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Reclamation and livestock have been around for some time, and more often than not, they occupy the same areas. Minerals are often extracted from public lands, which is also where a large amount of grazing takes place on a permitted basis. 

While oil and gas development has a good-sized footprint, it usually isn’t large enough to keep an area from being utilized by grazing permittees. It can make things much more complicated for both sides when grazing and development attempt to occupy the same area. 

As development progresses, successful reclamation of disturbed areas can become an issue. There is a wide array of factors that contribute to the success of reclamation and one of those can be management of grazing. Weather is a variable we have no control over, and it affects reclamation work in many of the same ways that it affects a cattle operation. Oil and gas companies pray for rain, so their planting germinates. Ranchers want it to rain for crops and feed for cattle. So, when we have a year that is drier than we consider “normal,” it is no surprise that cows end up on reclaimed lands that are available to graze. 

Understandably, this may be a source of frustration to reclamation companies. On the other hand, those same companies can find themselves where they need grazing at times. It often comes down to an issue of whether or not to fence off their reclamation and whether or not grazing is an asset or a detriment to achieving successful reclamation. 

As with any tool, fencing comes with some positive and some negative impacts to the resource. In the case of reclamation, fencing serves as a way for companies to protect their investment. Duration of fencing and fence type become key parts of the puzzle. In many cases, there is no need for a fence, and the reclamation is strong enough to persist and thrive without the elimination of grazing.

Permanent fences provide the most protection but also limit use of these areas to a degree that can be detrimental to the reclamation effort. A permanent fence that stands for more than three or four years allows the grass community to become so predominant that it will choke out the forb and shrub components of a site, which are vital to successful reclamation. In these cases, oil and gas operators often want the area to be grazed to knock down some of the grass and allow the forbs and shrubs room to thrive. 

This may seem easily achieved by taking down the fence, but it is not that simple. 

Removing the fence could result in these areas becoming over utilized and may set the reclamation process backward, rather than helping it forward. The issue of duration arises again and with it comes the issue of when to utilize that area. 

The next logical option may be electric fences, but they need to be checked more often and keeping the fence “hot,” or electrified, isn’t always that easy. Electric fences can be finicky and flimsy. They ground out on vegetation and then get pushed over, leaving nothing but a tangled mess. 

The easiest solution in this case may be simply adding a gate to the permanent fence around the reclamation. This provides a way to have reclamation utilized, increasing forb and shrub numbers and still retaining the ability to protect the reclamation if it needs to be. 

Another solution may be partially fencing an area to limit utilization of the entire site. There are a number of other simple tools that can be used. Salt, mineral and water can all attract animals to areas while discouraging use of another. A rider that stays with the cattle would also aid in distribution and utilization of areas and allow oil and gas operators and ranchers to co-mingle in a fashion that is conducive to success on both sides. 

In reality, reclamation and grazing do occupy the same areas, and the issue is not whether they can co-exist, it is how they can best co-exist. Reclamation stands separate from ranching, even though the two practices have many commonalities. Quite simply, they are in a position to benefit one another, and through some clever management of each situation and a little planning, the two uses can serve as tools to one another.  

The proper management of these areas not only allows ranching practices to continue in these areas while development occurs but can improve the entire system for wild ungulates, insects, birds, mammals, reptiles and the plants in the area.

The Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts (WACD) supports voluntary, incentive-based approaches to conservation, including wildlife habitat management by private landowners. This is supported by policy and evident by WACD’s and districts’ involvement in a myriad of wildlife species initiatives and efforts, such as the Greater Sage Grouse Initiative and Sage Grouse Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances. Local districts invest a considerable amount of time and effort in addressing a multitude of local resource priorities, both through district-initiated programs, as well as through their involvement with the delivery of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservation programs. 

However, districts also believe strongly in their role as a local government in participating in state and federal decision making processes.

At the risk of oversimplifying this discussion, the situation at hand is the effort underway to increase and accelerate the reintroduction of the federally listed endangered Black-Footed Ferret with the aim of recovery and delisting. This effort is led by a team consisting of federal, state and non-governmental organizations known as the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team (BFFRIT).  

In the past few years there have been a number of actions taken pertaining to this effort.  In 2011, there was an effort to obtain national support and creation of a Black-Footed Ferret Initiative through the NRCS. In the fall of 2012, a memorandum of understanding was signed between U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), NRCS, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. NRCS nationally established a Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Initiative, but according to Wyoming’s State Conservationist, the national office has deferred to the states on whether they choose to initiate one at the state level. 

