Wyo ag groups see policy, legal issues in 2015Written by Saige Albert
For the Wyoming agriculture industry, it wasn’t weather that created a challenge in 2015 but rather the ever-impending policy and legal issues, ranging from endangered species and litigation to natural resources and public lands, that took up an immense amount of time.
“Like many years in the recent past, this year was full of a lot of policy challenges for the agriculture industry in Wyoming and around the country,” says Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA) Director Doug Miyamoto. “From the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) and Bighorn/domestic sheep interaction to wild horse management, we are working hard on several issues to make sure Wyoming agriculture stays strong under the pressure of increased regulations.”
“While we continue to fight some of those challenges, we had some successes in 2015,” he adds.
Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts (WACD) Executive Director Bobbie Frank, Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) Executive Vice President Jim Magagna and Wyoming Farm Bureau (WyFB) Executive Vice President Ken Hamilton noted that there were a number of issues throughout the year.
In the legislature
The 2015 General Session of the Wyoming Legislature brought several big wins for the agriculture industry, including several trespass bills and a communications bill.
“The passage of legislation on trespassing to collect data we felt was an important event,” Frank comments.
Magagna continues, “The second bill that dealt with the liability of the landowner to a trespasser was also important.”
“Both of these trespass bills were high priorities for us,” he adds.
Hamilton also comments that a communications bill was also important for rural landowners.
“The bill that reauthorized the Wyoming Telecommunications Act also was a positive for the rural areas of Wyoming,” Hamilton says. “We will be revisiting this issue again, once we get a clearer idea of what the Federal Communications Commission is doing on their broadband expansion initiative, especially as it relates to rural areas.”
“One of the successes for 2015 was the decision to not list the sage grouse for protection under the ESA,” says Miyamoto.
WDA took a proactive approach over the last 10 years to protect the bird and ensure impacts on agriculture were minimized to the degree that they could be.
“Wyoming’s efforts to head off a listing of the sage grouse has hopefully left us somewhat in the driver’s seat, but I fear that the restrictions that federal agencies will put into place on federal land may be almost as bad as if the bird had been listed,” Hamilton adds.
Implementation of those plans is also a concern for WACD and WSGA.
Miyamoto comments, “Going forward, we must ensure that sage grouse plan implementation is done with a healthy dose of common sense and in a manner that accounts for local conditions.”
It’s not surprising to most in agriculture that the WOTUS rule comes to the forefront of our minds when we look back at 2015.
“The WOTUS rule introduced even more confusion into the Clean Water Act and removed local decision making, which would have been catastrophic,” says Miyamoto.
Franks adds, however, that one positive came in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision to withdraw the interpretive rule.
“The interpretive rule would have identified specific practices that were considered exempt under the Clean Water Act,” she explains. “To be exempt, the practices would have had to follow Natural Resources Conservation Service standards and specifications. We are pleased that they withdrew the rule.”
Miyamoto adds that another 2015 success came along with WOTUS, commenting, “Another success was realized in the form of a stay issued by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, after an injunction by U.S. District Judge Erickson of North Dakota, on the WOTUS rule. This stay prevents EPA from drastically increasing their jurisdiction over water bodies we contend are under control of the state.”
“The continued expansion of EPA and Army Corp of Engineer’s regulatory reach into ‘all things wet’ is something we in agriculture can ill afford to have go forward,” Hamilton explains. “Hopefully the legal challenges to WOTUS will be successful but even better would be Congressional action that would reign in these two agencies, particularly EPA.”
Other water issues
Overall, Frank says that moisture was positive in 2015.
“We had good moisture this year,” she says, “and hopefully we have it again next year.”
Frank also mentions that the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) decision to uphold their requirements for credible data use was a big win, and she adds, “We look forward to DEQ continuing to do that in the future.”
For sheep producers, the Bighorn sheep/domestic sheep issue continued to provide a challenge.
“Another challenge we are facing and continue to work on is Bighorn and domestic sheep interaction on U.S. Forest Service (USFS) lands,” Miyamoto says.
While the Wyoming Legislature adopted the Wyoming Bighorn Sheep/Domestic Sheep Plan as law, Miyamoto notes that WDA continues working with its partners at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Wyoming Livestock Board, Governor’s Office and the Bighorn Sheep/Domestic Sheep Interaction Working Group in negotiations with USFS.
“We are working to encourage USFS to utilize the plan that has been working in Wyoming for over a decade,” Miyamoto says.
In addition to the regulatory challenges seen, Magagna notes that litigation was prevalent in 2015.
“It has been an eventful year on the litigation front,” he continues, citing two lawsuits related to trespass. “We have the litigation landowners filed against Western Watersheds Project (WWP) and the suit filed against the state of Wyoming over legislation on trespass to collect data.”
Litigation by the Rock Springs Grazing Association related to wild horses is ongoing. Currently, stakeholders are awaiting National Environmental Policy Act analysis.
“Also, WSGA filed suit against Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service over their nine-plan records of decision regarding the sage grouse,” Magagna says. “It seems like we live in litigation mode these days, unfortunately.”
Hamilton notes that prices and markets also created some challenges, though cattle prices were positive.
“The recent cattle price decline was something we were all expecting but hoping wasn’t going to occur,” he says. “Prior to that, a good grass year and good prices were a big plus. We saw more smiles in cattle country than we’ve seen in a long time.”
Corn prices, however, were much lower, and hay prices dropped compared to recent years.
“There were a lot of positives this year,” Frank comments, “but it always seems like we deal with the negatives because of their implications.”
Next week, read about what agriculture groups will be focusing on in 2016.