Environmental watchdogs walked away from negotiations over the future of livestock grazing in the Upper Green River basin, feeling disenfranchised and as if native flora and fauna aren’t being prioritized.
The Bridger-Teton National Forest is nearing the end of a long environmental review process that reauthorizes stockmen running more than 9,000 cow-calf pairs and yearling cattle on 267 square miles of Bridger-Teton land east of Jackson for decades to come.
Conservation groups tried to increase regulations and bolster protections for the land and its wildlife, but they say they didn’t get far during two days of meetings aimed at resolving their “objections.”
“When we walked out of the meeting there wasn’t a feeling that the process had been successful from an environmental or forest plan compliance perspective,” said Jonathan Ratner, Western Watersheds Project’s director for Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. “In terms of protecting native trout, amphibians, grizzly bears, wolves, sage grouse, essentially the decision is requirement-free. There really aren’t any requirements that they actually have to meet, and if they don’t meet them there aren’t repercussions. That’s a pretty good deal for the permittees.
“Everything that has been provided by the conservation community has been flatly rejected and ignored,” he said. “Anything that the Forest Service brought forward that the permittees didn’t like was dispensed with. The decision is very close to what the permittees wanted in the beginning.”
Andrea Santarsiere, of the Center for Biological Diversity, also felt she was unable to sway the decision to better protect wildlife such as amphibians and grizzly bears.
“The Forest Service was willing to listen, and I was happy for that,” Santarsiere said. “But when push came to shove it seemed like they always backed down and erred on the side of protecting the interests of the livestock owners.”
A goal of the Bridger-Teton’s objections meetings, held March 9 and 14, was to settle grievances filed by eight organizations and ranchers. The task is complicated by the fact the cattlemen want fewer regulations and requirements, conservationists want more, and the forest is in the middle trying to appease both.
“You tweak one thing this way and the other side is groaning,” Bridger-Teton Supervisor Tricia O’Connor, who played the role of the objection “reviewing officer,” said in an interview.
“It’s going to be a tricky balance for us to come up with language that they think is perfect,” she said. “I don’t know that’s going to happen, but we’re going to try.”
The Bridger-Teton’s Upper Green grazing plan largely continues business-as-usual operations in terms of cattle numbers and where stock are and aren’t allowed. The plan, assessed for years through an environmental impact statement, does identify seven “focus areas” where the rangeland is degraded below desired conditions. In those areas the Bridger-Teton instituted special requirements, like limiting forage that can be consumed by livestock, fencing trampled stream banks and planting willows.
Grazing the Upper Green has made headlines because it’s the most lethal corner of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for grizzly bears due to conflict with livestock.
The Bridger-Teton’s plan calls for no new special requirements to prevent such conflicts. Conservationists and cattlemen struggled to find middle ground during the meetings, and the forest drafted no “potential remedy” that would bridge the gap.
Albert Sommers, Sublette County’s representative in the Wyoming House and president of the Upper Green River Cattle Association, called for flexibility in dealing with grizzlies. If cows are being killed, he wanted wiggle room to move them elsewhere.
“In the end I don’t particularly want to see dead bears, and I don’t want to see dead cows,” Sommers said. “It’s my hope that over time I can find out strategies that help remedy this.”
Wyoming Game and Fish Department carnivore manager Zach Turnbull echoed the sentiment, asking for flexibility instead of rigid regulations.
“I think allowing that flexibility is pretty important,” he said. “There’s no real golden ticket for solving this stuff. It’s pretty difficult, and a lot is being done that’s not required.”
In coming weeks O’Connor will mail all the objectors offering potential remedies. Objectors can sign off on them and withdraw their grievances. If they don’t agree, the recourse is litigation.
There’s no timeline set for when the Bridger-Teton will issue a final decision for its Upper Green grazing plan.