An undated, uncaptioned historical photograph of cowboys from the collection of the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale and Sublette County Historical Society shows a longstanding tradition ranchers say is being threatened. (Museum of the Mountain Man/Sublette County Historical Society)

CORA — Sublette County ranchers say a suit challenging their Forest Service grazing permit — a 10-year arrangement that authorizes the killing of 72 grizzly bears — 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 operations could fail, leading to a cascade of environmental and social disruption, according to declarations filed in a Washington, D.C. court last week. Albert Sommers, Robert Price and Margaret Lockwood, members of the Upper Green River Cattle Association, outlined their views of potential consequences of the lawsuit, including subdivision of open space and development that would disrupt Wyoming’s iconic wildlife migrations.

Western Watersheds Project, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Yellowstone to Uintas Connection filed the suit March 31. It names the Secretary of the Interior, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as defendants. Plaintiffs claimed agencies violated federal law when they failed to properly address grazing’s effects on federally protected grizzly bears and the endangered Kendall Warm Springs dace — a small fish.

The environmental groups seek immediate court action to prevent injury to bears and the dace this gazing season. The world’s population of the small fish lives in only 984 feet of the 85-degree Kendall Warm Springs, a tributary of the Green River on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. 

The Forest Service last October approved a grazing permit that allows cowboys and girls to each year drive almost 9,000 cattle through the warm springs area where fences otherwise keep cattle from grazing.

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, attorney Brian Gregg, who is representing three ranchers involved, told WyoFile. 

“It’s going to be very interesting,” he said, “whether an alleged violation of the Endangered Species Act can trump national designation,” of historic places. 

Grizzly bears the focus

“This is solely about grizzly bears for us,” Gregg said, calling the suit “another front in the war” over removing federal protections from the Yellowstone population of bears.

“We believe they should be delisted,” Gregg said of Yellowstone-area grizzlies. “We believe it is necessary to continue lethal take,” referring to the selected killing of stock-eating bears.

The permit allows ranchers to graze livestock on the forest during summer and fall in the Upper Green River drainage in Sublette County near Union Pass. The permit authorizes almost 9,000 cattle, or that many pairs of cows and calves, under Forest Service rules. The area is habitat for Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears.

A Kendall Warm Springs dace, about two inches long. (LuRay Parker/Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

Officially, 728 grizzly bears occupy the entire sprawling ecosystem, a number that qualifies them for removal from federal protection, the state of Wyoming and stock growers have argued. Grizzlies’ population growth has forced bears out of their core Yellowstone National Park habitat into fringe areas where they attack, kill and eat stock, they say.

But the suit claims grizzly numbers are flat and that a dramatic jump in conflicts in the Upper Green River area coincides instead with the trend in loss of whitebark pines nuts, a key grizzly food. In other areas around Yellowstone where whitebark pine is in decline due to climate change, grizzlies have replaced pine nuts with army cutworm moths that they uncover in talus slopes, the suit says.

But there are no talus slopes with moth sites accessible to grizzlies at Union Pass, according to the conservationists’ complaint. Bears are not expanding their range and killing cattle because there are more bears, the suit claims. Instead, they eat cattle because there’s no alternative to whitebark pine nuts.

Further, though the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service authorized killing up to 72 bears in the 10-year grazing period, the agencies set no limit on how many of those are female, the suit says. Female numbers are critical to the persistence of the species in the ecosystem, biologists say.

Despite the decrease in whitebark pine, the lack of army cutworm moths and U.S. Forest Service’s recognition that the …  area is a “mortality sink” for female grizzly bears, the government “does not evaluate the effects of these relevant factors,” in renewing the grazing permit, the suit reads.

Grizzly bear conflicts and mortalities in the Upper Green River area are “disproportionately higher than any other single allotment or complex of grazing allotments in the [Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem],” the suit says. The grazing allotments and bear killings — 37 grizzlies have been “removed ” from the area from 2010 to 2018 — amount to an “ecological trap,” the suit says. 

In allowing the grazing to continue, the Forest Service relied on “ineffective conservation methods,” among other things, the suit claims. The agency failed to account for shifts in food sources, created a “fracture zone” in the middle of grizzly habitat with its authorization and didn’t formally consult the Fish and Wildlife Service regarding the dace, according to the filing. 

Historic ranch operations 

The Forest Service permit covers 170,000 acres where ranchers have been grazing for decades. All three ranchers who filed declarations last week run family operations in Sublette County that have endured for more than 100 years.

Each operation has several hundred mother cows that are bred annually to raise market calves and yearlings. But predation by grizzly bears is taking an intolerable toll, even though Wyoming Game and Fish compensates ranchers for verified grizzly killings, plus pays an additional amount for cattle deemed lost but unrecovered.