In December 2012, the FWS published a draft Safe Harbor Agreement, Enhancement of Survival Permit and Environmental Assessment for public comment. The final Safe Harbor agreement, a Finding of No Significant Impact and Biological Opinion on the Safe Harbor Agreement were released in October 2013. Last summer, FWS published a Revised Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Plan. The final plan was published in November 2013.  One can obtain all of this information from the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery website, blackfootedferret.org. This is an excellent resource for current information on Black Footed Ferret recovery efforts.

In March 2013, FWS also issued a letter in response to Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s request for a block clearance of the ferret, meaning there are no known wild populations of the ferret in the state. Subsequently, section seven consultation is done based on a “block clearance approach.” In that letter, FWS also conveyed their intent to proceed with the “10(j), experimental non-essential, designation.”

The last action, that WACD is aware of, was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) this fall between the Wyoming Game and Fish, Wyoming Department of Agriculture Natural Resources, NRCS, FWS, BLM, Forest Service and APHIS.  In essence the MOU says all of the above will work together to pursue the 10(j) designation, identify and prioritize private land areas for ferret reintroduction, identify incentive programs, offer regulatory assurances, manage prairie dogs, manage plague and modify proposed federal actions on public or split estate lands to avoid or minimize impacts to potential reintroduction areas. 

There have been some reintroduction efforts throughout the historical range of the ferrets. In Wyoming, this included reintroduction in the Shirley Basin several years ago. According to participating landowners, the 10(j) designation occurred prior to the release of the ferrets.  

Absent some landowner protections from future regulatory action and some incentive to manage for prairie dogs, interest in reintroduction efforts has apparently stalled out. This was driven in a large part due to a threat of litigation from environmental groups who challenged additional reintroductions being pursued with a 10(j) designation.  They argued that, given the ferret is a listed species, it should be managed as an endangered species, even where it was reintroduced. An obvious disincentive to a landowner is to have a species reintroduced on their lands and then be subject to regulatory actions as a result of the species presence. 

From what has been relayed to WACD, the breeding facilities are bursting at the seams with captive bred ferrets. Hence, there is a need to accelerate reintroduction. 

Early in 2011, WACD was contacted by a good friend in the landowner community who had been involved in the prairie dog management efforts and the Black-Footed Ferret recovery teams efforts. He and a representative of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department were seeking our input on a proposed Black-Footed Ferret recovery initiative that would be funded, as proposed, via NRCS through a nationally directed initiative much like the Sage Grouse Initiative. We appreciated the fact that our input was sought out.  In response, we penned a letter in March 2011 outlining WACD’s thoughts on what should be factored and considered. A summary of the Board of Directors, our Board represents the 34 districts and are predominately landowners themselves, suggestions and concerns included: 

Concerns with the continued diversion at the national level of EQIP funding versus working through the local process established by local workgroups, 

Impact of expanding prairie dog colonies on neighboring non-participating landowners,

Multi-resource evaluations should be conducted to ensure consistency with other resource priorities such as invasive species, water quality, etc., 

Regulatory implications to other landowners and land uses should ferrets expand beyond reintroduction sites/areas – the Board concurs that a statewide 10(j) designation is necessary before further reintroduction occurs, and 

The source of dedicated funding for prairie dog management in areas bordering the reintroduction areas. 

Again, WACD is not opposed to reintroduction and recovery. However it should be done in a thoughtful manner, consider all potential implications, factor all resource priorities and concerns and include consultation with local governments with statutory responsibilities for similar issues, such as the conservation districts and weed and pest districts.

WACD, along with other organizations, including our counterparts in the weed and pest districts, were not quite comfortable that the issues had been addressed.  In July 2011, the leadership of Wyoming Weed and Pest and WACD again relayed our concerns to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department with the efforts being pursued absent the 10(j) designation, lack of a dedicated source of funding to manage for and control expanding prairie dog colonies and a request for local government coordination among other issues. 

With all of the actions taken to date, it appears to us that the pieces are in place, and the agreements between agencies have been signed for reintroduction to take place. We are reassured by our Governor’s stance that a 10(j) designation must take place before further reintroduction efforts occur. 

We sincerely hope that process is in progress.  In our opinion it would have been wise for that step to be taken first. To date, it appears that we have a cart full of federal decisions paving the way for reintroduction, but the horse is hitched to the back of the wagon. If reintroduction occurs without this step, the practical implications to other private landowners and federal land uses are that they would not be afforded the protection of the 10(j) rule and instead bear the brunt of full protection of the ferret under the Endangered Species Act.

