As the Bridger-Teton National Forest takes the final steps to reauthorize a massive cattle grazing operation in the Upper Green River area, it will simultaneously try to appease two squarely at-odds forces.
On one side of the issue are the livestock lobby and cattlemen, who are resistant to heightened regulation and monitoring and seek to hold the line on the number of cattle allowed on the range.
Opposite are environmental advocacy groups and federal watchdogs, who argue the forest is neglecting its duty to protect wildlife and their habitat and is grossly violating numerous federal laws.
The push and pull will be on display next week as the Bridger-Teton convenes meetings with the disparate “objectors” in hopes of ameliorating grievances.
“The challenge revolves around the fact that we’re a multiple-use agency and we have multiple directives and uses on the national forest,” Bridger-Teton Pinedale District Ranger Rob Hoelscher said. “Balancing those needs is just a challenge when you have various interests out there.
“We understand that there are effects, positive and negative, of every decision that we make,” he said. “Balancing those effects with the needs of the individuals that use the national forest is just a very challenging position to be in.”
The Bridger-Teton received eight formal objections to its decision, and a review of the documents shows that diametrically opposed requests are being made.
The parties are weighing in on a decision that would reauthorize grazing on the 267 square miles of the forest for at least the next decade. The land in question is mostly in the Upper Green River drainage, but it also extends into the Gros Ventre River drainage and parts of Teton County. The rangeland complex has received a lot of attention as far as federal land grazing allotments go, partly because of its size and also because it’s an area that sees chronic conflict with grizzly bears.
The Bridger-Teton’s grazing plan is largely business as usual on the landscape level, allowing a maximum of 8,772 cow-calf pairs and yearling cattle.
The cohort of objectors pushing for more lenient regulation and free reign for stockmen includes the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, Cora Valley Angus Ranch and a coalition that includes Sublette County’s conservation district and commissioners, the Upper Green River Cattlemen’s Association and Wyoming Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Sublette.
National and regional organizations are among the ranks of conservation-oriented objectors. Groups include the Yellowstone to Uintas Connection, Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club.
Many of the complaints listed by the environmental advocates propose no “remedy” beyond redoing the hundreds of pages of analysis that influenced the forest’s decision. That was the approach the Yellowstone to Uintas Connection and Alliance for the Wild Rockies used in a joint objection.
“In essence,” the groups wrote, “the Forest Service has been, and under the selected alternative would continue to manage the allotments areas to the detriment of wildlife, water, fish, soils and other natural resource values because of overgrazing.”
Their remedy to that grievance was a request to “prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement ... and prohibit livestock grazing in these allotments in the meantime.”
Bridger-Teton Supervisor Tricia O’Connor, who is overseeing the objection process, has decided not to engage groups if their suggested fix is to start from scratch.
“Tricia has already decided on a number of the issues that she is just not willing to have that conversation,” Hoelscher said. “We had a regional review of the decision and the EIS by our specialists and a group of NEPA folks, and their conclusion was that we are meeting the intent of NEPA and meeting other requirements of the EIS and record of decision.”
Some of the issues that will be deliberated at the Bridger-Teton’s objection hearings are grizzly bear conflict mitigation, amphibian monitoring, “overall cattle management” and some of the errors in the forest’s draft decision document, Hoelscher said.
The Western Watersheds Project’s Wyoming director, Jonathan Ratner, criticized the forest’s “smoke-and-mirror” management approach to protecting amphibians like boreal toads.
The forest’s “aspirational” objective of retaining 70 percent vegetation cover in their meadow habitats earned his ire. He criticized a U.S. Forest Service biologist’s report that found Colorado River cutthroat trout populations are trending toward extirpation in the grazing area, but at the same time concluded the species was not significantly threatened by grazing in the area.
“I am not saying it is easy to be a biologist working in the corrupt Forest Service,” Ratner wrote, “but one needs to value truth and the resource you are tasked to protect more than writing bulls--t to please the decision-makers.”
The Sublette County objection, signed onto by the ranchers who are permitted to use the area, asks the Bridger-Teton to reel back many of regulatory requirements in the decision, making them voluntary measures instead of mandatory. Such was the case with an electric fence that the forest wants to require to keep cattle out of a degraded portion of Wagon Creek. The group is also pushing back on a slight reduction in the number of cattle allowed on one pasture.
The Bridger-Teton will attempt to settle the disputes at meetings scheduled for March 9 and 14 at the forest supervisor’s office on North Cache Street.
To read the objections, which are technical documents, go to FS.USDA.gov/project/?project=3049.