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With cattle being the biggest sector of Wyoming agriculture, accounting for over half of all cash receipts and a value of production at $937 million in 2014, it’s important for producers to be able to safely sell their products wherever they can. With the movement toward local food growing, buying locally is a more appealing business choice than ever before.

While there are several ways to accomplish this goal – like direct sales of animals to other citizens who then send for processing or sending animals to USDA plants outside of Wyoming, one common way is through one of the 18 state-inspected meat plants located throughout Wyoming. Sending animals to state inspected meat plants allows producers to sell directly to grocery stores, restaurants and citizens in the state of Wyoming. Producers across Wyoming are choosing this option for some of their cattle because it opens the possibility to build relationships with restaurants, grocery stores and consumers in the state to buy locally grown and safe beef.

When an animal is sent to harvest at a Wyoming meat plant, Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA) Consumer Health Services (CHS) inspectors are there to help ensure the safety of the products that will be sold to consumers of Wyoming. CHS inspectors are on hand in the state-inspected meat plants whenever the slaughter and processing of an animal occurs. The inspector reviews the slaughter process of all animals from the time they are received at the plant to the time the carcass is placed in the cooler. In some instances, this means a CHS inspector will be in the plant on a daily basis. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees all meat processing in the country, and the work CHS inspectors do at the state-inspected meat plants helps Wyoming maintain an “equal to” status with the USDA. This system not only protects consumers, it also protects producers by helping ensure the products they sell are safe for sales.

While the majority of cattle in Wyoming are sent out of state for processing, the state-inspected meat plants give producers more business opportunities within the state of Wyoming to keep their products in the state. With the growth of local food and the drive for consumers to buy products closer to home, this option gives producers a safe and viable way to fill that demand. If producers choose to sell their products out of state, they can choose from federal plants inspected by the USDA in each of the state’s neighboring Wyoming.

During the five-week period ending on April 5, contiguous U.S. drought coverage increased to 16.71 percent – up 2.41 percentage points. Since reaching a five-and-a-half-year minimum of 12.41 percent on March 15, drought coverage has increased 4.30 percentage points. Most of the increase has been driven by the development of short-term drought across the Central and Southern Plains and the Southwest, while further erosion of drought has occurred in northern California and the Northwest.

March was a month of precipitation extremes, ranging from very dry conditions in the nation’s southwestern quadrant to severe flooding from easternmost Texas into the lower Mississippi Valley.

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, state precipitation rankings ranged from the driest March on record in New Mexico to the second-wettest March in Louisiana and Wisconsin. New Mexico’s monthly precipitation averaged 0.06 inches – eight percent of normal, tying a March 1956 standard. Five other states – Arizona, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and Pennsylvania – experienced a top-10 ranking for March dryness.

In contrast, Louisiana’s monthly precipitation averaged 10.40 inches, second only to 10.79 inches in March 1926. Wisconsin’s average of 3.83 inches trailed only 4.02 inches in March 1977. March totals were also among the 10 highest values on record in Arkansas, Mississippi, Washington and Michigan.

On April 5, more than one-third, about 36 percent, of the western U.S. remained in drought, down from 57 percent in early October 2015. Most – 91 percent – of California was still in drought on April 5, down six percentage points from the beginning of the water year on October 1, 2015. However, California’s coverage of exceptional drought has fallen from 46 to 32 percent since Oct. 1.

Farther north, drought in Washington and Idaho has been eradicated since the beginning of the water year, down from coverage of 100 and 86 percent, respectively.

On April 5, drought affected 17 percent of the U.S. cattle inventory, up from eight percent on March 8 but down from an autumn 2015 peak of 27 percent.

On April 5, the portion of the U.S. winter wheat production area in drought stood at 20 percent, up sharply from a late-winter minimum of three percent on March 8. Nationally, more than half – 59 percent – of the winter wheat was rated in good to excellent condition on April 3, while just seven percent of the crop was rated very poor to poor. However, more than one-tenth of the winter wheat was rated very poor to poor in Colorado – 16 percent, and Texas – 11 percent.

Across the Southwestern Plains, recent weather conditions have included drought, freezes, wildfires and blowing dust, all of which have contributed to an increase in stress on the winter wheat crop.

