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.

What next?

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.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at or (307)...

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  1. Having lived on the same land that my great-great grandfather homesteaded in 1864, I can tell you that Sagebrush was never the most dominant plant in the great basin. When he arrived in Eastern Oregon in 1862, he wrote in his journal that the grasses were taller than he was. Overgrazing by sheep herders and cattle ranchers allowed sagebrush to take over larger and larger swaths of the west. On our land we have removed 60% of the sagebrush to take the land back to it’s original condition. Sagebrush has been used as the “enviromentalist” plant to discourage development, mining and recreation. Sorry, be we are bringing the land back to its native state before grazing.

  2. I believe that ranchers CAN be good stewards of the land they use and own. However, for Ms Flitner to suggest that her industry is misunderstood in this case, is laughable. How dare ranchers, and the impotent USFS, poison 5100 acres and threaten watershed that serves so many others, not to mention invite noxious weeds that will be impossible to control, and negatively impact wildlife as well! Sounds like more pay to play, and doesn’t even come close to the assigned mission of the FS to accommodate for multiple use. This angers me beyond description, and is a huge black eye for the “poor misunderstood” ranchers out there. If they get their way on this, and then tell everyone how they want government out of their lives…..what a bunch of hypocrites!

    1. Agree. Numerous times I have heard ranchers and farmers “proclaim” that they are the original ” stewards of the land”. They seem to forget that overgrazing by their grandfathers and great-grandfathers resulted in the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. I’m not in favor of the spraying but if it happens the ranchers holding the public land leases should pay the entire cost of the spraying. After all they will benefit the most. Can I expect the price of hamburger or flank steak to drop at my local Albertsons?

  3. Bos taurus (the wild hamburger) is another introduced invasive species that has also been spreading unchecked throughout the Rocky Mountain region. I do not recommend preparing bos tauri in a tebuthiuron marinade. However, until an effective bovicide becomes widely available I do highly recommend ketchup, a good quality dijon mustard, and a pickle on the side……

  4. How can we still be choosing to spray poisonous herbicide on large tracts of public land?! Where does “multiple use” included killing the soil?
    So many studies show the value of sagebrush in holding snow moisture in in wind-blown terrain & how native grass chooses to grow in that moistened wind shadow. That it helps stabilize & grow soils in montane areas, that it is important habitat & food for most native life that lives nearby, that it is being appreciated as a vital component of the functioning landscape—these points are just obvious & now also confirmed by scientists.
    The Forest Service has access to this information even if cattle/sheep ranchers do not. Long term studies show plots with sage produce higher nutrition-value grass. Modern field biology understands that the soil is a living thing, that native plants more often cooperate than compete.
    Please, FS, step into reality & leave behind ideas about “management” that have been proven wrong-headed!

  5. Four crucial, fragile, already threatened species destroyed to allow more grazing? Seriously, where is the Forest Services head? Shaking mine!

  6. Why in the world would you do that? No reason to use chemicals anymore. Larkspur should not be a big problem if plenty of other food. If not, don’t graze livestock there.

  7. It becomes increasingly more difficult to decide whether these type of lawsuits are merely to gain power and money or if they have some validity. Ordinary folks can access adequate food in this country because of our farmers and ranchers, and they have to be able to make a living in order to continue producing food. Certainly the Big Horn mountains seem to have a good balance, wildlife is plentiful and varied up there, the sheep and cows look well fed also. Using the Big Horns as an example of over grazing is quite a stretch even for professional law suit filers.