Grazing assoc assists shareholders for over 100 yearsWritten by Christy Hemken
“Prior to 1907 the Rock Springs-area sheep producers wanted to stop migrant sheep bands from coming through, so they got together with the railroad and agreed to lease its odd-numbered checkerboard sections, which enabled them to control who came on the land,” says RSGA Board Chair John Hay.
Before the grazing association began to control the land there were as many as 9,000 sheep that would cross the Green River to graze. “They’d come early and stay late and leave the range looking like an empty table. This area had been traumatically overgrazed,” says Hay. “The grazing association was put together to provide grass for the sheep producers in the area.”
When UP began selling land in Carbon County the producers formed the RSGA so they’d retain authority on the land.
The association was originally set up with 100 shares, with each share granting the right to graze 3,000 head of sheep from Dec. 15 through May 1. “Today we have 62.75 shares sitting out there, so our numbers are dramatically less than the estimated carrying capacity,” says Hay, noting that the association’s never been filled to its full extent.
When the association was put together the operators were entirely sheep. In the 1960s the first cattle were allowed to come on with a seven-to-one conversion rate.
This last winter the association grazed 58,000 sheep and 400 cattle under 39 shareholders. The livestock come from several areas, ranging from west of Rock Springs to near Kemmerer and in Utah and Idaho to east of Rock Springs around Baggs and down into Colorado, as well as some more locally in the Farson area and south of town.
Today both RSGA and Anadarko Petroleum own the private checkerboard land, which lies 20 miles north and 20 miles south of the railroad for 80 miles on either side of Rock Springs. The BLM controls the other half of even-numbered parcels. Each parcel, a section, is one square mile.
“The grazing association exists entirely on the checkerboard, so that’s always an interesting management situation,” says Hay, noting RSGA works very closely with Anadarko, which owns the mineral estate on all the odd-numbered sections. “The surface portion owned by Anadarko we lease from them, and on the public sections we have a grazing permit with the BLM, so it’s an unusual management situation from that perspective alone.”
He explains the checkerboard is managed as one large unit with three very interested parties. “We work very closely with all of them to reach the objectives,” he says.
RSGA uses its land strictly for winter grazing from Dec. 15 to May 1. “The federal government has summer permits and we handle the winter portion and work year round on what happens on the surface with oil and gas development, pipelines, transmission lines and wind power,” says Hay.
Some of the summertime users are members of RSGA, and others are not. Hay says there isn’t a great deal of summer use, and where members graze in the winter is mostly determined by weather patterns.
In addition to coordinating amongst the ownership interests, the RSGA has dealt with the wild horse situation for an awful long time,” says Hay.
“It wasn’t a problem until the Wild Horse and Burro Act passed in 1971, because the individual operators managed the wild horse levels at a reasonable number,” he continues. “All the issues started when it became the responsibility of the BLM to manage populations.”
In the late 1970s a lawsuit began that resulted in a judge ordering the BLM to remove all horses from the checkerboard at that point in time. More recently, Hay says the consent decree between the State of Wyoming and the BLM has been the most effective tool in keeping horse numbers down.
Of pending legislation in U.S. Congress that would expand Herd Management Areas back to 1971 levels, Hay says he hopes it will be defeated. “We have enough difficulty without adding to it,” he says.
Although wild horses are the biggest issue, Hay says the increasing numbers of elk on the checkerboard are a concern. “With the wolf situation our guess is they’ve come along the Wind River Range and crossed South Pass and come down onto the lease. It’s been a much faster increase than would naturally occur.”
Although the Wyoming Game and Fish Department does have permits assigned, Hay says the association thinks they need to be more aggressive in reducing populations. “We’re well over agreed-upon numbers,” he says.
“The development of the mineral resource has an effect on everything else we do,” he says of the land’s mineral rights. “We have to take advantage of the coal, oil, gas and wind resources, but we’re trying to do these things in a fashion that all the parties are taken care of.”
Currently the association is working on wind projects. “We’re trying to have resource development that makes sense, and such that we have an income source for our shareholders,” says Hay, noting they’re in communication with four companies at this point. “We’re very proactive in terms of development and helping our shareholders.”