On April 5, the Midwest remained free of drought, continuing a 14-week trend that began on Jan. 5. However, abnormal dryness has expanded in recent weeks across parts of Missouri, western Minnesota and west-central Illinois. Due to developing drought across portions of the Plains, four percent of the U.S. corn production area was in drought on April 5. At the same time, two percent of the U.S. soybean area was in drought.

The next issuance of this drought update will be May 5, unless conditions warrant an earlier release. The “U.S. Crops in Drought” products are produced on a weekly basis and are online at

While private property owners were vehemently protesting the EPA’s expansion of jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, collectively FWS, were bit-by-bit expanding the federal government’s overreach on private property rights and federal grazing permits through the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This expansion is embodied in the release of four separate final rules and two final policies that the FWS admits will result in listing more species and expanding designated critical habitat.

To understand the expansiveness of the new policies and regulations, a short discussion of the previous regulations may help. Prior to the Obama changes, a species was listed as threatened or endangered based upon the “best scientific and commercial data available.” With regard to species that are potentially threatened or endangered “throughout a significant portion of its range” but not all of the species’ range, only those species within that “significant portion of the range” are listed not all species throughout the entire range.

Once the listing is completed, FWS is mandated to designate critical habitat. Critical habitat is generally habitat upon which the species depends for survival. Importantly critical habitat can include both private and/or federal land and water. Critical habitat is to be based upon the “best scientific and commercial data available” and is to include the “primary constituent elements” (PCEs) for the species. PCEs are the elements the species needs for breeding, feeding and sheltering. Final critical habitat designations are to be published with legal descriptions so private landowners would know whether their private property or water was within or outside designated boundaries. Critical habitat designations are also made with consideration of the economic impacts. Under the ESA, although the FWS cannot consider the economic impacts of listing a species, all other economic impacts are to be considered when designating critical habitat, and if the economic impacts in an area are too great, the area could be excluded as critical habitat as long as the exclusion did not cause extinction of the species.

With regard to the critical habitat designation itself, critical habitat determinations are made in two stages. First, the FWS considers the currently occupied habitat and determines if that habitat (1) contains the PCEs for the species and (2) is sufficient for protection of the species. Second, the FWS looks at the unoccupied habitat for the species and makes the same determinations, i.e., (1) whether areas of unoccupied habitat contain the necessary PCEs and (2) if including this additional land or water as critical habitat was necessary for protection of the species. The FWS then considers whether the economic costs of including some of the areas are so high  that the areas should be excluded from the critical habitat designation. In simplest terms, FWS would weigh or balance the benefits of designation of certain areas of critical habitat against the regulatory burdens and economic costs of designation and could exclude discreet areas from a critical habitat designation so long as exclusion did not cause species extinction. This was called the “exclusion analysis.”

Starting with a new 2012 rule and extending to the 2015 rules and policy, those considerations have all changed, and in fact, FWS has admitted that the new rules will result in more land and water being included in critical habitat designations.

The first major change is the inclusion of “the principals of conservation biology” as part of the “best scientific and commercial data available.” Conservation biology was not created until the 1980s and has been described by some scientists as “agenda-driven” or “goal-oriented” biology.

Second, the new Obama policy has changed regarding a listing species “throughout a significant portion of its range.” Now, rather than listing species within the range where the problem lies, all species throughout the entire range will be listed as threatened or endangered.

Third, based upon the principals of conservation biology, including indirect or circumstantial information, critical habitat designations will be greatly expanded. Under the new regulations, FWS will initially consider designation of both occupied and unoccupied habitat, including habitat with potential PCEs. In other words, not only is FWS considering habitat that is or may be used by the species, FWS will consider habitat that may develop PCEs sometime in the future. There is no time limit on when such future development of PCEs will occur, or what types of events have to occur so that the habitat will develop PCEs. FWS will then look outside occupied and unoccupied habitat to decide if the habitat will develop PCEs in the future and should be designated as critical habitat now. FWS has determined that critical habitat can include temporary or periodic habitat, ephemeral habitat, potential habitat and migratory habitat, even if that habitat is currently unusable by the species.

Fourth, FWS has also determined that it will no longer publish the text or legal descriptions or GIS coordinates for critical habitat. Rather it will only publish maps of the critical habitat designation. Given the small size of the Federal Register, I do not think this will adequately notify landowners whether their private property is included or excluded from a critical habitat designation.

