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Counties are a big deal in Wyoming. I imagine you would expect me to say that given my position. Or, at least my 91 bosses who are elected County Commissioners would expect me to say that. Still, no matter the source or the motives for saying it, the fact remains – counties are a big deal.

I suspect you agree with me on an intuitive level. After all, we in Wyoming closely identify with the county where we live. I’m not sure how it works in other states, but here we learn our county number by the fourth grade and, when older, are proud to have it prominently displayed on our license plate. 

Admit it, you can probably recall your county number faster than you can recall your own age or the number of your anniversary. Like an old favorite song, our county number and all it represents is something permanently branded into our consciousness. Maybe it’s the same in other places, but it feels more pronounced here.

Despite this sense of place associated with our home county, a great many people have very little notion about why counties exist. Even if an answer to that question can be called to mind – here’s a hint: counties are the local arm of state government – going further to accurately describe the job of a County Commissioner is a bridge way too far for most folks. 

I’ll admit to being squarely in that category for most of my life. Until my former boss, U.S. Representative Cynthia Lummis, impressed upon me that county government is the most important level of government, I really had no idea what Commissioners did. Since I took this job, I’ve repeatedly heard Governor Matt Mead say that local government is the heart of all government. All of that is well and good, but what does it mean for agriculture in Wyoming? 

Commissioners are not figureheads for meaningless drawings on a map, and they most certainly are not in a popularity contest despite the high praise from federal and state officials. The fact is, Commissioners are the front lines of government for exactly the things most livestock operations need to be successful, other than good weather and good health. 

For example, if you operate a ranch anywhere in this state, chances are access to your ranch is dependent upon a well-maintained county road. Counties are the proud owners of more than 52 percent of all the road miles in Wyoming. That’s over 14,500 miles of road, and more than 12,000 of those miles are gravel.

Beyond the budget authority vested in County Commissioners to deal with roads and emergency services, etc., in a public lands state like Wyoming, County Commissioners possess authority granted by federal law to actively participate in federal land use planning decisions. This authority – in technical terms called “cooperating agency status” – grants Commissioners the right to a seat at the table with the federal government from the very earliest discussions right up until the final decision is signed. This right is both a blessing and curse.

A “cooperator,” as they are known, can heavily influence the direction of federal land use planning, and that is a true blessing for Wyoming. County Commissioners all across the state are exerting this influence in ways the general public may never know and at levels of engagement that exceeds that of other western states. 

From prairie dogs to raptors to sage grouse, grazing restrictions to wild horse management to range monitoring and off-road vehicle use and mineral development, County Commissioners represent the local population in these decisions. It is an authority not granted to private industry or non-profit groups. It’s a daunting task in these tense times of conflict between the West and our federal land management agencies. Wyoming’s Commissioners are making use of that authority in great numbers, and with great effect.

As much as we might wish it otherwise, this superhuman status doesn’t make the Commissioners superhuman. It is a common misconception that the federal government is required to defer to counties at every turn. That simply isn’t the case. While Commissioners can influence, they cannot write the land use plans exactly as they would wish so long as the federal government continues to own the land. 

This is where the curse comes in. To be effective, Commissioners spend long hours reading thousands of mind-numbing pages of proposals from the federal government. They attend days of tedious meetings with federal agency partners pouring over every word and detail, so they can make informed comments and effectively push back against possible decisions that don’t match up with our way of life here in Wyoming. It’s long hours with no guarantee of success, but most would agree it is worth it.

Here at the Wyoming County Commissioner’s Association (WCCA), we strive to help every Commissioner become a better Commissioner for the good of Wyoming, which means providing counties with sound legal and policy analysis so they can effectively represent you. 

We have launched several new initiatives designed to improve the data flowing into the federal decision making process, including an initiative with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association to fully understand the socio-economic impact of grazing in Wyoming. 

Ultimately, we need your input to be effective. Never hesitate to reach out to us, or to your County Commissioners, to discuss issues of importance to you, particularly if it relates to federal agency decisions during the land use process. 

Counties are where we live, work and play. Together we must do the difficult work of ensuring the right decisions are made today for the benefit of future generations. They, like us, will have some number between one and 23 that is close to their heart. That’s a big deal.

