The Bighorn Audubon Society and Audubon Rockies have filed an objection to a Bighorn National Forest plan to kill up to 76,500 acres of mountain big sagebrush and to target and eliminate duncecap larkspur, saying the effort could harm greater sage grouse, broad-tailed hummingbirds and monarch butterflies.
Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics also filed an objection asking the Bighorn Forest to eliminate herbicide treatment of larkspur and aerial spraying of tebuthiuron “for any purpose,” including to kill sagebrush.
Why it matters
Administrators of the 1.1-million-acre forest proposed the actions in a 246-page draft environmental study, drawing support from stock growers along with the environmental criticism. The Forest Service would use, among other tools, tebuthiuron, which the EPA considers “moderately toxic by the oral route,” has the potential to accumulate in groundwater and is banned in Europe.
Audubon and FSEEE worry the plan to restructure vegetation across large parts of the forest west of Sheridan will harm greater sage grouse and other bird species that rely exclusively on sagebrush, hummingbirds that feed on larkspur — a native plant some believe is toxic to cattle — and monarch butterflies that qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Who said what
“Sagebrush habitat is one of the most imperiled ecosystems in North America,” the Audubon groups wrote, pointing out inconsistencies in federal programs. “Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was appropriated $50 million — $10 million per year for the next five years — to expand work with partners to conserve the sagebrush ecosystem,” the objection letter reads.
Duncecap larkspur is an indigenous species and not invasive, regardless of how neighboring counties classify it, FSEE Executive Director Andy Stahl wrote. The plants have varying effects on cattle according to their geographic location, and in the Bighorn National Forest may not be toxic to stock, his group said.
Stahl’s group objects to aerial spraying of tebuthiuron to kill sagebrush because of the potential for the chemical to leach into groundwater. The Forest Service fails to disclose those potential impacts, FSEEE states, and its plan violates federal environmental and administrative laws.
The groups made other objections and Audubon provided an “observation report” endorsed by 12 retired land managers from federal and state agencies that criticizes the Forest Service’s grazing practices and range management. Among other things, the observers found a “lack of residual vegetation left at the end of the [livestock] grazing season” and grazing allotments that failed to meet agency standards.
The national forest wants 113,800 animal unit months of grazing, according to the agency’s environmental study. An AUM is the amount of forage a cow and a calf consume in a month.
Such grazing has no negative impact on the environment, the Wyoming’s Department of Agriculture suggested in earlier comments on the plan. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association wants the Forest Service to “employ all available resources” to destroy 5,100 acres — almost eight square miles — of sagebrush annually for 15 years.
Mary Flitner, whose Diamond Tail Ranches near Shell used to have significant Forest Service grazing permits, told WyoFile her industry is misunderstood. “The fact that landowners and ranchers have been dedicated stewards, who actually have a longtime watchful eye as they use USFS lands, is lost on critics,” she said in an email.
The objection process allows the Forest Service and its critics to find solutions to conflicting views before plans are adopted. “The objection process allows the public to point out potential errors or violations of law, regulation, or agency policy prior to approval and implementation of a decision,” the agency states.
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the species of concern to Bighorn Audubon —Ed.