Fifth, FWS has significantly limited what economic impacts are considered as part of the critical habitat designation. According to a Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, although the economic impacts are not to be considered as part of the listing process, once a species was listed, if FWS could not determine whether the economic impact came from listing or critical habitat, the cost should be included in the economic analysis. In other words, only those costs that were solely based on listing were excluded from the economic analysis. In contrast, the Ninth Circuit Court took the opposite view and determined that only economic costs that were solely attributable to critical habitat designations were to be included. Rather than requesting the U.S. Supreme Court make a consistent ruling among the courts, FWS simply recognized this circuit split for almost 15 years. However, on Aug. 28, 2013, FWS issued a final rule that determined that the Ninth Circuit Court was “correct” and regulatorily determined that only economic costs attributable solely to the critical habitat designation would be analyzed. This rule substantially reduces the determination of the cost of critical habitat designation because FWS can claim that almost all costs are based on the listing of the species because if not for the listing, there would be no need for critical habitat.

Sixth, FWS has determined that while completing the economic analysis is mandatory, the consideration of whether habitat should be excluded based on economic considerations is discretionary. In other words, under the new policy, FWS is no longer required to consider whether areas should be excluded from critical habitat designation based upon economic costs and burdens.

The problem with these new rules is what it means if private property or federal lands are designated as critical habitat or the designated habitat only has the potential to develop PCEs. Even if the species is not present in the designated critical habitat, a “take” of a species can occur through “adverse modification of critical habitat.” For private land, that may include stopping stream diversions because the water is needed in downstream critical habitat for a fish species or that haying practices, such as cutting of invasive species to protect hay fields, are stopped because it will prevent the area from developing PCEs in the future that may support a species. It could include stopping someone from putting on fertilizer or doing other crop management on a farm field because of a concern with runoff into downstream designated habitat. Designation of an area as critical habitat – even if that area does not contain PCEs now – will absolutely require more federal permitting, i.e. Section 7 consultation, for things like crop plans or conservation plans or anything else requiring a federal permit. In fact, one of the new regulations issued by Obama concludes that “adverse modification of critical habitat” can include “alteration of the quantity or quality” of habitat that precludes or “significantly delays” the capacity of the habitat to develop PCEs over time.

While the agriculture community raised a huge alarm over the waters of the U.S., FWS was quietly implementing these new rules, in a piecemeal manner, without a lot of fanfare. Honestly, I think these new habitat rules will have as great or greater impact on the private lands and federal land permits as does the Ditch Rule, and I would hope that the outcry from the agriculture community, private property advocates, and our Congressional delegations would be as great.

Having recently finished the 63rd session of the Wyoming Legislature and hearing the concerns of closing revenue gaps due to the status of the state’s mineral industry, the value of Wyoming’s agricultural industry becomes very apparent, as it should during times like these.

I’m sure you have heard time and again that agriculture is Wyoming’s third largest industry behind minerals and tourism. Wyoming’s agricultural sector output has been above the $1 billion threshold in value since 2010, and in 2014 alone, Wyoming’s agricultural output totaled more than $1.47 billion, according to USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service. 

I would also submit to you that neither of the industries in front of agriculture would be nearly as valuable without the side-benefits agriculture provides in terms of open space, resource ownership, western culture, wildlife habitat, water quality/quantity, air quality and aesthetics as just a few examples. I say side-benefits because, important to the state that agriculture is – and should be, the industry is primarily about food and fiber production for a growing population. As obvious as that may be for those of us in the agriculture industry, it is far too often overlooked by others who view agriculture as nothing more than a convenient pathway to turning the West into a zoo. I love wildlife, too, but I believe, and in many cases can prove, that wildlife and production agriculture enjoy a symbiotic relationship.

There should be a common understanding, however, of the value of agriculture. It is vital that we do everything we can to protect agriculture as a key component of our state’s economy. What would this economic downturn and subsequent forecast be like if our farms and ranches were subdivided or less productive due to competing interests for land use? This is one of the questions we ask ourselves at the Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA). Another question we ask is, what can we do to ensure that agriculture remains stable, profitable and desirable to future generations of Wyoming citizens? We are continually working to answer these questions so when this predicament rears its ugly head again, agriculture will still be here to provide some certainty for the state’s economy and options for recovery.

