursement for livestock losses in the Upper Green – restocking the bought out sheep allotments with cattle would only add to the long term costs to the department. Restocking would be a guarantee of livestock/grizzly conflicts.

    One of the quotes I found in a Game and Fish grizzly bear management plan stated that private land and BLM land is unsuitable grizzly bear habitat. This is NOT the case in the Upper Green it is suitable and premier grizzly habitat. Its very important to recognize the differences which land ownership dictates when deciding on management approaches.

  5. George: Great article and factual/well researched. I noted that you found that the BTNF in their existing forest plan and grazing study found in their preferred alternatives for a no grazing scenario. Its my suspicions that these two in depth studies have set the stage for a no cattle decision on the abandoned sheep allotments or at least a partial decision of no cattle – such as no cattle in the wilderness areas. If the present decision is for cattle, the door would be wide open for an appeal to the Regional Forester or the Federal courts and an appeal would likely win.

    It would be interesting to read the actual agreement in the sheep buyout of the allotments. Does it preclude cattle occupying the bought out sheep allotments???. However, the Forest Service probably is NOT bound by this buyout – wasn’t it been between private parties. They will take notice – no more. The Federal Government, owner of most of the land, wouldn’t be bound by it unless they formally agreed to certain provisions in writing and on the bottom line.

    Could you add additional information on the buyout provisions and who entered into it – especially about the Forest Services involvement if any.

  6. Pat Cullen above says that environmentalists are a small group! Public land ranchers are the small wealthy entitled group taking welfare benefits from Fed. Gv.t. National surveys on attitudes of U.S. citizens towards public lands ranching (based on 2000 respondents) showed that strong majorities of the public believe that endangered species protections should not be set aside to help ranchers, that most believe that public grazing fees should be raised, and half of the respondents had “little confidence in stock growers.” Studies have shown that public ranchers receive far more benefits from the government than they pay in low grazing fees so, in a sense they thrive on a public welfare (Congressional Research Service, March 4, 2019). In Wyoming known as “The Cowboy State,” only 2 percent of its economy is due to agriculture compared with 14 per cent for Yellowstone tourism. The number of Federal public lands “permittee” ranchers in Wyoming is smaller than the “membership of environmental organizations like the Wyoming Wildlife Federation! Get facts before you start writing about tiny environmentalists!

  7. Mr. Wuerther, the author, and Mr. Layser, a commentor, imply advocating for a group called “the public”. This is nonsense, you belong to a small, discreet, group whom I will refer to as “environmentalists”. Your group
    is somewhat similar in size and degree of focus, but much more vocal, to the group whom you oppose; the public lands ranchers. I am not a public lands rancher and am not part of your group so I must be a member of the public. Please don’t imply that you speak for me in any way.

    1. Small, discreet, groups have been known to start a nation.

      Environmentalists can drive me crazy so perhaps we can agree on something.

      With more than 3.4 million acres of public land in the BTNF, there is probably room for cattle, sheep, and nuclear waste. Not sure if this is the best spot in those 3.4 million acres for sheep and cattle. Personally, I dislike seeing cattle or sheep in the NF, especially near high alpine lakes, and all the more so near campgrounds (BTNF, Shoshone NF, et al). Not fond of running into stray cattle on roads either.

      For the most part, ranchers, the VERY FEW who will be grazing, should have a chance to take advantage of appropriate leases but I doubt these leases are the best options for the majority of forest users or taxpayers. Perhaps we should means-test the ranchers before subsidizing their operations. The USFS doesn’t let me sleep in the forest all summer for $7 bucks.

      As the USFS says, this is a unique piece of American Heritage. Some of that heritage includes ranching but that doesn’t mean, like slavery, it needs to be returned to the landscape.

      Is there a reason you take exception to the idea that ranchers should not regain access to the land? Assuming I understand your position on that…

  8. George summarizes the issue well: the grazing rights were bought out by citizens concerned about the conflicts domestic stock grazing was having, particularly with grizzly bear. The Upper Green was a mortality sink, still is. Forest Service involved in the lease buyout have moved on, new personnel are not committed to the past management decisions. Does the public have to renegotiate every decision after Forest Service personnel change or do not possess institutional memory? If cattle are run on these allotments it will start the cycle again of livestock killed by bears, ranchers complaining to elected officials, the ranchers being reimbursed (by tax payers), grizzly bears being removed for livestock depredation, etc. The Upper Green historic grazing allotments need to remain closed.