Those of us with enough mettle to call Wyoming home know this amazing place can also be a challenging one for forging a livelihood – for people, as well as for wildlife. Our forefathers discovered that much of Wyoming was unsuitable for many agricultural pursuits – only the most productive land, with forage, water and shelter for livestock, could support their families. As homesteaders developed land for agricultural use, native wildlife often benefited. Their legacy persists today in those who steward the land and the natural resources it supports. But the role of private landowners in sustaining and supporting the abundance and diversity of wildlife often remains overlooked and underappreciated. 

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department prides itself on recognizing the efforts of the state’s landowners to conserve wildlife and natural resources. Whether it’s expressed in the form of a casual “thank you” and nod of the head or as formal, public recognition, the appreciation of Department personnel is heartfelt. 

This month, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission will recognize and thank this year’s slate of Landowners of the Year at a reception in their honor.

When private landowners contribute to the wellbeing of wildlife and habitat, their actions go beyond self-interest. Often, what benefits livestock also benefits wildlife. The presence and abundance of a variety of wildlife on private lands is often a key indicator of healthy land management practices by the landowner. Whether by letting their windmills pump water for the benefit of antelope and other wildlife, cooperating to safeguard native populations of cutthroat trout or leaving forage for mule deer, Wyoming’s landowners help manage the state’s wildlife for the enjoyment of residents and visitors – hunters, anglers and those who simply enjoy seeing our native species in their native habitats. 

For landowners, interactions with field personnel, game wardens or biologists represent just one point of contact with the Department. Statewide, they work in partnership with the Department on a number of issues. From developing grazing plans to work on habitat projects, they are at the forefront of preserving the wild places our wildlife needs to thrive. By providing access to hunters and anglers, whether on a case-by-case basis or through formal programs such as the Department’s private lands, public wildlife programs, including hunter management access, walk-in hunting and walk-in fishing, these landowners demonstrate a commitment to wildlife, wildlife habitat and wildlife-related recreation.

Our wildlife culture not only adds to the quality of our lives in Wyoming, it also recognizes the value of private lands in providing wildlife habitat. I am encouraged by the hard work of so many private landowners working with the Department, conservation organizations and land management agencies to preserve our wildlife culture.

As July 8 approaches, I look forward to my evening with this year’s Landowners of the Year. It will be a pleasure to recognize their accomplishments on behalf of wildlife and thank them for their part in providing habitat for Wyoming’s wildlife. These landowners represent something much bigger than their individual efforts – they represent all landowners who work to make things a little better for Wyoming’s critters. 

On behalf of the Department, thanks for your contributions to our wonderful wildlife resources.

Scott Talbott is director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. A version of this column appears in the July issue of “Wyoming Wildlife” magazine.

The Rangeland Health Assessment Program (RHAP) is now in its second year of providing funding for the collection of valuable rangeland health data to livestock producers and their partners – federal land management agencies. The Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA) manages the RHAP program that is designed to help public land grazing, private landowners and Wyoming’s rangelands. RHAP was passed by the legislature in 2010, and on-the-ground projects were initiated in early 2011 and into the 2013 grazing season.

RHAP was established to provide grant funding to entities that are interested in rangeland health, cooperative monitoring and developing meaningful relationships with federal land managers. 

The grant funding for 2011 consisted of $200,000 for rangeland health and cooperative monitoring project. The WDA funded 12 projects throughout the state covering approximately 810,000 acres of Wyoming’s rangelands. 

In 2013, the legislature provided another $200,000 for the biennium budget. To date we have approved an additional nine projects covering approximately 600,000 acres.

The benefits RHAP brings to the state and to livestock producers is that the focus is placed on the resource, looking at the health of the rangeland or the allotment. By providing funding, livestock producers can develop joint cooperative monitoring plans with the federal and state land managers. 

Joint cooperative monitoring will assess the health of the rangelands and provide much needed scientific data. This data will assist land managers in cooperation with livestock producers in their ability to develop appropriate management direction for their livestock grazing operation and for rangeland resources. 

This data can also be used to assist in defending livestock grazing management decisions on livestock grazing permit orlease renewals on federal and state lands.

