A rider herds cattle along the Green River Drift route to Forest Service pastures in the Upper Green River drainage on June 17, 2020. Some of the livestock will inevitably be killed and eaten by grizzly bears while grazing the high country. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Wildlife advocates have appealed a federal judge’s approval of Forest Service cattle-grazing permits near Union Pass that allow the killing of 72 grizzly bears over a decade.

Five conservation groups say U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Freudenthal erred in rejecting their earlier court challenge to the 2019 authorization of the grazing plan for the Upper Green River Cattle Association. The groups have taken their arguments to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver and asked that they be allowed to present oral arguments.

The plan authorizes the ranchers to graze 8,772 cow-calf pairs and yearlings and 47 horses on 107,643 acres of Bridger-Teton National Forest public lands. The site also is home to grizzlies, protected by the Endangered Species Act, and wildlife managers have killed 35 grizzlies between 1999 and 2019 because of conflicts with cattle producers, the appeal states.

Who said what

Western Watersheds Project, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Yellowstone to Uintas Connection, Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club asked the appeals court to reverse Freudenthal’s affirmation of the Forest Service’s decision and the “incidental take” of 72 grizzlies. She found that the agency’s environmental review and biological assessments of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were “supported by substantial evidence” and dismissed the group’s original suit.

The appeal repeats arguments made in the original pleading, including that the Forest Service approved the grazing plan even though it did not meet the agency’s own standards for range conditions that support a host of wildlife from migratory birds to sensitive amphibians.

“The livestock industry should be required to coexist with grizzly bears if they want to graze private cattle on public lands,” Jonathan Ratner, Wyoming director for Western Watersheds Project, said in a statement. “It is absurd to kill wildlife protected under the Endangered Species Act for livestock that graze on public lands basically for free.”

Why it matters

Sublette County ranchers say the challenge could violate their rights, run them out of business and lead to a host of negative environmental impacts. Ranchers’ operations would be so disrupted if grizzlies are not killed that some could fail, leading to a cascade of environmental and social disruption, including subdivision of open space that would interrupt Wyoming’s iconic wildlife migrations, they contend.

Conservation groups are wary about the health of the Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly population, considered “threatened” under the ESA. Among other things, the species is isolated from other grizzly populations, raising worries about its genetic health.

The grazing plan improperly imposes no limits on the killing of female grizzlies, a key component of the population, the appeal says. Other wildlife is short-changed by the grazing, the groups contend, in part because the plan does not require ranchers to leave sufficient forage to address the needs of wild animals.

Stock growers contend that the ecosystem grizzly population is robust, healthy and an example of an ESA success. More than 700 grizzlies occupy the core of the ecosystem where wildlife managers estimate their population annually.

History

The annual 58-mile Green River Drift cattle drive is the only “traditional cultural property” associated with ranching that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, ranchers say.

Predation by grizzly bears takes an intolerable toll on stock, ranchers contend, even though Wyoming Game and Fish compensates ranchers for verified grizzly killings, and pays an additional amount for cattle deemed lost but unrecovered.

The calf mortality rate was around 2% in the early 1990s, Albert Sommers, head of the Upper Green River Grazing Association, wrote in a declaration that’s part of the court record. “More recently, some Association members have lost an average of 14% of their calves to depredation in a single grazing season,” the declaration reads.

What’s next

The conservation groups want the appeals court, which covers Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, plus those parts of the Yellowstone National Park in Montana and Idaho, to listen to oral arguments and then to reverse Freudenthal’s decision.

The appeals court should find that the Forest Service’s actions violated federal environmental and planning laws, the appeal states, and should send the matter back to the Bridger-Teton so managers can “cure their statutory violations.”

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

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 angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Thanks again for your concise reporting Angus.
    There’s a good chance that those Upper Green bears love their beef.
    They keep returning, even after being hauled hundreds of miles away.
    A grizzly sow with easy-picking dinners for herself and her young is going to produce more cubs and live longer. UGRCA ranchers are subsidizing the grizzly’s future by ensuring their bovines trail up every summer.
    It’s a trade-off for everyone, but the number of bears in that area is unprecedented. Ask the G&F for those numbers.
    I dare anyone to go on foot around a fresh calf carcass, like the cowhands must do, to decipher if the calf was killed by a grizzly. These mega fauna are extremely dangerous and territorial predators. They take what they want, no matter who goes to court.
    In the long view, past and future, the current ranching association has managed those thousands of acres in the Upper Green, along with some .gov oversight, as well as any wildlife friendly landscape in the west. It’s in the ranchers’ best management practices to do so, maintaining a seed crop for grasses to rejuvenate, and constantly redistributing the cattle into new grazing areas. There’s a lot of hard work by many people to keep that range in good condition for all species of hooved critters. The size of the resident Elk herd demonstrates the range condition.
    We were all taught to share in kindergarten, let’s remember those lessons, and that the USFS is a multiple-use agency. Bottom line, the ranchers are not hurting the bear population, they have helped it.

  2. Is there anyone else that saw this coming and feared for Ol’ Wyoming when Freudenthal appointed his wife to be a judge in federal court. Old Freudentlhal was a slick willy when he was in office. Made his wife a federal judge so he could keep the public tax dollars rolling into the ole family estate. What a crock. Give the grizzlies and other wildlife some room to roam for chrissakes.