We are looking forward to the FWS release of the statewide 10(j) as the final piece to this effort – one that is integral to all Wyoming landowners being protected.

The Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners (SBLC) has the responsibility for the supervision and stewardship of approximately 3,529,527 million surface acres and 3,944,159 million sub-surface acres of state trust land. These lands were granted to the state to generate income in support of the common schools. In order to fulfill this purpose, the SBLC manages these lands for many different types of uses, including, for example, mineral production, agriculture purposes, commercial development and recreational purposes.

Recently the Office of State Lands and Investments (OSLI) has seen increased interest in state trust land for recreational purposes. Although the Board has long extended the public the privilege of using legally accessible state trust land for hunting, fishing and casual recreational day use, other recreational uses require specific Board authorization. When granting these authorizations, whether it be by Temporary Use Permit, Special Use Lease or some other appropriate mechanism, all applications are thoroughly reviewed by staff at the OSLI to determine if the application meets the SBLC’s Trust Land Management Objectives. 

The recent increased interest in using the state land for recreational purposes presents the SBLC with the opportunity to take advantage of income generating compatible uses of trust lands while at the same time still ensuring that the lands are protected for the long term benefit of the trust land beneficiaries. One example of this is the permission the SBLC has granted to entities to develop off-road trail systems for motorized and non-motorized uses, open play areas and exclusive use motocross tracks. 

Recently, Big Horn County applied for a special use lease to establish an off-road trail system and open play area covering 640 acres of trust lands located 5.6 miles northeast of Lovell. While the lessee is Big Horn County, the management and maintenance of the area will be the responsibility of Wyoming OHV Alliance, Inc. The staff at OSLI performed an analysis of the use of the land and the impact to the land and established rental fees consistent with the fair market value of the use of the land. This lease was approved by the SBLC at their Feb. 6, 2014 board meeting.

With this particular parcel, the terrain is rough with clay breaks and numerous draws. The soils have limited vegetation. With the void of vegetation and the hard clays, this terrain was of particular interest for off-road vehicle use because it challenged the rider and allows the rider to have a better free riding experience. At the same time, the lack of vegetation meant that the lands were minimally useful for grazing purposes and supported very few AUMs. Thus, OSLI, in consultation with the grazing lessee, determined that use of this parcel as an open play area for off-road motorized vehicles was minimally invasive and wouldn’t degrade the trust asset beyond reason. It also determined that recommending a lease to a responsible user group that could be implemented in conjunction with existing mineral and agricultural leases created a compatible use scenario, which was the highest and best use of the parcel. Creating compatible use and leasing scenarios is one way the SBLC strives to generate maximum sustaining yields from its trust assets.

This recent lease highlights another opportunity for the SBLC to generate additional income. If recreation can be accommodated along with other leasing and uses that generate revenue, the Board can expand the uses of state trust lands and in doing so create additional recreation uses for residents and visitors. However, as with all uses, it is important to remember that if these opportunities are abused and lead to the damage of trust assets, the uses cannot continue. We must always remember that state trust lands, while abundant, fund public education and generate revenue to support the beneficiaries. If they are abused, no matter the use, no matter the entity, the lease will be terminated. 

By keeping the focus on the diligent care of state trust lands, building and fostering compatible uses of these lands, we can create opportunities for industry, agriculture, commercial entities and recreational groups, all the while bringing in revenue for our school children and beneficiaries.

For more information on the Office of State Lands and Investments, visit lands.state.wy.us.

The Wyoming Water Development Commission (WWDC) recently completed its final recommendations for the 2014 Water Development Program. Those recommendations or projects are now contained in two legislative bills: the Omnibus Water Bill – Planning, designated House Bill (HB) 72, and the Omnibus Water Bill – Construction, designated Senate File (SF) 66. The Planning Bill seeks to fund 29 reconnaissance and feasibility studies for a total of $6,213,000, while the Construction Bill contains 19 new projects and 10 project amendments with a total value of $22,664,350.

The projects that are now before the Legislature represent a wide spectrum of project sponsors and project types. Of the 58 projects contained in the two bills, the distribution of project sponsors includes 24 municipal entities, 20 irrigation entities, six potable water districts, five state projects and three conservation or conservancy districts.

