Activist groups file legal brief in 10th Circuit appeal
The Western Watersheds Project, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Yellowstone to Uintas Connection filed a 10th Circuit appeal Sept. 15 in regards to the Upper Green River Area (UGRA) Rangeland Project, drawing the interest of the agricultural community.
The 2019 decision authorized domestic livestock grazing in six allotments of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. They include: Badger Creek, Beaver-Twin Creeks, Noble Pastures, Roaring Fork, Wagon Creek and the Upper Green River. The project allows roughly 8,819 livestock, including 8,772 cow/calf pairs and yearlings and 47 horses to graze in the allotments from June 14 through Oct. 15 for a 10-year span.
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) regarding the UGRA Project, and ultimately FWS issued a biological opinion concluding the project would not jeopardize grizzly bears’ continued existence in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In an incidental take statement in conjunction with the biological opinion, FWS authorized the lethal removal of up to 72 grizzly bears over 10 years.
In the Sept. 15 appeal, the activist groups claim the UGRA Project does not meet forage utilization standards and fails to consider the threats the project poses to grizzly bears.
The Federal District Court for Wyoming approved the permit renewal for continued grazing of the Upper Green River on May 17, ruling the plan was consistent with National Environmental Policy Act and the Bridger-Teton National Forest Plan and the biological opinion did not violate the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In a District Court opinion and order made May 27, the “petitioners request the court set aside/vacate FWS’s 2019 biological opinion and incidental take statement for the UGRA Project as well as the FWS’s concurrence regarding the Kendall Warm Springs (KWS) dace; set aside/vacate annual operating instructions; enjoin the lethal removal of grizzly bears from the UGRA Project allotments; enjoin cattle trailing through the KWS dace enclosure until FWS and USFS complete consultation in compliance with the ESA; and enjoin grazing authorizations within the UGRA Project area until USFS ensures authorizations complete with Bridger-Teton National Forest Plans Forage Utilization Standard.”
Upper Green River
“Our ranch and the Upper Green River Cattlemen’s Association came in on the side of the USFS, based upon their decision on their environmental impact statement to allow ranchers to graze,” says Wyoming House Rep. and former Upper Green River Cattlemen’s Association President Albert Sommers. “We’ve been excellent in the grazing we do, and ranchers and the Upper Green River Cattlemen’s Association have been excellent partners with the USFS.”
“We do a tremendous amount of work to monitor the range with the USFS to ensure we are in compliance with grazing standards,” he adds. “As it relates to the issue of the grizzly bear and the take statement created based upon the biological opinion of the FWS – the ag community felt it was a good decision.”
He notes the Upper Green River has a large population of bears.
“This is really a success story,” he mentions. “People on either side can get hung up on the bears, but the bears in fact have expanded their range – we have cattle on a landscape with grizzly bears and we have challenges. There does need to be management of bears.”
There are Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) compensation programs producers can utilize, he says.
“We’ve had an excellent working relationship with USFS, FWS, WGFD and the permittees allowing us to manage resources and livestock with grizzly bears,” he says. “In other states, discussions and adequate communication among these groups does not always happen – in Wyoming, we have these formal discussions.”
“This has been a 20-plus year process just to get a final decision out,” he says.
“The Upper Green River grazing allotment complex is the largest USFS grazing permit in the nation,” says Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) Executive Vice President Jim Magagna. “Their grazing permits were up for renewal a few years back, and as a part of the renewal process, the permittees had to get a biological opinion done by the FWS, because of the grizzly bears.”
“The USFS did the rangeland analysis and determined they could continue to graze with some additional parameters on forage utilization standards,” says Magagna. “The FWS issued their biological opinion which said they could take 72 grizzly bears over the 10 years of the permit to protect the livestock.”
The USFS went through the normal process of providing an environmental impact statement. The appeal appeared in the District Court and WSGA, together with the Upper Green Cattlemen’s Association, filed an amicus brief, and the District Court’s decision dismissed the petitioners’ complaint.
“If the 10th Circuit upholds the District Court, then the permits are valid under the way they were issued for the next 10 years,” he says. “If they overturn it, it would most likely direct the USFS and FWS to go back and revisit what they had approved in their final plans and address the issues the activist groups have raised.
“Generally, the impacted ranchers and permittees accepted what was proposed by the USFS – they were involved in a lot of the discussion, particularly over riparian areas, but as far as the industry grazing permittees, they were willing to accept what the USFS and FWS ended up deciding,” says Magagna.
“The current plan approved by the District Court is workable for the permittees, and if these petitioners get everything they are asking for, it would put viable grazing in jeopardy,” he concludes.
WSGA and the Upper Green River Cattlemen’s Association are intervenors and will be involved as it moves forward into the 10th Circuit.
Brittany Gunn is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to email@example.com.