Albert Sommers irrigates his ranch near Pinedale from where he trails cattle to Union Pass, seen on the horizon. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

The calf mortality rate for members of the Upper Green River Cattle Association was around 2% in the early 1990s, Sommers wrote in his declaration. “More recently, some Association members have lost an average of 14% of their calves to depredation in a single grazing season,” he wrote.

“Since 1995, Association members have lost over 1,000 head of cattle, confirmed by state and federal agency personnel, to either grizzly bears or wolves,” the declaration reads. Actual losses “far exceed this number,” Sommers wrote.

Bookkeeping by Upper Green ranchers was important in helping the Game and Fish Department refine its compensation system to account for missing cattle where grizzly bears are involved. Sommers predicted ranchers’ demise should the suit halt the killing of grizzlies — done by wildlife officials usually upon confirmation of repeated kills. 

Upper Green association members sell a combined 2,300 feeder cattle and 650 cull cattle annually, generating from $3 million to $5 million, the declaration says. The grazing permit and allotments are necessary, it says. 

“It is my opinion that, without the Upper Green River Cattle Allotment, many of these ranches would be sold, and, undoubtedly, some would be subdivided,” Sommers’ declaration reads.

“Should the members’ ranching operations and historic grazing practices be diminished or eliminated, large ungulate migration routes and other important wildlife habitats would be affected,” he wrote. “It is the ability to maintain large ranches in the West that has kept regional landscapes like the Green River Valley intact. Without these ranches, these large tracts of open lands likely would be lost to other development.”

Lockwood and Price claimed potential infringement of their rights. If the plaintiffs are successful, that “will have a severe impact on my rights as a federal grazing permittee because my ability to graze the Upper Green River Cattle Allotment will be significantly restricted, if not eliminated,” their two statements read. “This will have a devastating impact on my livestock operation and will also impair the use of private property water rights, range improvements and related infrastructure…”

Dace endangered

The complaint about the tiny Kendal Warm Springs dace hardly registers on ranchers’ radar, Gregg said.

“We aren’t really taking a position on the base [dace] issue,” he said. Management techniques “can basically address that.”

The case for the dace, according to the conservation groups, rests on the Forest Service’s decision to not formally consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the world’s only population of the two-inch long fish.

A cow pie seen near Kendall Warm Springs. (Angus M. Thuermer. Jr./WyoFile)

The population is “critically imperiled” according to one science nonprofit watchdog organization. Scientists at NatureServe say the threat to the dace’s existence is “high” or “very high.”

The Forest Service fenced 160 acres around the warm springs to exclude cattle grazing. During the cattle drive itself, “[c]attle will be confined to the roadway when they are actively herded through the Kendall Warm Springs exclosure,” the Forest Service wrote in its permit approval.

The suit calls foul on that statement. The Forest Service admits the drive could “cause dace to temporarily switch habitat, elevate turbidity, and alter submergent vegetative cover,” the suit states, quoting the Forest Service’s own environmental review. This will constitute “an illegal take of the dace,” under the Endangered Species Act, the suit alleges.

Kendall Warm Springs burbles to the surface along a series of small bluffs above the Green River. It flows no deeper than a foot and as narrow as about 15 feet around mossy matts of vegetation to the bank of the Green River.

Along the way, it runs under a bridge over which the dirt road to Green River Lakes crosses.

Just downstream from the bridge, the warm springs plunge over a nine-foot drop into the cold water of the Green, effectively isolating the warm springs from other watery ecosystems. The dace, Rhinichthys osculus thermalis, is the only fish in the stream. Gray-green and striped, they grow up to 2 inches long.

A species that has existed from prehistoric times, Kendall Warm Springs dace have been used as bait and had their fragile habitat invaded for bathing and washing clothes. Federal officials listed the dace as a threatened species in 1970 and various agencies, including Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Forest Service, prohibit activities deleterious to the fish and their habitat.

The big griz picture

“This lawsuit is part of a larger series of lawsuits focusing in part on delisting the grizzly bear from the Endangered Species Act,” Gregg said. The ranchers will also seek to intervene in another permit-challenging suit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club, he said. 

Plaintiffs contend “lethal take should not be authorized,” said Gregg, an attorney with the Mountain States Legal Foundation. “We just don’t believe either the law or the science supports that,” he said.

Killing grizzlies “happens very infrequently,” he said. Yet the killing is necessary, Gregg said, “to stop a problem from getting exponentially worse.” Grizzlies, “they quickly take charge of the ecosystem,” he said.

“Ranching is a hard-enough job as it is,” he said, calling ranchers’ experience with bears and lawsuits “extremely frustrating.

You can understand why a lot of folks don’t want to take up their parents’ legacy,” he said.

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The conservation groups say the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, of which the Upper Green River is a part, is “one of the only places in the Lower 48 United States that still supports a full complement of native wildlife.

“Unfortunately,” the suit says, “recent actions by federal agencies [including issuing the grazing permit] increase threats to these species and to the integrity of the GYE.”