One of the best examples of our work on these questions is the Wild Horse Research Project. Many of you understand the necessary and mutually beneficial tie between private and public lands in the ranching industry. In western Wyoming, one of the most pressing issues challenging the future of agriculture is feral horses and their impacts. The Wild Horse Research Project came about with the help of Sen. Larry Hicks during the 2014 Budget Session for the 2015-16 biennium. WDA was provided $250,000 for statewide data collection and research on the impacts of wild and feral horses under federal jurisdiction. We are now conducting assessments of baseline range conditions, dietary overlap between horses and wildlife, developing independent and scientific approaches for counting/modeling horse populations and gathering any information that can be used to protect state and private lands by controlling the number of wild or feral horses in Wyoming.

In pursuit of these objectives, two Requests for Proposal were released in November 2014 for population census/modeling projects and for assessing impacts to wildlife and rangeland condition projects. We created a review committee consisting of Sen. Hicks of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Gerry Geis of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Rep. Robert McKim of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Glenn Moniz of the House Appropriations Committee, Jessica Crowder of the Governor’s Policy Office and several WDA and industry representatives to analyze the proposals we received.  Four projects were selected.

One of the projects selected was for the formation of a Wild Horse Steering Committee by the University of Wyoming. The State Grazing Board recommended WDA and the Governor’s Office partner to develop a committee of rangeland and wild horse experts to help define the term “Thriving Natural Ecological Balance,” which is a key component of management in the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971. To date, this term is not defined, which leads to different interpretations by land managers and resource scientists and thus, inconsistencies on the ground. Scientific defensibility will be the critical focus of this University-led effort as I think everyone recognizes that any definitions will be heavily scrutinized. 

The second project selected was “Testing the Accuracy of High Definition Infrared (IR) Imaging for Wild Horse Aerial Surveys” by the United States Geological Survey.  The goal of the project is clear in the title and hopefully will provide an easier, safer and more accurate census method for determining horse numbers.  Specifically, the proposal is to fly the McCullough Peaks Herd Management Area (HMA), which has a known population of wild horses, to assess accuracy of the new technology. If the tests indicate IR is more accurate than traditional methods, this may provide a more efficient and cost effective means to count wild horses in other parts of the state or country.

Western Ecosystems Technologies (WEST) Inc. was also selected to conduct wild horse population research using aerial line transect distance sampling to determine counts in 11 HMAs or allotments in Wyoming. This should provide more accurate counts for these areas that are currently exceeding their respective Appropriate Management Levels (AMLs).  In addition, WEST will model all the allotments and HMAs studied to determine the seasonal use of the landscape by wild horses. This model will not only identify the areas of use, but will also identify the vegetative resources wild horses are utilizing during these time periods. Global Positioning System (GPS) documentation of horses during aerial surveys will determine what habitats are being selected in order to develop relative probabilities for utilization across the landscape. This will help land managers understand areas most impacted and help in selecting strategies to offset potential negative impacts and conflicts with wildlife and grazing. This study should be completed by December.

The University of Wyoming (UW) was selected to complete a study called “Wild Horse Spatial Movement Patterns across the Public-Private Land Matrix, Rangeland Habitat Use and Interactions with Wildlife and Livestock.” GPS collars will be used to track wild horse movements illustrating seasonal use of the landscape, areas of preference as well as potential areas of conflict with other uses like livestock grazing and wildlife habitat. UW will also collect vegetative data for plant community composition determinations and dietary preferences of the horses. This data will be extremely valuable to quantitatively document the impact of varying densities of wild horses on the plant community and subsequently a more accurate account of impacts to livestock grazing and wildlife utilization.  UW plans to place special emphasis on documenting the impact of wild horses on sage-grouse habitat, riparian areas and important livestock grazing areas.  Beyond plant community impacts, UW will also collect animal behavior data to document the response of sage grouse to the presence of wild horses. Wild horse influence on livestock behavior will also be monitored and documented. This work should all be completed by December 2017.

When answering the question, “What can the WDA do to best help the industry?” I think that collecting the right data, the right way, at the right time and for the right reasons represents our best strategy.  Influencing land use policy for agriculture has worked best when we have scientific data proving that agriculture solves many more natural resource problems than it creates.  Getting our hands on the right data usually involves a lot of effort and money, but I sincerely believe that it represents one of the most valuable services the state and WDA can offer to support our industry. The common thread of our research grant programs, including Rangeland Health Assessment, Specialty Crop, Wildlife/Livestock Disease, Applied Producer Research and Water Quality, among others, is providing scientific evidence that abandoning production agriculture in favor of other uses is most often not wise.