Western Watersheds challenges Bighorn forest grazing
Cheyenne – Western Watersheds Project (WWP) has filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service (FS) claiming the agency failed to consider all of the impacts of livestock grazing when they adopted the Bighorn National Forest (BNF) management plan.
WWP is requesting the Wyoming U.S. District Court conduct a judicial review of the FS implementation of management plans on specific grazing allotments. The litigation involves allotments covering 32,000 acres in the Willow Park, Piney Creek and Little Piney areas.
“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,” explains Bernie Bornong, BNF Resources Staff Officer. 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. The BNF completed an Environmental Impact Statement and issued a Record of Decision regarding some of the allotments.
“Now we’re being challenged with a lawsuit on the first plan we completed under this,” says Bill Bass, BNF Supervisor, during a January meeting with grazing permittees. “The plaintiff is WWP, an anti-grazing organization. Their remedy is to vacate the decision we have on those allotments and vacate those plans.” He adds, “The agency feels like we’re under attack on the national forest.”
Through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the WWP has requested every piece of grazing information the BNF has for the last five years.
Jonathan Ratner, Director of WWP’s Wyoming office says, “The FS is not addressing livestock grazing in the planning process. It’s a hot-button issue, so the FS prefers to leave it as it is. They know the forest is severely overstocked, but because of politics in the ag industry, it’s very hard to get forest managers to do the right thing. They know the right thing, but when it comes time to take action, they get shredded. Politics are so intense; the right thing rarely takes place.”
Ratner continues, “In 2007, when WWP bid on state grazing leases in Wyoming, within 10 days of our filing those petitions, Jim Magagna (Executive Vice President of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association) and others already had a bill out there to block us. We bid on those state grazing permits so we would use them instead of current lessees.”
“We have grasslands for a reason,” says Bass. “Grasslands are healthy for a reason; because they get grazed. Grazing can be a wonderful tool to keep the health and vigor of the national forest. Some people don’t want cows in a campground, or have to wait for a cattle drive or have cows around when fishing. So they band together to get livestock removed. The result of removing ranches is we end up with little ranchettes, which are bad for range health.” Bass agreed the FS could do a better job of educating the public about the benefits of livestock grazing.
“America has this image of a rancher being this great independent person and not needing anyone’s help,” Ratner comments, “but if the government was not subsiding ranching in the arid West, the economics are not there. Socialism in the U.S. is the livestock industry in the arid West – irrigation, fences, AUM fees, dealing with problems that occur with wolves and native trout species – is all trouble caused by livestock grazing.”
Bornong says the FS received a number of photographs of “sore spots” on the forest, and the group wanted to know what the FS was going to do about it. “Yes, there are some sore spots, but we are working with the permittees on those,” he comments. “Someone suggested the FS should be out there monitoring water. Wyoming Law and the Robel Pole monitoring method used on some of the grazing allotments say we don’t need to do that.” He adds, “We do monitoring to manage sustainability of the range, not because WWP is out there.”
According to Bornong, the funds to prepare for such lawsuits come from regular allocations. “We don’t have special ‘legal people,’ so we have the same people responding to lawsuit allegations and to FOIA requests that would otherwise be working on range planning, monitoring summarization or working with permittees. We typically get about five to eight requests from WWP annually, and even before this lawsuit, I estimated we spent about six months of one person’s time answering those. For the lawsuit, I would guess we are already up to three weeks of time for two people, and one week for three people, and we haven’t even gotten our response filed yet.” He adds, “There is no doubt that groups that file numerous FOIAs, and file lawsuits, partially achieve their ends by diverting our personnel’s time from their ordinary work of planning, monitoring, working with permittees, etc.”
Echo Renner is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.