“No grizzlies should be killed for cows,” said  Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, in announcing the suit. “We have millions of cattle in this country but only about 700 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”

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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8 Comments

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  1. The ranchers have a great place in the history of Sublette County. And I still enjoy seeing (and hearing) the drift move north every late spring.

    However, they have never been wildlife friendly. They’ve eliminated buffalo from the Upper Green. The last one that migrated in from Jackson Hole about ten years ago was shot on sight. Grizzlies are next?

    Funny thing, I see ground bison selling for $15 per pound, up $5 in the past few years.

    They chronically complain about the economics of cattle grazing. Hey, wake up.

  2. In this article, and the one about the High Island ranch over in Hot Springs County both have a common denominator. Both areas are getting paid for mortality kills by what ever, by the WY Game and Fish at 3.5 times than what are actually found. Maybe it is time for the Forest Service to be at these allotments when the cattle are turned out, and are notified if livestock is moved, or be horse back up there just to see if scours is going on with some units and get a handle the true reason for the mortality. If your going to lease land out as private land owners due, you better be riding to protect your land, as in these cases the Forest Service. Heaven knows they have all these horse trailers and new big dully pickups in there motor pools to do the job, just don’t know if they have the want to!

  3. I believe that Edward Abbey once said at a public meeting “that ranchers, unfortunately, unlike grizzly bears, can’t be removed from the population when they don’t act like they are expected to act.”

  4. Rights? These grazing permits are not rights! Ranchers and their allies like to claim them as rights, but these lands belong to all the American people, not these ranchers. They destroy our streams, our native plant communities, our watersheds, our wildlife habitat, and we subsidize them to do so. It is a corrupt system and there is almost no accountability. It is time for an end to public lands grazing.

  5. Lawsuits are often so antagonistic and, like public land management regulations, so prolix that they obfuscate the question we really need to answer, which in this case is: can the wild Upper Green country, properly managed, support both seasonal livestock grazing and a charismatic predator like the grizzly bear? And court rulings, whichever way they go, won’t likely address that question directly either – rather, each side will argue whatever angle it can to “win” for either the bear or the cattle. From the perspective of the Upper Green’s history as both uniquely beneficent wildlife habitat and home to a community of family ranches dating back to the 19th century, does it have to be one or the other? I don’t have the answer, but I know many of the ranchers in the Upper Green to be smart and adaptive and open to new approaches (as well as angry and combative toward groups like Western Watersheds). If all the lawyerly genius that’s expended on the lawsuits could be traded for smart and innovative management brains, we might learn whether it’s actually possible to protect both endangered species and a local ranching community that has its own threatened history and culture.
    (Geoffrey O’Gara is a member of the Wyofile board and producer of the documentary “The Drift”, about cattle ranching on public lands in the Upper Green River Valley.)

  6. The Green River Drift is grift. That’s all I am going to say about that.

    But I do want to see a little more iknformation here. I would like rancjer-legislator -activist Smers and perhaps others ( Magagna ? ) tell us how many cows and calves are lost to ALL causes during grazing season in the Upper Green. Please be specific.

    One way to look at cattle predation would be ” Cost of doing business” on public lands. Count me in the camp of those hwo bel;ieve both federal and state grazing fees need to be assessed at true cost , notwithstanding a fair market value placed on water and grass. I fume when I contemplate that 120 days of public graze puts way over $ 1000 worth of carcass weight ( > 500 lbs. ) on a cow-calf but the public treasury only recieves $ 5.00 for the resources conveyed. That needs to change. The Public deserves to be fairly compensated for the resource. It never has…

  7. I know the area. The dace are a marvelous population that deserve greater efforts to protect them.
    Why not trail the cattle far enough east of the springs in a designated driveway and avoid the stretch of road that crosses the stream.?There’s no way to protect the fish and their habitat fully when the cattle move up (or down) the road.
    If what we’re protecting is a cultural relic, we should get more taxpayers involved. Right now, the compensation for bear kills comes largely from funds provided by hunters and anglers. If the Upper Green allotment is a museum piece, the country should help fund it, just as it funds Gettysburg and the Smithsonian.
    Likewise, the nation should protect those open spaces that Albert Sommers and his fellow cowboys know are invaluable, and not rely on the fiscal success of a few ranches to do it. The bears, elk, dace and we humans will benefit.

    The bears pose a more complex problem. At a minimum the state and USFWS should limit the killing of females. The ranchers take a risk when they lease that low-cost grass. We want them to succeed but they should not balance their books on bear carcasses.
    Perhaps both they and Game and Fish could invest more in personnel to protect bears and cattle.
    Doesn’t the UW argue that the world needs more cowboys?

  8. OK, is this a boost for the ranchers’ side? It sure seems to heavily rely on the rancher’s attorney and suit and the source. It doesn’t help me understand the issue at all, other than one side. Details. How much does wyoming pay in damages? How about lease rate? The rule of law? And you all but blew off the fish. Disappointed.