In addition, RHAP allows livestock operators and land management agencies the ability to work together for a common goal of achieving and maintaining rangeland health. By engaging in joint cooperative monitoring, the livestock operator works in unison with the land management agency to identify where to monitor, identify what resources are important and assist in collecting the data. This monitoring data is assured to be included in their files and assures that the data will be accepted as valid data for any permit or lease renewal process. 

Another benefit RHAP has provided is through the University of Wyoming (UW). UW was contracted through RHAP to create a database of peer-reviewed scientific literature relating to grazing and grazing issues. The peer-reviewed science database will benefit individuals and land management agencies to find the best available scientifically literature on grazing and grazing interactions.

In addition, UW provided qualified rangeland ecologists to assist land management agencies with monitoring in 2011, covering 17 grazing allotments and over 324,000 acres of rangeland.

RHAP is only in its infancy but has already provided valuable information to livestock operators and federal and state land managers. This information will be used to affect future land management decisions across the state. 

If you have interest in the Rangeland Health Assessment Program or its benefits, please contact the Natural Resource and Policy Division of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture at 307-777-6576 or visit wyagric.state.wy.us/divisions/nrp.

There is an unspoken passion in a rancher’s way of life. Rising early and working late, there is a bond and special friendship with your neighbors who are miles away. The life of an agriculturist is a chosen path of hardship, challenges and unremarkable rewards – from losing your crop to a hailstorm to saving a calf’s life on a cold winter night. Thank you is not simply enough to cover the appreciation we have for the dedication in the agricultural industry.

Agriculture is successful over the years because it holds itself accountable to the principles of sustainability. Wyoming was built by families who showcased true grit to survive the elements and provide a way of life for future generations. They were true stewards of our land – knowing that this was not a way for them to live today, but for their children and children’s children to live from. Nourishing generations to come is twofold, in the way you pass your legacy to your children and the way you care for your land. 

My great-grandparents homesteaded our ranch northeast of Cheyenne in 1910, and we are still ranching there today.  My family would host ranch days for each child’s elementary class, a school year highlight that grew my passion to share this way of life with my peers.  Learning how to share our story from a young age, I was inspired to work for Wyoming Agriculture in the Classroom (WAIC) with the mission to develop an understanding of agriculture and natural resources through education.

The task of educating Wyoming’s next generation is one that is not taken lightly but something we strive for and focus on every day. It is a powerful opportunity to make a difference in the lives of students across our great state. One of my favorite programs is our summer institute where educators from across the state travel to learn more about Wyoming agriculture and natural resources. We rotate the location every year to showcase the diversity and beauty of Wyoming. Hands-on learning is provided to help educators receive a true taste of agriculture and understanding with lessons provided to take back to the classroom for students to in turn experience the same excitement and “ah-ha” moment that their teacher did. 

I will never forget the faces of the teachers who put their gloved hand into a cow’s rumen in Hulett. Nor will I soon forget the excitement of our educators suited up at the Bryant Bee Honey Company in Worland this past summer. Engaging educators in these agriculture communities is one of the most rewarding aspects of our job. Equipping the educators with these experiences to teach our next generation is powerful. 

Unfortunately, it is not possible for every teacher and student to visit an agriculture or natural resource site. Therefore, we are embarking on a mission to bring agriculture and natural resources to every classroom through our K-12 curriculum: Technology to Teach and Tell (T³).  We are piloting our kindergarten curriculum in classrooms this year. The idea is to start at a basic level of students understanding where their food comes from and why a light turns on when they flip a switch. This curriculum is aligned to common core standards, and each grade level progresses with rigor and agriculture and natural resource concepts. All the lessons are project-based, and with this pilot curriculum, kindergarteners are grinding wheat and planting seeds. We are excited about this project and hope that the excitement of this curriculum ignites across the state.

These programs and the many other programs that are the foundation of our organization would not have been possible without the passion of the people who began WAIC and fought for the growth and importance of our mission. We would not be able to have this impact without the many supporters of both time and resources who believe in what we are doing and the stewardship of dedicated board members.  

If you are involved in agriculture, you were stirred by the Paul Harvey piece during the super bowl several years ago. We thank the advocates of agriculture who are working to share our story. We commend the educators who take time to teach agriculture and natural resources lessons, principles and importance to our students. We are grateful for our opportunity to help grow Wyoming’s next generation.