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)

Bridger-Teton National Forest is weighing 3,256 comment letters, many of which oppose a plan to allow cattle to graze new areas in grizzly country near the Upper Green River.

Expanding cattle range into abandoned sheep grazing allotments on the national forest, however, would give stock growers more options to keep cattle and grizzlies apart, supporters of the proposal say. Grizzlies have repeatedly killed domestic stock in the area around Union Pass and wildlife managers have trapped, moved and killed bears because of those depredations.

The 30,577 acres being considered for new grazing also would provide ranchers with options should the area between the Wind River Range and Gros Ventre Mountains be hit by wildfire or poor range conditions, the Forest Service said.

The former sheep allotments would be grazed “by currently permitted cattle in the Upper Green River Area,” the Bridger-Teton said in announcing the plan. In other words, grazing acreage would be expanded but not the number of cattle — technically counted by a metric called animal-unit months.

Wyoming Stock Growers Association, however, said the Bridger-Teton should do more than just authorize additional grazing acreage. It should consider allowing up to 725 more cow-calf pairs to graze there, Executive Vice President Jim Magagna wrote.

The Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation wrote that the plan “would be a way for ranchers to create new opportunities for themselves.”

Some conservation groups recognized the potential for reducing grizzly conflicts under the Forest Service plan, but others said that a larger grazing area would instead introduce conflict into grizzly country where there now is no strife between stock and wildlife. 

“The area is now a refugia for species such as grizzly bears and wolves which are killed in areas where livestock are permitted,” Jonathan Ratner, director of the Western Watersheds Project’s Wyoming office wrote. “Permitting livestock within this refugia renders the area lethally toxic to these species ….”

Conservation buyouts

The push by Wyoming agriculture interests continues an effort to boost grazing on federal lands, including the restocking of domestic sheep in the Wyoming Range some 60 miles to the southwest. Conservationists paid sheep ranchers to surrender their permits in the Wyoming Range in a buyout aimed at protecting wild bighorn sheep from deadly pathogens carried by their domestic cousins.

Advocates for wild bighorns also bought out the sheep grazing interests in the Elk Ridge Complex on the Upper Green River for the same reason. The 2016 Elk Ridge buyouts left the 30,577 acres without any permitted grazing, a status that is now being reconsidered by the forest.

Game and Fish biologist Zach Turnbull probes a dead cow near Union Pass in 2020 as he searches for evidence of carnivore bites necessary to substantiate a compensation claim. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

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. Many commenters noted the conflicts between grizzly bears and stock in the area.

Ranchers can graze about 9,000 cow-calf pairs — about 18,000 animals — in Upper Green River allotments near the Elk Ridge Complex. Ecologist George Wuerthner, a grazing critic, wrote in a 2020 opinion piece that 1,000 cows and 37 grizzlies have died as a result.

Wyoming Stock Growers Association believes those conflicts would be ameliorated with more grazing acreage on the old sheep allotments. “It will allow greater flexibility to manage cattle movements to reflect … the impacts of grizzly bear depredation,” WSGA’s Magagna wrote.

The Forest Service says the additional acreage would allow operators “to better address…predators.” Western Watersheds Project objected to that reasoning.

Authorizing the livestock grazing “will result in preventable mortality,” Ratner wrote. That runs afoul of an established Bridger-Teton target that calls for eliminating “preventable” grizzly mortalities.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition and National Wildlife Federation supported that notion, writing that the Forest Service should “avoid allowing new conflicts on these now-vacant allotments that would result in lethal removal of large carnivores.”

Wilderness and habitat

Criticism of the Bridger-Teton plan also knocked the idea of allowing grazing back into the Gros Ventre Wilderness, a congressionally protected Forest Service area where natural systems are supposed to reign. Forty-four percent of the Elk Ridge Complex is in the Gros Ventre Wilderness.

“[G]razing is an exception to normal wilderness protections,” wrote Gary Macfarlane, a board member of Wilderness Watch. “It is a use that, by definition and practice, degrades Wilderness. The Wilderness Act does not grant special privileges to those that graze their cattle or sheep in Wilderness…”

The Elk Ridge Complex. (Bridger-Teton National Forest)

One of four allotments that make up the Elk Ridge Complex covers a wilderness basin that is a special place, a backcountry horseman told the federal agency. “There are some areas which I think would be better off left alone,” Ernie Wampler Jr. wrote.

“The Tosi Creek area has the greater amount of pristine alpine country in it than the other three [Elk Ridge Complex] allotments,” Wampler wrote. “I have probably spent as much time in that area as anyone since the sheep left, so I know of what I speak. 

