Bighorn National Forest cuts livestock grazing permitsWritten by Echo Renner
Greybull – On Jan. 2 the Bighorn National Forest (BNF) issued a letter to livestock grazing permittees announcing reduced permitted AUMs for 13 permittees, by 40 to 68 percent. The reductions affect six allotments in the Tongue, Medicine Wheel and Paintrock ranger districts from 2009 through 2011.
At the BNF Livestock Grazing Permittee Meeting on Jan. 23 in Greybull, the reductions were a hot topic. Nearly 70 people attended the meeting the BNF and Guardians of the Range (Guardians) set up last fall to improve communication efforts between permittees and the BNF.
The Guardians are a grazing advocacy group of about 100 ranchers who utilize federal lands in the Big Horn Basin for livestock grazing.
The BNF Briefing Paper – Tongue Allotment Management Plan (AMP) Decision Implementation issued on Jan. 4, 2008 gives some background on the process that lead to the reductions. “The 1995 Rescission Bill (P.L. 104-19) required that federal livestock grazing allotment management plans be revised through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) decision-process.” In the mid 1990s, BNF range personnel and livestock grazing permittees began discussing how to meet legal requirements and Forest Plan objectives for sustainable livestock grazing, and how to collect data on which to base those decisions.
“Some allotments in the Tongue District are stocked in the one- to two-acre-per-AUM range, which is a pretty high stocking rate. Most of the stocking rates haven’t been changed since the 1960s,” said Bernie Bornong, BNF Resources Staff Officer. A number of collaborators worked through the allotment planning process, including permittees, UW Extension, the Wyoming Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service.
In 2005, the BNF issued the Record of Decision for the Tongue AMP. The decision included a three-year monitoring period in order to determine the number of permitted AUMs available for grazing on an annual basis in order to consistently meet the allowable use guidelines. The three-year monitoring period ran from 2005-2007 for the six allotments affected by the Jan. 2 decision. Actual use information (numbers and class of livestock, number of days in each pasture and the forage use monitoring data) from the 2005 to 2007 monitoring period was used to calculate the percentage of the permitted AUMs. According to the Briefing Paper, “this calculated percentage was then increased by at least 10 percent to factor in variables such as annual forage production, livestock distribution and forage availability.”
At the root of the controversy is the Robel Pole method the BNF used to monitor forage on the Tongue allotments. “The Robel Pole method was used on the Tongue because what we were using wasn’t working,” said Bornong.
Guardians Executive Director Kathleen Jachowski added, “The University of Wyoming suggested Robel Pole because it would be cost effective, consistent and could be done quickly.”
Sheridan area rancher Chas Kane calls the Robel Pole method “a flawed system,” saying it only measures the height of the grass. “We measure before and after we go in (to the allotment). The range looks good, but still does not meet Robel Pole requirements.”
Kane’s daughter-in-law, Carol Kane, added, “Permittees are going to have huge cuts by 2011, and some of them could be completely put out of business because of Robel Pole. But we’re not overgrazing, and we’re not damaging the range.”
“Everyone involved understands that, and the decision wasn’t made lightly,” responded Bornong. “Everyone wants to keep grazing on the forest.”
BNF Supervisor Bill Bass pointed out, “Grazing can be a wonderful tool to keep the health and vigor of a national forest. Grasslands are healthy because they get grazed.”
Lovell area rancher and Utah State range graduate Michael Bischoff said, “Robel Pole is not so good with mixed grass species. The Pole method would work well in a hay pasture, but not on fescue or mountain brome, or when the grass is rank. It’s a complicated system. It comes down to good management for the range. Is this a tool to help the range, or is this a tool to get us off the range?”
Jachowski pointed out, “It’s a good methodology, but one of the big concerns with Robel Pole, and one contention the Guardians hold, is that it should be set to determine the capability on each particular allotment or pasture. If we don’t get it right on allotments, we shouldn’t extrapolate it across the forest. We’ll keep getting it wrong. We need to get the bandwidth set for each pasture or allotment.”
“The die was cast a while ago,” said Bornong. “There was a long planning process, and now the Tongue instance is boxed in. There’s further work to be done, and there’s potential mediation, but it is what it is. We were happy with the Pole, even though it’s not very satisfactory to some.”
Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna remarked after the meeting, “We are encouraging the permittees to file an appeal, and so is the Department of Ag, to help protect permittee rights, and to keep the doors open to discussion. An appeal is not necessarily a bad thing if something has been overlooked or missed, and it affords you opportunity for mediation.”
Permittees who face reductions have until Feb. 19 to file an appeal. “If they don’t file an appeal, they face progressive cuts through 2011. It’s a done deal. The appeal allows time to explore options, and perhaps come to a resolution,” said Don Christianson, Senior Policy Analyst at the Wyoming Department of Agriculture. “There is a lot of controversy whether the cuts are actually warranted.”
The other seven cattle and horse allotments will likely complete their three years of monitoring in the 2008 grazing season. “Permitted AUMs on those allotments will be changed up or down as the data indicates, around a year from now,” noted Bornong.