This seemingly even distribution between potable water projects and irrigation water projects demonstrates the broad appeal of the program and reinforces the program goal of developing Wyoming’s water resources for both current and future water needs in the state. 

The WWDC is authorized to fund a variety of project types, and this year’s group of projects represents a wide range of allowed categories.  Keeping in mind that the goal of the program is to develop Wyoming’s water resources, the WWDC has recommended funding projects in nine categories.

Irrigation System Rehabilitation is the first category. Irrigation districts face the constant challenge of maintaining their infrastructure, which, in some cases, can exceed 100 years of age. The WWDC will provide a 67 percent grant and 33 percent loan funding package to rehabilitate existing canals, diversion structures and dams. 

As an option, the WWDC will provide a “materials only” grant whereby the WWDC funds 100 percent of material costs while the district provides all of the labor, equipment and management for the project. This has been very popular with some districts as it allows them to keep their work force employed on a full time basis. For example, in the spring-summer season, crews are delivering water, and in the fall-winter season, they become construction crews.   

Another irrigation rehabilitation project that districts undertake is to install pipelines to replace unlined canals. This has been shown to reduce or eliminate seepage losses thereby delivering up to 30 percent more water to the intended cropland. 

The second category is municipal system development and rehabilitation. Maintaining and expanding municipal potable water systems to meet future growth is a continual focus of the state’s cities and towns. The WWDC provides a 67 percent grant and 33 percent loan package for eligible projects, which include transmission pipelines, storage tanks, wells and diversion structures. 

Rural water systems are another area of focus. Numerous water districts provide potable water to rural customers who do not reside inside cities or towns. These systems face the same challenges as their municipal counterparts and are afforded the same 67 percent grant and 33 percent loan packages as municipal sponsors.

Water planning provides an additional area of funding. The WWDC conducts two types of water planning studies in the state. 

The first is the river basin program, which provides an assessment of water uses, supplies and potential in each of the state’s main river basins. This year the WWDC will proceed with an update of the Platte River Basin Plan, which was last reviewed in 2006. 

The second type of water plan funded by the WWDC is a Watershed Plan. These analyze smaller basins and focus on identifying specific water problems and recommending potential solutions. Two new watershed studies are proposed in the Planning Bill.

Funding is also provided for hydropower studies. The WWDC will fund hydropower studies to determine the feasibility and costs for a particular project. 

This year’s Planning Bill includes two projects that will investigate the possibilities of rehabilitating existing hydropower sites. Under the water development program the WWDC will fund 100 percent of hydropower feasibility studies but does not fund design or construction of such projects. 

However, the State Loan and Investment Board will provide design and construction funding in the form of a 100 percent loan.

The next funding category is dams and reservoirs. The WWDC has 10 active reservoir feasibility studies underway, and the Planning Bill includes two new studies of potential sites. Currently one of the 10 projects is in the design and permitting phase, and the Planning Bill will move a second project to the design and permitting phase. 

The small water project program is also funded. The WWDC has been funding small water projects for the last 10 years with great success. Conservation districts are the typical sponsor for these improvements, which must include public benefits. Small water projects typically include stock wells, stock pipelines, stock dams and diversion structures. 

This year’s Construction Bill will add $600,000 for new projects and $300,000 for rehabilitation projects. The bill will also redefine a small water project as a project as with a construction value of less than $135,000 of which the state will fund a maximum of $35,000 on a 50 percent grant basis. 

Weather modification is an ongoing effort funded by WWDC money. The Planning Bill seeks to fund one feasibility study that will evaluate weather modification potential in the Wyoming Range. The Construction Bill contains one project that will set up and run an operational snow augmentation program in the Wind River Mountains in the 2014–15 winter season. This operational program is predicated on lower Colorado River Basin water users contributing 75 percent of the actual program costs and is designed to help mitigate the impacts of long term drought in the Colorado River Basin. 

Finally, WWDC helps to fund University of Wyoming water research. The WWDC has historically funded small water research projects at the university. The main goals of the program are to fund competent research that addresses water problems, aid the entry of new research scientists in the water resources field, help to train future water scientists and engineers and to provide useful information to water managers and the public on current water issues.

As one can see the WWDC program is helping Wyoming communities and water users to maintain and develop a reliable water infrastructure for present conditions and into the future. It benefits a wide range of water users and is flexible in the types of projects it can fund. 

Be sure and follow these two Omnibus Water Bills in the upcoming session as they will both provide positive benefits to water users across the state.