Sage-steppe habitat in the Upper Green River Basin. (Dave Kimble/USFWS/FlickrCC)

A recent article in Wyofile by Angus Thuermer was full of quotes from the ranchers grazing the Upper Green River allotment on the Bridger Teton National Forest in Wyoming.

The Upper Green River Cattle Allotment, at 170,000 acres, is one of the largest grazing allotments in the West. It lies near the base of the Wind River Range to the north of Pinedale. It encompasses, in my view, some of the best unprotected wildlife habitat in the West. It should be given protection as a new national park.

Without a doubt it should no longer function as a feedlot for ranchers.

The ranchers in Thuermer’s article are upset that Western Watersheds Project, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Yellowstone to Uintas Connection filed objections to the Forest Service’s decision to reissue grazing permits for the Upper Green River allotment. The authorization would allow ranchers or the misnamed “Wildlife Services” to kill up to 72 grizzlies in the next 10 years.

The ranchers claim the objection violates their “rights” and that removal of cattle would lead to a host of negative environmental impacts.

They argue that driving 9,000 cows and their calves (so about 18,000 animals) across public lands, including the sole habitat of the endangered Kendall Warm Spring Dace — a tiny fish — is part of a “cultural” property owned by the ranchers.

They also assert that somehow ranching on public lands and their operations are important to the Sublette County economy.

The ranchers go on to claim they may be forced out of business and would have no choice but to subdivide their lands.

Let’s take a look at these claims.

One of the ranchers asserts 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. 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…”

Apparently, the ranchers are unaware that grazing on public lands is a privilege, not a right. Grazing can be terminated at any time, though it seldom is due to the stranglehold that the livestock industry has on federal agencies. Ranchers do not have private property rights to public lands. This has been decided numerous times in the courts.

The Upper Green is some of the best wildlife habitat in Wyoming, including for grizzlies. The area supports wolves, sage grouse, pronghorn, elk, moose, Colorado cutthroat trout, several amphibians and other species rare or declining in numbers.

One of the issues is that in its operating plan, the Bridger Teton National Forest has designated the entire Upper Green as a wildlife priority area. In other words, if there is a conflict between any use and wildlife, the wildlife is supposed to be given the preference. Apparently, the Forest Service does not view killing 72 grizzlies in the next 10 years as a conflict.

And domestic animals — privately owned cattle — cannot be grazed here without damaging or degrading public resources.

Cattle in those high of numbers compact soils. They pollute water. They spread weeds. Fences installed to facilitate livestock operations block wildlife movements and can even be a source of mortality. 

Grass going into cattle becomes unavailable for native wildlife be it elk, grizzlies or butterflies and grasshoppers, which in turn impacts other wildlife that may feed or depend on them (pollination).

In addition, the mere presence of domestic animals socially displaces some wildlife like elk. If elk are grazing in an area in the first place, you must assume it’s the best habitat for them. So, if they are displaced, they are being pushed in secondary habitat that may have less nutritious forage or be more vulnerable to predators.

Third, the presence of domestic animals damages important wildlife habitat like riparian areas — home to the lush vegetation like willows found along streams that are critical to some 70-80% of western species, in particular, many birds.

The U.S. Forest Service allows such degradation of our property to those who wear a cowboy hat and have a big belt buckle.

As for their economic contribution, if all the ranchers using the allotment (a small subset of all ranching operations in the country) ceased doing so, it would barely be missed. Farm income in Sublette County from all sources accounts for only .9% of personal income, according to data from Headwater Economics. Keep in mind there are over 400 farms or ranches in the county and less than a dozen ranchers graze the Upper Green Allotment. Thus, the percentage of income resulting from grazing the Upper Green River allotment would be a fraction of even the 1.2% of income derived from agriculture in the county.

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The ranchers also assert if they are driven out of business they will be “forced” to sell their ranches for subdivisions and they imply that is worse for wildlife. The old “condos vs cows” threat is always used by ranchers and their allies to frighten the public. 

Beyond the fact that in many cases subdivisions with their landscaping provide more habitat for wildlife than a rancher’s hayfield, do not spread diseases to wildlife, do not normally kill predators, do not require dewatering rivers which destroys aquatic ecosystems, do not trample riparian area, do not pollute the water, do not occupy nearly as much territory as the 170,000 acres grazed and degraded by cattle in the Upper Green allotment, ranchers don’t have to sell to a subdivider. They can put their ranch under a conservation easement. Plus, in the Pinedale area, which is a popular destination of  wealthy individuals, selling intact ranches often brings greater economic returns than a subdivision.

In other words, there is more to the debate than the simplistic idea that a rancher denied access to public lands will automatically turn their ranch into ranchettes.

Since 1995, ranchers grazing the Upper Green have lost more than 1,000 cows according to one of the grazers — not nearly enough in my view. I worry that the grizzlies are not getting enough to eat, but that is another issue. At the same time from 2010-2018 at least 37 grizzlies were killed on the Upper Green allotment while they are presumably “protected” by the Endangered Species Act.

