Ranchers outline ag challenges, opportunities
Cheyenne – According to a panel of ranchers from across Wyoming, the top issues affecting the management of agricultural operations in the state remain an integration of energy development, land subdivision and endangered or threatened species.
Rancher and Sublette County Commissioner Joel Bousman, rancher and Natrona County Commissioner Rob Hendry, rancher and Vice-Chair of the Thunder Basin Grasslands Prairie Ecosystem Association Frank Eathorne and Mark Eisele, rancher and president of the Board of Directors of the Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Land Trust, were invited to speak on these issues at the mid-November Society for Range Management Wyoming Section/Soil and Water Conservation Society annual meeting in Cheyenne.
Eisele said wind energy is coming at both the state and his county, Laramie County, like a tidal wave. “People usually either love wind power or hate it, and we’ve had lots of discussion over how the viewscape can be defined, but I think it’s something that will never be resolved.”
He did say he thinks wind power is a really good thing for ag because once all the land is reclaimed cattle can be grazed beneath the turbines and, unlike a housing development, if the turbines don’t work out they can be taken out and the landowner still has a ranch.
Hendry said wind is big in southeastern Wyoming, and will get huge in Natrona County. He said 10 meteorological towers have been installed west of Casper, in addition to large projects already in the works for Converse County.
“There are some challenges ahead for the federal agencies in that a lot of the wind areas are along the Oregon Trail,” said Hendry. “Not only will we have the turbines out there, but we’ll have power lines, and they’re going to be big. It’s a balancing act.”
He said the Wyoming County Commissioners Association is discussing a new committee that would coordinate regulations across the state so companies looking to install new power lines or pipelines would encounter similar rules throughout the state.
If people want to talk about challenges, Bousman said Sublette County has almost all of them. “You can’t find a topic talked about in Wyoming that we can’t relate to in our county,” he said.
Bousman said 80 percent of his time as a county commissioner is spent working with federal agencies to mitigate impacts from energy production. “We look for ways that will allow our county to maintain its economic diversity when all this development goes away,” he said.
He said a side effect of the energy development has been a 35 percent increase in the county’s population in the last seven years. “We’re in a situation where the intensity of the energy development is beyond the ability of the local government to properly plan a reaction.”
Bousman said the local government is looking for a way to create economic incentives that would encourage development to occur in certain parts of the community. “We try to see if we can make it more attractive for people to live in town rather than on 40 acres,” he said.
As a part of this, the county is looking at a new conservation tool. “In addition to conservation easements we see the need to develop a tool we’d call a term-limited wildlife habitat contract,” he said. “We’d provide incentives for landowners as an option to selling off 40 acres for a house. It would provide a return to the landowner for some of the public values like open spaces and wildlife habitat.”
“Production agriculture has developed habitat diversity for wildlife and open space,” said Bousman. “Production ag provides these things by merely being in business and therefore becomes itself a public benefit.”
“We want to put together a process that would put a value on these habitat components. What is the value of 160 acres of mule deer habitat?” asked Bousman. “How do you put a value on it that will not only be justifiable in the eyes of the public but high enough the landowner will say it’s an alternative he’s interested in pursuing? Does the public see a value in keeping ag on the land and are they willing to provide economic alternatives?”
Bousman said energy companies on the Pinedale Anticline have put together an off-site impact mitigation fund of $34 million to address impacts related to energy development, and he thinks the demands from the county’s population increase are a legitimate off-site impact that should qualify for funding.
On the eastern part of the state, Eathorne said a group of landowners including ranchers, conservation organizations and coal mining companies have formed the Ecosystem Association on the Thunder Basin National Grasslands with the goal of obtaining a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA).
“We realized that even if we were successful we’d immediately be confronted by other proposed listings and be obliged to endlessly repeat the process, so we decided to seek a CCAA based on habitat to protect us from the effects of any and all species listings in our defined area,” he said.
The Association is still obtaining the information needed to approach the Fish and Wildlife Service for their CCAA. “This would be similar to a conservation easement, but for only a 10-year term, and during the 10 years we’d like to gradually add more species and work toward a complete habitat-based CCAA,” said Eathorne.
Although the Association estimates 2,000 species on their lands, the FWS has to analyze the area species by species so the Association has started out with only three or four, including the prairie dog and the sage grouse.
The Association has been asked to hold off on their request for a CCAA until the FWS receives the request for the statewide CCAA on sage grouse.
Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.