A herder pushes cattle through a squall along the Green River Drift route on June 17, 2020. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

The renewal of 10-year grazing permits that threaten 72 grizzly bears along the Upper Green River was “supported by substantial evidence” a judge ruled in dismissing a suit challenging the historic Green River Drift.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal decided May 16 that officials with the Bridger-Teton National Forest and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service followed federal environmental laws when approving the grazing plan for 8,772 cow-calf pairs and yearlings and 47 horses. Grazing on 170,643 acres at the upper end of the Green River Drift trail is unlikely to jeopardize Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies or the Kendall Warm Springs dace — species protected by the federal Endangered Species Act — the judge ruled.

Federal and state wildlife managers removed 35 grizzlies from the grazing allotments from 2010 to 2018 for depredating on cattle but that pace could be accelerated “in light of increased conflicts due to a growing grizzly population within the project area,” the judge’s order states. Even though grizzlies are still protected by the ESA, their comeback from the brink of extirpation has met recovery criteria since 2004, the decision states.

“This could have a beneficial effect on the [Kendall Warm Springs] dace habitat.”

Judge Nancy Freudenthal, paraphrasing federal scientists

Because of ecosystem-wide monitoring, management and limits on bear killings, the judge agreed with federal scientists that “the level of projected mortality caused by the project will not appreciably reduce the population, distribution, or reproduction of GYE grizzlies.”

Likewise, the cattle grazing at the north end of the Wind River Range in Sublette County likely won’t affect the continued existence of the dace, a species of small fish found only in 328 yards of the Kendall Warm Springs and its outflow to the Green River. Freudenthal agreed with scientists who said that driving cattle across the spring and its channel “could actually result in beneficial effects to the dace.”

Git along little dogies

The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Western Watersheds Project, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Yellowstone to Uintas Connection sued federal officials for their 2019 decision allowing the seasonal grazing to continue under various conditions. Wyoming, the Upper Green River Cattle Association, Sommers Ranch, Price Cattle Ranch, Murdock Land and Livestock Co. and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association joined the federal side to protect their interests.

The conservationists claimed that federal managers’ decision regarding grizzlies was arbitrary and capricious and they sought to prevent “lethal removal” of grizzlies from the area, especially valuable females. They also wanted to stop the cattle drive across the warm spring and its outflow pending further consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

A rider and cattle from the Sommers Ranch moves down a ridge on the Green River Drift route on June 17, 2020. The ranch runs a traditional cow-calf breeding and rearing operation. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

The suit contended that the Bridger-Teton would allow grazing to trammel forage that provides cover for sensitive amphibians and birds — contrary to the national forest’s own standards. Also, conservation measures contemplated in the grazing plan fell short, the suit said.

But federal managers considered those elements and appropriately backed up their decisions, Freudenthal decided. Ecosystem-wide sideboards for grizzlies ensure that the grazing “will not appreciably reduce the population, distribution, or reproduction of GYE grizzlies,” Freudenthal wrote, quoting federal scientists.

The outflow at Kendall Warm Springs appears to be deepening and channeling, to the detriment of the dace, federal officials said. Cattle plodding there could reverse that trend. Their hoofprints could “act to counteract the stream’s recent trend of narrowing and deepening,” the grazing approval said.

Freudenthal also decided that conservation measures governing the grazing are adequate, even though some “are clearly aspirational.” Further, objectives in the Bridger-Teton’s management plan apply forest-wide with the understanding that “some sites within the BTNF will more fully accomplish some objectives at the expense of others.”

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. Glad to see.We moved into Moore Spring Hills, 1983,No cattle running, 400 acres Wheat, 1988 we were lucky enough to buy 3000, acres to the west,We increased our cow head every yr,by 1990 We were running 200 cow pairs, 75 yrlens. We moved 145 head every wk,on the 2000. Moved the 50 according to wind, water, When ya rode across the range in May there was 2 ft tall grass, Sold off in 94, today your going to have to look darn hard to find 2ft. tail grass, Cows moving will increase the water and grassing condition, Poor management of grass, will do you no good.I could go on from here, Raised 42 bu Wheat when there. Thank you.

  2. ESTABLISHMENT OF HISTORIC STOCK TRAILS: Over the years I’ve occasioned to find some Wyoming “stock trails”. Some are still active, some used rarely and some long abandoned. There is a severe lack of documentation of most of the trails although the history books of Wyoming commonly mention them – some were for seasonal movement of livestock and others went to rail heads where the cattle were loaded onto rail cars for shipment. There are a moderate number of stock trails for which recorded easements exist and filed at the court house. However, the vast majority were never recorded. I know of two stock trails in Hot Springs County that are recorded and several that are fenced in as functional stock trails. Casper of course has an interstate exit called the Bryan stock trail road so it must be a historic Natrona County trail.

    It appears from the discussion in this article that the Green River drift is a stock trail established by “historic use” and maybe not recorded as such in the county court houses. However, historical use becomes a cultural tradition that should be recognized in BLM and USFS plan revisions; as such, I believe NEPA requires the Federal agencies to include the impact of the proposed action on the human environment in addition to all of the other areas of concern. I’m not totally sure about this because I’m no expert on stock trail law and statutes, but I suspect the Green River drift has some legal standings since it is a long established Wyoming cultural historic use.

    I do remember a court case in Washakie County concerning the historic stock trail going up into the Big Horns following Tensleep Creek. The camp ground in the town of Tensleep had challenged the ranchers right to cross their land with livestock on there drives into the Big Horns. The District Court ruled in favor of the ranchers but I’m not aware of the specific details such as whether or not formal easements were recorded or the use of the stock trail was established by historic use; that is, the stock trail existed before the camp ground was built.

    The Green River drift is similar and a well established Wyoming tradition. Strange, but a lot of attention to has been paid to wildlife migration through the upper Green River to the high desert – doesn’t the migration of livestock need to be recognized along with the wildlife migrations?? The Green River drift has become a Wyoming cultural tradition somewhat like the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo – they are what we are in Wyoming – our culture and tradition.

  3. I would love to see a source for saying that cows can improve riparian condition….

    1. I doubt any peer reviewed reports exist. If I’m wrong please post pertinent articles.