There’s also debate regarding whether expanding the grazing area would benefit or harm habitat.

“Spreading existing grazing use across a broader landscape can allow some traditionally highly used areas to recuperate and generally lessen impacts across the larger area,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department Deputy Director Angi Bruce wrote. But the agency doesn’t back adding more cattle to the area. Instead, it supports “current stocking rates,” her letter reads.

The Bridger-Teton has been narrow-minded, other critics said, and has not proposed examining the Elk Ridge Complex “for permanent retirement from livestock grazing to restore habitats from past damage, or provide wildlife and watershed benefits.” Yellowstone to Uintas Connection and Alliance for the Wild Rockies wrote that instead of addressing the increasing demand for primitive recreation, hunting and fishing “this proposal is being made to satisfy the ‘desires’ of the livestock industry.”

Game and Fish also warned of potential damage to sensitive creeks that hold Colorado River cutthroat trout. Klondike and Rock creeks support “healthy but small populations” of Colorado River Cutthroat trout, a species of “greatest conservation need” in Wyoming.

“With no refuge habitat available, these populations are at high risk of extirpation,” Deputy Director Bruce wrote, advocating for special management for those waters.

Two groups that helped remove domestic sheep from the Elk Ridge Complex support expanded cattle use. The Wild Sheep Foundation and Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation endorsed “limited cattle grazing on suitable portions” of the complex, organization officials wrote. But such action should not include increasing the number of cattle, their letter states.

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Conservationists invested in the Elk Ridge Complex buyouts understanding the permits could be reissued for “limited restocking of cattle,” the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and National Wildlife Federation said. The groups want to ensure any restocking is done “in a manner that may help reduce conflicts rather than perpetuate them,” they wrote.

After considering the comments, the Bridger-Teton plans to prepare an environmental assessment and possibly a more in-depth environmental impact statement analyzing expected effects of new grazing.

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. UPPER GREEN RIVER AFTER DELISTING:

    Based on current road densities, presence of domestic sheep and current levels of conflict with livestock, the upper Green River area on Forest could also be considered unsuitable for grizzly bear occupancy. However, important biological issues make the Upper Green River area very important in ensuring CS population and distribution objectives will be met long-term. The Upper Green River is currently occupied by grizzly bears and is important contiguous habitat that links the bear population between the Gros Ventre/Upper Hoback area, Upper Wind River Range, and core bear habitat north of this area. Recognizing the significance of this area for bear movements is very important, but this does not preclude managing for low bear densities, if needed, in this portion of the DAU, to minimize conflicts.
    From the June 13, 2005 Wyoming Game and Fish ” Grizzly Bear Occupancy Management Guidelines ” on page 5.

    My personnal interpretation: If cattle are re-introduced into the former sheep grazing allotments, Game and Fish will incur significant costs on a perpetual basis. The only way to recover these expenses would be to issue Grizzly bear hunting licenses in the $10,000 to 50,000 price range. Bear populations in the upper Green River area could be minimized by sport harvesting. The future seems somewhat clear.

  2. Dewey, I did a simple goggle search and found information about grizzlies on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The most interesting article was entitled ” GRIZZLIES FILL OUT ECOSYSTEM “. The article indicates the grizzlies have occupied 100% of their potential habital and that, about 38% of the occupied territory is outside of the designated management area – wow!! Try searching Wind River Reservation grizzles.

    The grizzlies of course, are over seen by the USFWS and Wyoming G&F and the County have no involvement in carnivore management on the reservation – a sovereign nation. Hot Springs County is about 1/4 WRIR including the Arapahoe Ranch, and we get along with them famously. The white residents of the County do not go out on the WRIR and respect their sovereignty and do not interfere with large carnivore management on the WRIR. However, the internet posts indicate that the bears are present in some quantity. I do not know whether or not an estimate of bears on the WRIR are included in the grizzly population estimated on an ecosystem wide basis. Probably not, simply because the tribal game management agency probably doesn’t have the resources to track bears -unless the USFWS funds them adequately.

  3. There is one extremely important consideration concerning the upper Green River grazing allotments in question which none of us commentators have brought up; and that is whether or not the grazing allotments in question are within the identified grizzly bear habitat management areas designated in the grizzly bear recovery plan, or, whether these allotments are outside the management areas and represent outward migration of grizzly bears away from their primary habitat. I am hoping Mr. Burgess can clarify this matter.
    I bring this up because the situation on the High Island ranch in western Hot Springs Country is one where the large predators have encroached onto private lands adjoining the primary designated habitat on Forest Service lands including wilderness designated land. This is not a case where the ranchers have older pre-existing grazing permits which now fall into wilderness areas and/or designated habitat. Most of the High Island is a mixture of BLM and private property and the predators are basically trespassing ( although they don’t know it ).

