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Guest Opinions

Wyoming Department of Agriculture Facilitates Research, Data Collection

Written by Doug Miyamoto

Having recently finished the 63rd session of the Wyoming Legislature and hearing the concerns of closing revenue gaps due to the status of the state’s mineral industry, the value of Wyoming’s agricultural industry becomes very apparent, as it should during times like these.

I’m sure you have heard time and again that agriculture is Wyoming’s third largest industry behind minerals and tourism. Wyoming’s agricultural sector output has been above the $1 billion threshold in value since 2010, and in 2014 alone, Wyoming’s agricultural output totaled more than $1.47 billion, according to USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service. 

I would also submit to you that neither of the industries in front of agriculture would be nearly as valuable without the side-benefits agriculture provides in terms of open space, resource ownership, western culture, wildlife habitat, water quality/quantity, air quality and aesthetics as just a few examples. I say side-benefits because, important to the state that agriculture is – and should be, the industry is primarily about food and fiber production for a growing population. As obvious as that may be for those of us in the agriculture industry, it is far too often overlooked by others who view agriculture as nothing more than a convenient pathway to turning the West into a zoo. I love wildlife, too, but I believe, and in many cases can prove, that wildlife and production agriculture enjoy a symbiotic relationship.

There should be a common understanding, however, of the value of agriculture. It is vital that we do everything we can to protect agriculture as a key component of our state’s economy. What would this economic downturn and subsequent forecast be like if our farms and ranches were subdivided or less productive due to competing interests for land use? This is one of the questions we ask ourselves at the Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA). Another question we ask is, what can we do to ensure that agriculture remains stable, profitable and desirable to future generations of Wyoming citizens? We are continually working to answer these questions so when this predicament rears its ugly head again, agriculture will still be here to provide some certainty for the state’s economy and options for recovery.

One of the best examples of our work on these questions is the Wild Horse Research Project. Many of you understand the necessary and mutually beneficial tie between private and public lands in the ranching industry. In western Wyoming, one of the most pressing issues challenging the future of agriculture is feral horses and their impacts. The Wild Horse Research Project came about with the help of Sen. Larry Hicks during the 2014 Budget Session for the 2015-16 biennium. WDA was provided $250,000 for statewide data collection and research on the impacts of wild and feral horses under federal jurisdiction. We are now conducting assessments of baseline range conditions, dietary overlap between horses and wildlife, developing independent and scientific approaches for counting/modeling horse populations and gathering any information that can be used to protect state and private lands by controlling the number of wild or feral horses in Wyoming.

In pursuit of these objectives, two Requests for Proposal were released in November 2014 for population census/modeling projects and for assessing impacts to wildlife and rangeland condition projects. We created a review committee consisting of Sen. Hicks of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Gerry Geis of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Rep. Robert McKim of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Glenn Moniz of the House Appropriations Committee, Jessica Crowder of the Governor’s Policy Office and several WDA and industry representatives to analyze the proposals we received.  Four projects were selected.

One of the projects selected was for the formation of a Wild Horse Steering Committee by the University of Wyoming. The State Grazing Board recommended WDA and the Governor’s Office partner to develop a committee of rangeland and wild horse experts to help define the term “Thriving Natural Ecological Balance,” which is a key component of management in the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971. To date, this term is not defined, which leads to different interpretations by land managers and resource scientists and thus, inconsistencies on the ground. Scientific defensibility will be the critical focus of this University-led effort as I think everyone recognizes that any definitions will be heavily scrutinized. 

The second project selected was “Testing the Accuracy of High Definition Infrared (IR) Imaging for Wild Horse Aerial Surveys” by the United States Geological Survey.  The goal of the project is clear in the title and hopefully will provide an easier, safer and more accurate census method for determining horse numbers.  Specifically, the proposal is to fly the McCullough Peaks Herd Management Area (HMA), which has a known population of wild horses, to assess accuracy of the new technology. If the tests indicate IR is more accurate than traditional methods, this may provide a more efficient and cost effective means to count wild horses in other parts of the state or country.

Western Ecosystems Technologies (WEST) Inc. was also selected to conduct wild horse population research using aerial line transect distance sampling to determine counts in 11 HMAs or allotments in Wyoming. This should provide more accurate counts for these areas that are currently exceeding their respective Appropriate Management Levels (AMLs).  In addition, WEST will model all the allotments and HMAs studied to determine the seasonal use of the landscape by wild horses. This model will not only identify the areas of use, but will also identify the vegetative resources wild horses are utilizing during these time periods. Global Positioning System (GPS) documentation of horses during aerial surveys will determine what habitats are being selected in order to develop relative probabilities for utilization across the landscape. This will help land managers understand areas most impacted and help in selecting strategies to offset potential negative impacts and conflicts with wildlife and grazing. This study should be completed by December.

The University of Wyoming (UW) was selected to complete a study called “Wild Horse Spatial Movement Patterns across the Public-Private Land Matrix, Rangeland Habitat Use and Interactions with Wildlife and Livestock.” GPS collars will be used to track wild horse movements illustrating seasonal use of the landscape, areas of preference as well as potential areas of conflict with other uses like livestock grazing and wildlife habitat. UW will also collect vegetative data for plant community composition determinations and dietary preferences of the horses. This data will be extremely valuable to quantitatively document the impact of varying densities of wild horses on the plant community and subsequently a more accurate account of impacts to livestock grazing and wildlife utilization.  UW plans to place special emphasis on documenting the impact of wild horses on sage-grouse habitat, riparian areas and important livestock grazing areas.  Beyond plant community impacts, UW will also collect animal behavior data to document the response of sage grouse to the presence of wild horses. Wild horse influence on livestock behavior will also be monitored and documented. This work should all be completed by December 2017.

When answering the question, “What can the WDA do to best help the industry?” I think that collecting the right data, the right way, at the right time and for the right reasons represents our best strategy.  Influencing land use policy for agriculture has worked best when we have scientific data proving that agriculture solves many more natural resource problems than it creates.  Getting our hands on the right data usually involves a lot of effort and money, but I sincerely believe that it represents one of the most valuable services the state and WDA can offer to support our industry. The common thread of our research grant programs, including Rangeland Health Assessment, Specialty Crop, Wildlife/Livestock Disease, Applied Producer Research and Water Quality, among others, is providing scientific evidence that abandoning production agriculture in favor of other uses is most often not wise.