BLM considers all factors in Hot Springs County allotment renewal process
Worland – “As we sit here, there are a lot of interesting things going on,” said Mike Phillips, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) assistant field manager for resources in the Worland BLM office. “There are a lot of things going on in the Bighorn Basin and a lot of press related to allotments here.”
In particular, during a Feb. 14 meeting of the Guardians of the Range, Phillips discussed the progress and status of 18 allotments in Hot Springs County previously held by Frank Robbins of HD Ranch and High Island Ranch and Cattle Co. and progress BLM is making in processing grazing applications.
“Hay Creek Land and Cattle has applied for the old Frank Robbins’ grazing permits,” Phillips explained. “Frank Robbins lost his grazing permits in 2005-06 due to trespass violations and violation of permit term and conditions.
The loss of allotments was preceded by a lengthy litigation.
In 2009, Hay Creek Land and Cattle approached BLM to indicate interest in the permits, and in 2010, those permits were offered up for applications.
“The Worland Field Office received conflicting applications from five other applicants,” Phillips continued. “Hay Creek applied for 18 allotments. It was a long application process and took us roughly two years to get through.”
In the initial decision, Hay Creek was awarded all or part of 16 of the 18 allotments they applied for. The remaining allotments were approved to other qualified applicants.
Hay Creek appealed the final decision, and a settlement agreement was reached between BLM, Hay Creek Land and Livestock and the other two permittees – Anthony Martinez and Pennoyer and Sons.
“We are getting through the settlement process right now,” Phillips explained, noting that the process is anticipated to take between five and seven years to complete.
Phillips explained that BLM has guidelines to govern how the allotments should be awarded in the event that conflicting permit applications are received and a specific process they must follow.
“The primary issue is ingress and regress,” he said, explaining that ownership of those private lands within the boundaries of an allotment are strongly considered in awarding permits. “That is important when we have intermixed public and private land.”
The other criteria include historic use and proper use of rangelands for orderly administration of public lands.
At the same time, processing BLM permits is a three-step process, which begins with a rangeland health evaluation.
An Environmental Assessment (EA) is the next step following the evaluation. The EAincludes a public scoping and comment process. The final step of the process is the potential issuingof the permit.
BLM has broken the 16 allotments into smaller units to facilitate working through the three-step approach to process the applications. In the current fiscal year, BLM is on phase two for the middle section. Phase three in the upper country will be started in 2016.
“The BLM and Hay Creek agreed to work in Phase One, the low country, first, with the reasoning that all could agree on the initial management intent of the area, and Hay Creek expressed a need for grazing permits in those areas, as they have large amounts of public land,” he noted.
Each area has its own resources, Philips said, including sage grouse, grizzly bears, wolves, Canada lynx habitat, big game habitat, migration routes, recreational use, access and cultural issues.
“This ranch has everything except wild horses,” he continued.
Bighorn sheep conflicts
One large concern on the permits, particularly in the upper country, is the potential presence of Bighorn sheep on the allotments, which have historically been used for sheep grazing.
“Phase three is where we hear about most of the issues taking place,” Phillips said. “This is where the Bighorn sheep and domestic sheep interaction piece came up.”
“BLM is also concerned about Bighorn sheep, but there is a lot of private land intermixed in the allotments,” he continued.
BLM has been working closely with Hay Creek to both help them avoid direct conflicts with Bighorn sheep and also to minimize potential trespass on public lands, said Phillips.
Hay Creek has provided their herders GPS units with land status chips to avoid BLM-managed lands and uses sheep dogs like most other sheep operations to keep the sheep on their private lands and state lands.
“In 2014, Hay Creek purposely did not utilize private lands in the upper stretches of Willow Creek or Rock Creek near Bighorn sheep in attempt to address the Bighorn sheep concerns,” Phillips said.
Phillips also noted that BLM is working closely with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) to verify Bighorn sheep use areas, so BLM in turn can continue to help Hay Creek avoid potential conflicts with the wild sheep.
“The observational data received indicates the time that Bighorn sheep are observed in these areas is not the same time that domestic sheep utilize the private grazing land,” he added. “That is the best available data that we have.”
Completing the process
As BLM works forward, Phillips noted that BLM will continue to work to address the issues.
“We don’t have authority on their private land,” he said. “The best thing we can do is help educate individuals and work with them on the potential risks and issues.”
As the process continues, Phillips also noted that BLM has joined with WGFD to attempt to collect data on Bighorn sheep movements.
“We are trying to be very transparent in what we are doing and will continue to follow our guidance as the BLM processes these grazing permit applications,” Phillips said.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.