    1. Lee- can you enlighten us on how the Arapaho tribe handles the same Grizzlies on their side of Reservation-US Forest Service / HD -High Island Ranch boundary there on Owl Creek ?

      I have no knowledge of Rez management. I know more than I care to about Frank Robbins Jr. et al on the White Man’s side of the fences…

  4. What happens to MULTI USE OF FEDERAL LANDS when large predators are re-introduced into the affected Federal lands??? Large predators seem to drastically alter the traditional uses envisioned by multi use of Federal lands such as recreational, mining, grazing, timber harvesting, hunting, oil and gas production, wildlife habitat, traditional tribal uses, farming, etc. Obviously, recreational and grazing uses are severely impacted, to the point, those uses are virtually impossible. However, other uses such as moose and elk hunting, are also impacted. Multi use seems to fall to the wayside when large predators are introduced – law of unintended consequences??

    1. Hopefully, the nonsensical “multi-use” policy, which was nothing more than a favor to livestock farmers and other plunderers, will go down the toilet with repeal of the Taylor Grazing Act.

  5. I point out my agreement Mr. Campbell, that a cost benefit analysis should have been done before introducing the Canadian Grey Wolf to Yellowstone and making the Grizzly an endangered species. That would more accurately reflect the financial impact of those decisions on all concerned. It was a cost 100%/ benefit 0% scenario at that time for all concerned and still is. By the way, if you research newspaper articles from those decisions, you will find the original terms for the Wolf introduction stated they would be forced to remain in the Park. The Grizzly rehabilitation zone would include a ten mile radius around the Park. The proverbial “foot in the door tactic”.

    Mr. Nickens, strictly speaking of the Upper Green, in reality there are currently about 4,000 Animal Units (1 AU=1 cow and her calf, .8 AU = 1 yearling cow) running on well over 400,000 acres. That equates to less than 1 AU per 100 acres. Except, of course, the areas where the cows are afraid to go because of large carnivores.

    Mr. Rocheleau, I guess we fought wars so we could express public opinion. Doesn’t necessarily mean it should trump expertise.

    As for the value of a thing. Perhaps one should try on the value of being a healthy yearling Elk with your hamstring ripped apart by a Wolf. Then hiding for hours waiting for the Pack to come back, one pulls your throat off while another pulls your intestines out while you wail. My friend observed this first hand. against the outside of his cabin. In the picture of the yearling bovine above, it likely had its spine crushed by a bear bite and then was eviscerated. My wife inspected dozens of these 20 years ago. Is there no “value” to either of these creatures?

    In previous comments I do not see any expertise in range management, large carnivore management, forest management or agricultural experience of any kind. The Forest Service and Upper Green River Cattleman’s Association have worked together for many decades on range management and monitoring. They practice professional land stewardship in the best interests of multiple use and environmental protection. Cattle and sheep have been grazing the Upper Green for a hundred and thirty years. So, either it is a good environment or a destroyed one, but not one turning to the other because of livestock. You can’t have it both ways.

    The Upper Green is indeed a beautiful place. I don’t care much for the impact of droves of people on four wheelers, RVs and cars rattling up the dusty roads and wearing down the trails for their week in the environment. They keep all the wild animals on edge. But, I guess, they are more special because they are environmentally friendly minded, even if their arguments are emotionally based, speculative or their facts are wrong.

    By the way, this winter Colorado State passed a resolution to study a Wolf reintroduction for two years and will likely result in doing so. The dense voting population is on the east slope. Those directly affected lost the vote to those entirely unaffected. The wolves would be installed on the west slope.

  6. Th e Corp of Engineers commonly utilizes a COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS when evaluating projects such as dams. This type of analysis can also be applied to the Upper Green grazing situation. Just off the top of my head, there seem to be very little if any monetary benefit but enormous cost expenses. The benefit side of the analysis would include grazing fees paid to the USFS and weight gain of the calves. However, any weight gain of the calves would be partially offset by predation losses of calves to such an extent that the expected weight gain factor could actually be a negative weight gain due to predation losses. On the cost side of the analysis one would need to include expenses incurred by the agencies including compensation for predator losses, expenses for relocating predators or removing them via euthanization, overhead costs of the agencies, damage to the environment and species of concern, T&E impacts, taxes paid on any profits generated by the livestock producers, etc. Again, I suspect that the costs would greatly exceed any benefits grazing might generate and possibly by a factor of 10 to 1 or even 100 to one. The Corp would probably not go ahead with a project with negative cost-benefits. So why not encourage the USFS to use such an analysis. The University of Wyoming has highly skilled and experienced economic analyzers who could generate such a study. Its always good to avoid emotional opinions and seek factual evidence submitted by consultants, agencies, etc.