  3. Kick them welfare ranchers and livestock people off the Green River Drift and more. Grazing rates dating back a hundred years? Grizzlies have grazing rights dating back millennia (centuries). Those cattle up the Green River Valley tear down the banks of the river, crap in the water, and don’t offer any great value to what Wyoming gains by protecting the headwaters of the Colorado. Cattle pooping in the river or on it’s banks is not conducive for good drinking water that everyone depends on. Besides that; those livestock eat every green shoot or blade of grass, every season, year after year and leave absolutely NOTHING for the deer, elk, moose, bears, sage grouse, antelope, etc.. I have walked Wyoming and after the herds of sheep come through there is only starvation for the deer and antelope. Wake up Wyoming and look around at what other states have lost by developing the river areas in their state. The upper Green River should become off limits for cattle, no more development within a mile of the river proper on both sides, and the Grizzlies not be killed cause they ate a cow or a sheep.

    1. Yes and in also doing this it would actually improve the ecosystem vegetation would increase stream channels would become narrower water tables would increase and springs that have gone dry would flow again ,just buy not grazing riparian areas.But easier said than done. Don’t point fingers at the rancher it’s the meat packers that are profiting off this system not the cattleman . If grizzlies are not eating livestock they are eating elk how about using them to thin out these feral horses on the BLM.

  4. I agree with argument that these ranchers are killing in order to get free food for their cows. These cows make no difference on the national cow/beef equation. While killing 72 Grizzlies does have an enormous impact on an endangered population. On a side note, it is kind of gruesome that today in the 21st century that their still exists people who feel its ok to kill wildlife to line their pockets.

  5. Multiple use chaos: Normally, multiple use of the western public lands poses only minor conflicting problems – but when it comes to grizzly bears versus livestock its a whole different scenario. The Wyoming grizzly bear management plan states that private land and BLM lands are not to be included in the designated grizzly bear habitat; however, the USFS lands in the YES including the wilderness areas may be designated habitat. At the same time those exact same USFS administered lands can have grand-fathered grazing permits – some going back over 100 years. The conflicting uses on the USFS public lands is a very difficult issue to resolve in this case and Federal court rulings are probably the only way to get a final resolution – but even that avenue of resolution will change once Wyoming takes over grizzly bear management in its entirety upon delisting. Lets give Game and Fish a chance to manage our grizzly bears and see how that goes – they have done a superb job managing our wolves and should be able to minimize grizzly bear/livestock conflicts on the upper Green. Lets be realistic, our grizzly populations are way over the goals set in the recovery plans – its time for the state to manage the bears under difficult multiple use criteria.

  6. As a financial contributor to WyoFile, I am disappointed that this article is not a good example of the professional journalism I expect from WyoFile. It is mainly a he said, she said, they said method used by lazy reporters who fail to provide more depth especially in regard to the claims by parties they have interviewed. For example, in this article interviewed ranchers contend that an outcome of a negative court ruling in this case would result in possible subdivision of private ranch properties, but the reporter could have presented information from an August 2022 University of Wyoming Ruckelshaus Institute Study, “Cows or Condos” (https://www.uwyo.edu/haub/ruckelshaus-institute/publications/_files/cvc-report.pdf) that found among other things that: “Our research did not find any evidence to support the often expressed concerns over unintended consequences of permit waivers, such as driving residential subdivision and development.” Providing that kind of substantive information to your readers would help clarify many of the unsubstantiated claims routinely made by ranchers distressed that their historic social status and political power is waning.

    1. Jon: Its primarily the real estate developers that are subdividing rural agricultural land in Wyoming. They take advantage of the 35 acre exemption from public review of subdivisions and typically sell 40 acre tracts. Some of them do a good job of creating the rural tracts and may utilize covenants and other land use restrictions – as usual there are some bad examples though. Ranchers and large land owners seldomly do the subdividing themselves – they just sell a large tract of raw land to the real estate developers. The vast majority of Wyoming ranchers do not want rural subdivisions in the isolated areas of Wyoming – it works much better for everyone for the newly created rural lots to be close to a town. The counties also do not want rural subdivisions out in the boonies since the county has to provide road maintenance, school bus access, fire protection, law enforcement, EMS coverage – and then there’s rural water, electrical distribution, natural gas, internet. So, it isn’t the ranchers that are driving rural subdividing – its the realtors and property developers. Ranchers like their peace and quiet.

  7. In my opinion if ranchers apply for and receive authorization for grazing on our National Public Lands then they should be willing to accept the consequences of grazing within the natural environment and living side by side with potential predictors. These lands belonged to wildlife long before man began using it. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against grazing on public lands as long as it doesn’t cause a negative impact on the land and its wildlife. This is especially true when it comes to animals protected by the Endangered Species Act.

  8. Angus,
    How many ranchers are involved? What is the dollar value of the of the cattle and horses lost to the bears? How much did the ranchers pay for the grazing permits? If their ranches are big enough to cause a cascade of problems, what is the ratio of the loss to the bears to the total ranch value? What are they paying in property taxes? Please tell us more about these ranches and their economics.