Conservation groups aim at BTNF’s Upper Green grazing plan for grizzlies
Published on Feb. 8, 2020
Three conservation coalitions are taking aim at the Forest Service’s Upper Green River grazing project and federal documents that allow 72 grizzlies to be taken there over the next decade.
The Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) are named in three similar, but separate notices of intent, released Jan. 21 to sue the agencies within 60 days.
They focus on the FWS’ 2019 Biological Opinion and Incidental Take Statement relied on by Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF) to approve Upper Green grazing for another 10 years.
The approval came in October when Pinedale District Ranger Rob Hoelscher signed the record of decision after months of negotiations with conservation groups. BTNF held an intensive set of hearings to work with objecting parties, including groups now proposing litigation.
“The objection process is over,” BTNF spokesperson Mary Cernicek confirmed. “During that process we did not come to any agreement with the objectors.”
The BTNF’s Upper Green River Rangeland has 170,641 acres of six allotments. Many Sublette County ranchers access the summer range for BTNF-permitted summer grazing via the historical livestock driveway known as “the Green River drift.”
Numerous grizzly-livestock conflicts are reported there, where Wyoming Game and Fish works on behalf of FWS to relocate or remove problem grizzlies.
The notice from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Sierra Club was written by CBD attorney Andrea Santarsiere. It states the two FWS documents do not protect female grizzlies to the level of “no jeopardy” and that 72 grizzly kills over 10 years in the Upper Green does no ensure grizzlies’ long-term recovery.
“Rather than requiring the livestock industry to do more to prevent conflicts with grizzlies, the feds are just authorizing more bears to be killed,” said Santarsiere in a press release. “Wiping out Yellowstone grizzlies to make way for cattle to graze for cheap on public lands just doesn’t make any sense. These treasured bears deserve better.”
The CBD/Sierra Club notice also calls the BTNF’s “recommended” grizzly conservation measures are “inadequate and unenforceable” and grazing permittees should be required to follow them to prevent conflicts.
“For decades, the Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly increased the number of grizzly bears that can be killed as a result of livestock grazing in the Upper Green,” said Bonnie Rice of The Sierra Club. “There are proven, effective methods to prevent conflicts between bears and livestock. Authorizing the killing of 72 grizzly bears over the next 10 years – which doubles the number of bears that have been killed over the past 20 years in the Upper Green – without requiring anything of livestock producers to actually prevent conflicts is unconscionable and ineffective.”
Their notice claims the Forest Service’s reliance on the “faulty” biological opinion is unlawful and that the FWS and Forest Service “should immediately halt reliance on the 2019 biological opinion and Incidental Take Statement for lethal take of grizzly bears in the Upper Green project area until the agencies reinitiate and lawfully complete formal consultation under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act.”
If they do not initiate another formal consultation within 60 days, CBD and the Sierra Club will seek “injunctive, declaratory and other relief” in a federal court.
Separate but similar
The second and third notices have separate attorneys but ask for very similar results, according to Western Watersheds Project attorney John Persell, whose notice includes Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Yellowstone to Uintas Connection.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service is relying on voluntary conservation measures to minimize conflicts between grizzlies and livestock, which typically end up with bears being killed,” said Persell in a statement. “It also fails to consider the impacts of killing female grizzlies and the effect of that on the whole population.”
They also have concerns with how FWS defined the “action area” it used for its analysis to write the biological opinion Persell said.
Others are FWS’ “failures to evaluate the take of 72 grizzlies when added to previously authorized take in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” to evaluate or limit the number of female bears taken, to consider timber harvest impacts to grizzlies and BTNF’s reliance on the “faulty” Biological Opinion, he said.
Alliance for the Wild Rockies and WWP attorneys agreed to sign onto the other’s notices, he said.
Hoelscher declined to answer when asked if the Forest Service would seek another consultation about the FWS’ 2019 Biological Opinion and Incidental Take Statement.
“Since this is a pending litigation we won’t speculate on options or next steps,” Cernicek replied.
Pinedale rancher and Upper Green grazing permittee Albert Sommers said the grazing association he represents did not get everything it wanted in their new 10-year grazing plan but decided to accept what was on the table.
“It’s not unexpected,” he said of the legal challenges. “We all expected some of these extreme environmental groups would sue; we didn’t know on what. How that will play out, I have no idea. I am hopeful the federal agencies will stand by their decision and go to court. We will back them up.”
Aggressive guard dogs might help prevent conflicts, he said, but that “gets complicated” with many riders who help move cattle bringing their stock dogs as well as recreationists with dogs and other animals.
Sommers said some suggested techniques are virtually impossible – such as fencing in a pasture or even removing every cattle carcass, which are almost impossible to find, much less move.
“In the past we tried new techniques like having riders bunch the cattle into one pasture at night. That had no effect at all,” he said. “We do try to remove the carcasses when we can.”
In the 2019 grazing season for confirmed grizzly kills, Upper Green permittees lost two cows, 11 yearlings, of 40 total lost, and 42 calves, of 195 lost, to grizzlies. It was a better year than previous seasons, which Sommers attributes to Game and Fish trapped and removed a lot of grizzlies
The most effective change that involves no new equipment, Sommers added, is that BTNF is letting permittees rotate their pastures. The first one they used before was always filled with larkspur, which is poisonous to cattle. Young and old dropped dead on the spot, attracting a lot of grizzlies.
“It killed a lot of cows and drew too many bears,” Sommers said. “Now we go there last and we have a lot less poison loss and predation loss. We are going to be able to continue that rotation every year.”
Joy Ufford is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.