  7. No one talks about PERPETUAL COSTS of livestock vs. predators in the human-predator interface zones. The State of Wyoming, Game and Fish Dept. is already incurring significant expenses on a unending yearly basis to manage wolves after their management was turned over to the State by USFWS. These expenses can be expected to continue for 50, 100, 200 or more years. In addition, Game and Fish is currently incurring significant costs related to predation on the High Island Ranch in western Hot Springs County to include reimbursement for livestock losses by predation, staff time and overhead, legal expenses, a portion of vehicle and aerial expenses, etc. Some of the grizzly expenses are currently absorbed by the USFWS; however, the State will assume most grizzly expenses upon delisting. These could be perpetual expenses with no end in sight.
    In areas like the Upper Green and western Hot Springs County, livestock producers must contend with six predators ( grizzly, black bear, wolf, coyote, mountain lion and bobcat ). In most western grazing regions only three predators are encountered ( coyote, bobcat and mountain lion ). In the last 20 years, actual experience has shown it is very difficult to graze in the 6 predator interface zones and extremely expensive for both the ranchers and wildlife agencies.
    The expenses seem to be accumulating for the agencies and the livestock producers and they can be perpetual. If the Forest Service does an assessment or EIS, they need to address the monetary side of the equation and at what point it becomes too expensive to graze in theses six predator zones.
    I’ve always been pro grazing on Federal lands but I’m starting to have some doubts in these six predator areas. Maybe it would be in everyone’s best interest to avoid perpetual costs when the opportunity arises.

  8. You would think that fact that majority of public comments oppose move of cattle into areas vacated by sheep and that conservationists bought out the rights to graze these areas would mean that the decision would be to favor grizzlies, a threatened species. Unfortunately, the history of wildlife politics in Wyoming & other western states shows that ranchers usually win and even Democratic Admins. are reluctant to buck the small in number but politically powerful ranchers. 

  9. 18000 cattle on a small area of our public lands, that would fit the definition of destructive insanity.

  10. Get livestock of all sorts OFF PUBLIC LAND, nationwide. The national meat supply would hardly be affected. Then repeal the Taylor Grazing Act so they can’t come whining back. Also, make the Bundys, and those like them, pay what they owe the federal government for their past grazing privileges.

  11. It is one thing to know the price ( cost ) of something. It is another thing altogether to know the VALUE of that thing.

    Any Upper Green cowdriver can tell you the dollar value of his bovines on allotment… his out of pocket expenses and expected/actual revenues , and produce a spreadsheet of all that.
    What that Cattle Baron cannot tell you is the cost/ price of a North American Columbian-Yellowstone Grizzly Bear. Never mind that cattleman has no perception in the real world of the value of a Grizzly.

    The Stockmen have narrowed the view of the Cattle vs. Grizzlies conflicts to just the dollars. They have been mostly successful in wrangling the debate in their favor with economic arguments… dollars coming and going. But that is a huge fallacy ; a giant deflection of the real worth of both the cows and the bears. The Stockgrowers will never admit – even on their death bed – that the VALUE of a few dozen Grizzly bears to America is far greater than the value of a few thousand red meat bovines on the hoof. American consumers will always be able to buy as much burger and steaks at a store in Oklahoma as they can afford. On any given day there are approximately 32 million beef cows in America, with the state of Wyoming being 14th down the list for number of cattle , roughly 700,000 animals.

    If every one of those 700,000 cows in Wyoming disappeared into the belly of a UFO on the same night , the red meat market would fully compensate in a matter of a few weeks. There are plenty of European-descended cattle to be had. The aforementioned Oklahoma is saturated with them. It has a yearround pasture and feedlot industry.

    However, we only have a few hundred Grizzly Bears in Wyoming, and every one of them is unique and an essential element of the recovery and sustainability of the grizzly population in North America.

    The blunt Bottom Line : Each and every living grizzly bear is worth a hundred or so beef cows. Both in dollars and more intrinsic values. That part of the argument is seldom is ever heard out loud.

    Conclusion : Degraze the Upper Green

  12. Has USFS done a comprehensive carrying capacity analysis on the proposed grazing area and determined just how many cattle AND wildlife the area can support? Where is the 10,000 number coming from? On what data does the grazing association justify increasing their permit? Is there a projected timeline for how long it will take their original lease areas to recover? If they need to recover, then it sounds like they have already been over grazed.