The real issue is about public good. Should private businesses (ranching is a business) be permitted to destroy and ruin public resources for private profit? Should the public tolerate the killing of endangered species to facilitate an archaic lifestyle?

There is a simple solution. Ranchers can take their cows and go home.  No “right” to damage public resources exists. Just because you have been doing something ruinous for a hundred years, doesn’t mean it should continue. We don’t condone slavery even though it existed through much of human history. We should not condone the use of public lands for private gain at public expense anymore either.

The public and the wildlife that live in the Upper Green River basin deserve better.

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published 38 books including three on Yellowstone and two others on national parks as foundational to conservation, including "Protecting the Wild."

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  1. It’s a good debate. We have the excellent history, tradition, and culture of ranching versus the world class wildlife and scenery.

    Economics and politics will decide the future of the Upper Green with environmental / wildlife / tourism / retirement living the likely winner. If I were a rancher, I’d be looking at ways to get into that business.

    1. Incidentally, I suggest that readers do their own research to discover just how little livestock farming in Wyoming contributes to the national meat supply and to the state domestic product (or whatever name the economists use these days) for that matter. You may conclude, as I did, that the over-subsidized bunch of “cowboys” could disappear overnight and the rest of the country would not even notice that they were gone. Yet, you let them run the state…and subsidize them to the hilt, even to the point of state law making you fence THEIR livestock out rather than them fencing them IN.

  2. The commentary by G. Wuerthner was disappointing to read.
    It’s unfortunate that at this difficult time, when we are dealing with a pandemic and racism, that an educated person such as G.W., should launch a mean-spirited, polarizing and erroneous attack on ranchers for using their permits in the Upper Green. His comparison of commercial use of public lands to slavery is absolutely wrong.
    One would think that an ecologist would be broad-minded and have a little background in the humanities. G.W. appears to support diversity in animal species but doesn’t tolerate diverse occupations of other people. There are many groups such as fishing, hunting and canoe guides, outfitters, ORV tours and loggers etc. that utilize the forest for private gain. This is part of the multiple use concept that the USFS has successfully orchestrated for generations in the Upper Green.
    Our American culture could use a lot more of the denounced “archaic” lifestyle!
    Being on a horse, walking at a cow’s pace is one of the best de-stressors we have in Wyoming. Many states are losing their farms and ranches at alarming rates.
    It’s important for this country to still produce food, at home.
    Lastly, I’m also disappointed in WYO File for not proofing G.W.’s rant before publishing.
    Thank you Albert, for fact-checking.
    Sincerely, RD

  3. I’d rather see successful working ranch operations continue. The notion that subdivisions or hobby ranches for the ultra rich are preferred to those traditional ranch operations seems a bit unbalanced.

  4. My name is Albert Sommers. I am a fourth-generation rancher, whose family grazes cattle in the Upper Green. I doubt Mr. Wuerthner has spent much time in the Upper Green, and certainly knows very little about grazing practices here. Mr. Wuerthner has always had trouble getting his facts right, and his opinion piece in Wyofile on June 30, 2020, is no exception.

    The Upper Green River Cattle Allotment is not a 170,000-acre allotment, but is large at about 132,000 acres, and we do not graze 18,000 head of cattle on the allotment. Its permits add up to about 6700 head of cattle, and most years the members of the Upper Green River Cattle Association graze fewer than that. Further, we have not moved cattle through Kendall dace habitat for decades. We move cows around this fenced off area, and remove cattle from the warm spring area when they get in.

    Mr. Wuerthner states the Upper Green is “some of the best unprotected wildlife habitat in the West”, and it should be protected as a National Park. However, later on in his diatribe about cattle in the Upper Green, he claims ranchers and our cows decimate wildlife habitat, pollute the water, and chase the elk away. Mr. Wuerthner, you can’t have it both ways. Either the Upper Green is some of the best wildlife habitat in the West, or we ranchers have decimated it. In fact, the Upper Green is indeed some of the best wildlife habitat in the West, and holds most of the iconic wildlife species the Rocky Mountains are famous for. My family has responsibly grazed cattle there for almost 120 years, or these species would not exist on this landscape. In 1996, ranchers in the Upper Green River Cattle Allotment partnered with the Forest Service and the University of Wyoming to create a cooperative monitoring program, complete with objectives and methodologies. Today, the Sublette County Conservation District leads that effort, with other partners in support. We track our annual use, move cattle on or well before Forest Service thresholds are met, and conduct long-term trend studies to ensure proper grazing.

    I have helped develop objectives, manage livestock and monitor grazing on well over 180,000 acres of rangeland in Sublette County, involving private, BLM, and Forest Service land. My family has won the Leopold Ranch Conservation Award, and we have preserved our ranch through a conservation easement. Mr. Wuerthner, we ranchers in the Upper Green live a conservation ethic. What have you done?

    Ranches and ranchers hold the landscapes of the West together. We help preserve the open space, vistas, and wildlife habitat this nation treasures. We proudly preserve this landscape, while providing jobs, food and fiber for the nation.

