The Bridger-Teton National Forest recently released an environmental assessment for a proposal to restock four vacant grazing allotments in the Upper Green River drainage north of Pinedale, reversing a conservation victory.
If allowed to go forward, the Elk Ridge Complex Rangeland Supplementation proposal will harm wilderness, wildlife, the public enjoyment of these lands and the future of grazing permit buyouts.
The Elk Ridge Complex is adjacent to the Upper Green River Grazing Allotment Complex and contains some of the best wildlife habitat in Wyoming.
Even the BTNF recognizes this fact and has designated the entire Upper Green in its forest plan as “Desired Future Condition 10 (DFC),” which requires the Forest Service to manage the area primarily to protect wildlife values.
Some 44% of the Elk Ridge allotments are in the Gros Ventre Wilderness.
In 2015 private individuals paid the Elk Ridge permittee to voluntarily retire a sheep grazing permit. Part of the justification for buying out and closing the allotments to sheep was grizzly bear conflicts. Bears would kill livestock and, in turn, be killed themselves for those depredations. The Forest Service agreed to this permanent sheep exclusion.
But here’s the catch: The Forest Service only agreed to close these allotments to sheep grazing and is now planning to restock them with cattle.
The BTNF proposal also demonstrates a failure to follow its forest plan recommendation to manage the area primarily for wildlife values.
Among the impacts that even the environment assessment admits will occur are conflicts with grizzly bears. In the past 10 years, dozens of grizzly bears have been killed or removed from the Upper Green River allotments (which the Elk Ridge Complex is part of). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in an opinion about continued livestock grazing of the Upper Green grazing allotments, predicted dozens of more bears would be killed in future years.
The mere presence of livestock displaces elk. Elk are more likely to leave suitable habitat if there is active livestock use there.
The dominant grass in the area is Idaho fescue, which generally is shorter than 6 inches. The Forest Service plan would allow cattle to consume 50% of the plant, meaning that much less is available for bighorn sheep, elk, pronghorn and other wildlife. Plus, such consumption removes hiding cover for ground-nesting birds and small rodents.
The other problem with these standards and the requirement to leave 4-6 inches of stubble in riparian areas is that even these requirements are seldom met. I have repeatedly seen grasslands and riparian areas grazed to a “golf ball putting green” height of less than an inch.
Cattle spend an excessive amount of time in riparian areas harming the vegetation and soils and polluting the waters. Almost every stream with active grazing by livestock does not meet state clean water regulations, particularly for E. coli.
Grazing in riparian areas harms cutthroat trout, amphibians like Columbia spotted frog and sage grouse chicks which are dependent on riparian areas for foraging and cover.
One must wonder why the BTNF continues to put the economic interests of the livestock industry ahead of its mandate to manage these lands for the national public interest. Given the high likelihood of ecological damage and harm to wildlife, soils, water, plant communities, climate change and even taxpayers’ financial interests, it behooves the BTNF to permanently close these vacant allotments rather than try to restock them with any livestock.
You can comment on the proposal through Dec. 27 here.