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Ranch and wildlife: USDA highlights management challenges and opportunities

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

During the Progressive Resource Manager Forum at the Wyoming Natural Resource Rendezvous on Dec. 6, Dr. Arthur Middleton, senior advisor for Wildlife Conservation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), discussed challenges and opportunities between ranching and wildlife. 

Middleton opened by noting as a wildlife researcher with projects in the state of Wyoming for roughly 15 years, he has heard mixed reviews on the work of a wildlife biologist. Several years ago, he met a rancher who told him he had “never met a wildlife biologist who has ever done anything useful.”

While this gentleman may have been partially joking, Middleton noted the remark stayed with him, and he has been working diligently ever since to prove his work is beneficial.

General information

“Wildlife in the U.S. are held in public trust,” shared Middleton. “We inherited this tradition in a body of law originally evolving from medieval England, when wildlife was owned by the crown.”

“The law evolved so landowners could control access to their land, but wild animals living on private property were still owned by the crown,” he added. “After the American Revolution, this English tradition more or less passed on to the U.S.” 

He continued, in 1896 the Supreme Court affirmed this ‘public ownership of a wildlife doctrine.’

“What this means is natural resource agencies representing the public are responsible for wildlife management,” he said. “Usually it’s the states, although sometimes, in exceptional cases – like endangered species or inside national parks – it’s the federal government.”

Yet, public wildlife depends heavily on private lands. Middleton noted most land in the U.S. is privately owned, and private property provides a lot of the best wildlife habitat. This is fundamentally because settlers chose the most productive and sheltered land, he explained. 

“So we now have a situation where not only is most of the land in this country private, but most of the best wildlife habitat is private as well,” he said. “This may be obvious to some, but I’ve found again and again many people in this country don’t understand this reality or what to do about it.” 

Wildlife challenges 

“This sets up a tension many producers and landowners are very familiar with,” he said. “Through my work and experience, I want to illustrate the importance of private lands to wildlife in a really specific instance.”

Middleton did a lot of field work in northwest Wyoming for his graduate research at the University of Wyoming, specifically looking at ungulates and large carnivores. During this time, he worked with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and evaluated migration routes of elk in the Clarks Fork and Cody herds. 

Elk in this area migrate through some of the roughest and most remote terrain in the lower 48 states. 

“What I didn’t understand before looking at this elk herd, is they make a 50- to 60-mile migration across the landscape. And, once we understand this, we can see things happening before our eyes on the low elevation winter range. For instance, wolves interacting with elk and livestock may affect the herd less strongly than things happening in the summer range dozens of miles away,” he explained.

“In the Clarks Fork and Cody elk herds, grizzly bears were consuming most of the newborn elk calves, and a drought at the time burned up the grass during lactation for elk cows,” he continued. “My point is once we paid attention to the movement of the wildlife across the landscape, we began to see the system differently.” 

He added, “More to my point, it also helped me to begin to understand why some management challenges exist. Once we start paying attention to those migrations, we really have our eyes opened to the importance of private lands to these wildlife.”

Middleton further pointed out on one hand elk migrations exist largely due to stewardship of private landowners or ranchers who have taken care to accommodate wildlife over time. However, on the other hand, by the nature of private property, those habitats are vulnerable to future change.

Cost of wildlife
on private lands 

Wildlife in the state creates benefits for landowners, but there is also an associated cost. Middleton noted several benefits may be in a recreation or spiritual value – hunting and so forth, but there are also a range of costs which often exceed the benefits. 

“Forage competition, crop damage and disease transmission risks are a few concerns of producers throughout the state in reference to wildlife, particularly with elk populations,” said Middleton. “However, we can apply a lot of these principles and issues to other wildlife species.” 

When thinking of the cost and benefits, a lot of the benefits of having wildlife on private land go to others, he explained. 

“For example, near Yellowstone benefits go to national park visitors. They go to people who care about using wilderness heavily. They go to the public who might not even visit the specific property but still want there to be abundant wildlife in the landscape,” he mentioned. “There’s a sense the rancher is getting some benefits, but they are carrying a lot of cost with most of the benefits going to the broader public.” 

Middleton reiterated he is a wildlife biologist, but the more he recognized the importance of private lands, the more he wanted to help think about the policy and management side of things. 

“In some cases, a compensation program or another solution has been developed, but we haven’t really stepped back and asked most broadly, ‘Who owes what to whom?’” he noted. 

“At the end of the day, what I’ve realized, having dug into these questions with lawyers and economists, is we actually don’t have good answers to this question – it’s a negotiation happening all over the country in a lot of different times and places – a negotiation between the public, through our agencies and the private landowner,” Middleton added.

He noted in searching for solutions, many in the general public say there should be rules and laws, but a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. 

Private lands vary widely in natural resource values and landowner circumstances, and while regulations are sometimes beneficial in stopping bad things from happening, they are not often good at promoting stewardship. Therefore, there’s a lot of reason to avoid heavy-handed regulation and create incentives. 

“Until we have market-based solutions for wildlife conservation that can work at a larger scale, it seems we need public policy to provide a greater framework and a set of tools to achieve this balance on private lands,” Middleton mentioned. “Given what we know about wildlife migration, policy and management tools need to transfer value from those who are getting a lot of the benefits to those who are experiencing more of the cost.” 

He cited the farm bill as a good example at the federal level, and Wyoming Representative Albert Sommers’ proposal that national park visitors pay a ‘wildlife conservation fee’ as an innovative new idea within northwest Wyoming.

“All of this depends on improved public understanding,” said Middleton. “Building support for any kind of policy or even market solutions require a public understanding of the value being generated or stewarded by the rancher or private landowner.”

“In coming years, it will be really important to build out a voluntary toolbox with public support, because I worry people will increasingly turn to regulatory approaches if we don’t. The partnership between agencies and landowners is going to be really important,” he concluded.

Brittany Gunn is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

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