    1. Mr. Sommers – thanks so much for clarifying the usage numbers on the Upper green grazing area.

      Can you give us just a little bit more numerical information on that ? I would REALLY like to know two things.

      First , how many AUM’s do all those 6700 cattle convert to for grazing fee calculations and how much in total fees are paid from that ? All cattle , combined, one dollar amount ballparked .

      Second, can you give us your best estimate or range of figures on how much carcass weight is gained by those 6700 cows on that Upper Green summer range ? If we could weigh the cows going up the mountain , and again when they come down the mountain, what net gain was put on the cattle ? Give us one number expressing gross weight gained , to the best of your reckoning.

      That way we can roughly determine what The Drift ranchers pay for their Upper Green graze and compare it to the market value they got from it in the sale ring or the commercial feedlot.

      The taxpaying public would be very interested in knowing that dollar ratio.
      Thank you.

      1. The 2017 Upper Green Rangeland EIS estimated that edible forage per acre in the Upper Green averaged 600 pounds per acre. A 1200 pound cow requires 800 pounds per month of forage, Conservatively, where half of forage is left for wildlife, this means that 2.6. acres per aum are required in the Upper Green Allotment, Grazing 6,700 head for the permitted four months then means that 56%of the allotment will have half of the forage consumed by cattle while leaving 44% of all acreage solely for wildlife. I have monitored rangelands from Wyoming to Washington and I. know that range condition is always born out with the math, In the case of the Upper Green, these numbers mean grazing at this level is sustainable and easily coexists alongside good wildlife numbers, regardless of the politics.

    2. Thanks for the fishing access, Albert.

      I have no idea if the cattle on the Upper Green do more harm than good but I suspect that is the case. Cattle left to their own machinations and not properly grazed remind me of tourists in Yellowstone who are not properly managed: they will do more harm than good. Even when properly managed, tourists will do more harm than good. We accept the trade off.

      In pursuit of perfection, some environmentalists would shut down all economic and social activity that “harmed” the landscape. In other words, their perfect world would be like a COVID-19 shutdown but without the beer. We’d all live in caves or mud huts, and eat possums & gophers (not too bad).

      I can also understand why people may dislike cattle grazing on the “best wildlife habitat in the West”. I get it. And clearly, some people feel that cattle grazing, like coal, has no place in a modern world. Perhaps for them. So be it.

      Compared to 4 million tourists using 2.2 million acres in Yellowstone, I will take the 6700 head of cattle on 132,000 acres. In reality, it’s more like 4 million tourists using 132,000 acres in Yellowstone. The tourists bring in far more dollars to gateway communities so few complain. Cattle are an easy target, as are cattlemen.

      It is also easy to be mistrustful of cattlemen since there is a track record among some of misusing and abusing the land, especially public land. Some even seem to think that the public land is more theirs than public (Bundy family). Some seem to think that their vocation is a guaranteed right that should be protected, subsidized, and insured by taxpayers to some degree (most of ’em). Some offer up conservation easements as a way to game the tax system and enrich themselves. It’s not easy to gain the public’s trust with their track record.

      Those complaints aside, I tend to think that the Sommers’ family is, at the very least, trying to do a better job at managing the natural resources we have so generously entrusted to them even if their efforts aren’t ‘perfect’. I favor a balanced and thoughtful use of our public natural resources. 120 years of history doesn’t factor into it but there is something to be said for keeping some traditional economic activity alive in Wyoming.

      Until the evidence says otherwise, I will side with the cowboy.

      Ride on Albert.

  5. The idea that a subdivision provides more habitat quality than a hay field is ridiculous and completely omits the Wyoming Migration Institutes findings regarding human impacts on migration routes. 7.2 grizzlies per year is a fraction of the number currently killed due to human conflicts and will not lead to any changes in population at the landscape level.

  6. So…what is the cost of fighting a wildfire? Grazing is an important management tool to help keep vegetation in check on the Forest. Without grazing, the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires is dramatically increased.

  7. I’m not sure I would go all the way to National Park status, but making the Upper Green a National Wildlife Refuge with the strongest possible management policies that favor wildlife habitat rather than categorically exclude cattle from , well, exclusion as is done in most wildlife refuges. There is a place and ecological purpose for allowing some domestic grazing in wildlife refuges, but I’m having trouble thinking of anywhere that is done right in putting wildlife as the first and highest priority. George Wuerthner is pointing in the right direction here, as he has for decades…

    Perhaps the one thing I would say is most lacking is an ecologically sound implemenation of dynamic Predator-Prey management at landscape scale. Wyoming simply has to acknowledge that wild carnivores , especially apex predators , have an essential role to play. We can no longer disallow genuine wildlife conservation if it does not include equal weighting for predators … all of them . Which would almost certainly mean deemphasizing cattle and sheep grazing in overlapping resource zones. One Cow-Calf AUM will eat the grass that can feed 2.5- 4 elk and 7 deer on mountain grass.

    It’s time for the Stockgrowers to come into the 21st century

  8. Great points! Public lands grazing costs the U.S. government far more than it brings in fees.