Seperate boundaries common issues: Big Horn County conservation districts work togetherWritten by Teresa Milner
The South Big Horn Conservation District and the Shoshone Conservation District share more than just a boundary line and a place in Big Horn County. Right now, both districts are dealing with the same challenging conservation issues, including invasive weed management, TMDLs and the revision of the BLM’s Bighorn Basin Resource Management Plan (RMP).
The management of the BLM lands in the Bighorn Basin, like all BLM lands, is guided by a document called an RMP, which are typically revised every 15 to 20 years. They serve as a blueprint for all on-the-ground actions and management decisions the BLM will make, and the agency began the revision process of the Bighorn Basin RMP in October 2008.
Conservation districts, county commissioners and other local governments in the Bighorn Basin have been following and participating in the process to ensure the BLM considers the impacts of the plan on the environment, conservation and local communities. Representatives of both the Shoshone Conservation District (CD) and South Big Horn CD provided input on possible alternatives outlined by the BLM.
“The plan can affect outdoor recreation, oil and gas development and grazing in the basin. An effective balance between use and conservation of the resources of the Bighorn Basin is key to us in the process,” says Shoshone CD Coordinator Kristin Tilley. “I believe our local governments coming together to act as a group has made a big difference in the planning process.”
Public comments on the draft RMP were due Sept. 7, and a record of decision and final plan is expected in May 2012.
Originally promoted as an ideal species for windbreaks and wildlife habitat, the Russian olive and salt cedar trees common in the Bighorn Basin have become the latest victims in Wyoming’s war on weeds. Both the South Big Horn and Shoshone CDs are cooperating with groups like the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Weed and Pest, BLM and the National Wild Turkey Federation to help landowners remove the trees from critical riparian areas. The cooperating organizations split the division of duties, with some providing technical expertise and others providing funding.
“Our role is to provide administrative support for the program,” explains South Big Horn CD Manager Janet Hallstead. “We collect receipts, submit payment requests to the grants and pay contractors for their services.”
Both districts use their ongoing seedling tree programs to encourage landowners to plant more suitable species when the Russian olives or salt cedars are removed. The Shoshone CD offers a 50/50 funding match up to $300 for a district resident wanting to plant trees. Together, the districts sold more than 14,000 seedling trees in Big Horn County.
Greedy aquatic plants aren’t the only water issue facing the Big Horn County conservation districts. To comply with Clean Water Act regulations, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has begun the process of developing a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for many of Wyoming’s waters, including the Big Horn River, where a 13-year deadline to restore the river to its natural condition is up, so a TMDL must be written. The TMDL affecting Big Horn County residents focuses on 16 impaired stream segments in the Greybull and Big Horn River watershed.
“A TMDL study is required when a waterbody is determined not to be meeting its assigned designated use,” explains Tilley. “The Big Horn River and other area streams were listed on the state’s 303(d) list as impaired by fecal bacteria. Our district began trying to address this more than 10 years ago by forming a local watershed district, actively monitoring our waters, writing a comprehensive watershed plan and completing watershed improvement projects.”
When the Clean Water Act was enacted in the early 1970s, Wyoming agriculture producers voiced concerns about how the regulations would impact agriculture, particularly the idea that livestock operations would be heavily regulated or would be singled out as the primary cause of impairment.
“The South Big Horn Conservation District wants to ensure that local landowners are kept up-to-date on the TMDL development process,” says Hallstead. “Our board chairman Linda Hamilton has been attending the TMDL meetings and monthly teleconference calls to monitor the project’s progress and provide guidance to the project team. We’re really trying to be a voice for constituents in this process.”
The South Big Horn and Shoshone CDs have continued water sampling efforts and are helping to address impairments through on-the-ground projects like assisting producers in relocating livestock corrals, burying storm drains and rehabilitating failing or aged septic systems.
“We will continue to assist landowners in implementing best management practices and work on a watershed scale,” says Tilley. “But this TMDL process is very new to all of us. In reality, we’re not sure how this will all unfold.”