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After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reopened the comment period on the draft Black-footed Ferret Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement on Jan. 23 for 30 days, Wyoming’s livestock and conservation groups have expressed concern over parts of the plan.

“They have been working on a strategy to recover the black footed ferret through its historical range,” says Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts Executive Director Bobbie Frank. “FWS was trying to put together an incentive program through the Farm Bill to provide cost sharing to landowners who have prairie dogs dens on their properties.”

The agreement – known as the safe harbor agreement – aimed to encourage landowners to maintain prairie dog dens, since black-footed ferrets require the habitat for their survival.

“FWS just issued a safe harbor agreement range wide, so any private landowners that want to enter in the safe harbor to have reintroduction of ferrets on their property and be protected from regulatory actions can,” explained Frank. “That is great and fine.”

Draft agreement

Beginning on Dec. 17, 2012, FWS announced the availability of the programmatic safe harbor agreement, along with a draft environmental assessment for public comment.

“The safe harbor agreement is part of a larger new multi-agency partnership to expand black-footed ferret recovery efforts,” said the FWS on their webpage. “Despite significant recovery successes, the black-footed ferret remains one of the most endangered animals in the world.”

FWS notes that loss of habitat and prey are major contributors in the habitat loss, and as a result, conservation of native grasslands to agricultural land, widespread prairie dog eradication program and fatal, non-native diseases have reduced the ferret habitat to less than two percent of its original range.

“The remaining habitat is now fragmented, with prairie dog towns separated by expanses of agricultural land and other human developments,” the FWS adds.

Frank noted that among the bustle of activity during the holiday season, the agreement went unnoticed by many groups across the country, so they worked to reopen comments for more fair public opinion.

Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna explained, “The safe harbor agreement is intended to provide protection to private landowners for a listed species, if they enter into an agreement and agree to maintain or undertake certain practices on private lands.”

Though Frank noted that they had received indication the safe harbor agreement wasn’t going to move forward, she added that at the NRCS State Technical Committee meeting, the NRCS was directed to begin putting together criteria for a program. 

Wyoming concerns

“Our board has a lot of concerns, and do did the Wyoming Stock Growers Association,” said Frank. “A contingency from Wyoming met the Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, at that time Dave White, and we got feedback that it wasn’t moving forward.” 

“The Wyoming Weed and Pest Council conveyed concerns, as did WACD,” said Frank. “Our concerns deal with the 10J designation statewide.”

The Wyoming Governors Office sent a request in July of 2012 to achieve statewide 10J designation, but Magagna mentioned that they have not received any word from Fish and Wildlife Service as to whether or not that will occur.

“The safe harbor will be limited in Wyoming because it provides no protection on federal lands, so it will have to be in a large private land area to have real meaning,” added Magagna.

“The statewide 10J status would provide protection on public and private lands, and would provide protection whether they were reintroduced or naturally migrated,” Magagna said. “Until we get that, there may be individuals who find merit in the safe harbor, but the only real assurances for landowners would come with a statewide 10J.”

Without the designation, any ferrets that wander on public lands are no longer protected.

“Right now if they reintroduce the ferret on private lands, they have a safe harbor agreement with the private landowners, or in the special areas that are designated as 10J,” Frank continued. “The only area in Wyoming with a 10J designation is in the Shirley Basin.”

Biological opinions

The other concern that Frank, Magagna and the Wyoming Weed and Pest share is the lack of a biological opinion on the case.

“The biological opinion is not out yet,” explained Magagna. “We would like to see the biological opinion before we commit ourselves as to whether we support it.”

The biological opinion is a scientific document that does not go out for pubic comment. However, Magagna noted that it could affect the available protections that landowners have.

“They have not committed to us on the timeline for when they will release the opinion,” Magagna added.

Moving forward, though the public comment period has closed, he noted that there has been no indication of a firm deadline for the final agreement to be published.

Additionally, FWS is working on a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances for Wyoming, recently releasing the document and an environmental impact statement.

“We have all weighed in on this plan,” said Frank, noting that it remains to be seen whether concerns will be addressed.

History of ferrets

“Black-footed ferrets once numbered in the tens of thousands, but a combination of human-induced threats brought them to the brink of extinction in the 20th century,” comments the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). “In fact, the species was twice believed by scientists to be extinct.”

With a FWS-led breeding and reintroduction program, more than 8,000 kits have been raised in captivity, with more than 3,000 reintroduced into their natural habitat.

“It is estimated that as a result of these efforts, there are currently more than approximately 500 to 1,000 black-footed ferrets in the wild and another approximately 300 living in breeding facilities,” added FWS.

To learn more about the black-footed ferret recovery plan, visit blackfootedferret.org or fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/mammals/blackfootedferret.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Washington, D.C. – On Sept. 22, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced a new initiative designed to increase flexibility allotted to grazing permit holders in managing livestock. The effort is designed to promote President Donald Trump’s goal of promoting shared conservation stewardship of public lands.

“Farmers and ranchers know the wildlife and the land they work better than anyone. It only makes sense that we would enlist them in conservation efforts,” said Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “One of my top goals is for the government to be a better neighbor, land manager and partner.”

Zinke continued that the effort represents a great step toward working together, and he congratulated BLM for their innovation in this effort.

Program goals

The program, called Outcome-Based Grazing Authorizations, will work cooperatively with stakeholders to identify six to 12 grazing authorizations in its first year.

“Grazing authorizations typically emphasize process and prescription,” explained BLM. “The new authorizations will instead emphasize ecological outcomes, allowing livestock operators more flexibility to make adjustments in response to changing conditions, such as drought or wildland fire.”

The intent of the program is to better manage those livestock on public lands, allowing BLM and grazing permit holders to achieve natural resource goals and operational objectives.

“This initiative is in line with the administration’s priority of promoting shared stewardship of public lands and giving local stakeholders a say in how these lands are managed,” said Michael D. Nedd, acting BLM director.  “This demonstration project will allow permittees and BLM to work together more efficiently and effectively to support sustainable grazing operations.” 

Authorizations

The new authorization intends to emphasize conservation performance, ecological outcomes and cooperative management of public lands, according to BLM. They note that ranches will also be able to achieve greater opportunity for economically and environmentally sustainable operations.

“Through this new demonstration program, we plan to work with permit holders and other stakeholders to show that livestock grazing on public lands can operate under a more flexible framework than is commonly used to better reach agreed-upon habitat or vegetation goals,” BLM said.

BLM continued that they will work with partners in the grazing community to share experiences, best practices and assess their progress. These discussions will guide a decision as to whether additional outcome-based grazing authorizations can be successful in the future.

Industry comment

The livestock industry indicated overall optimism about the program.

“The livestock industry is thankful for the leadership of Secretary Zinke in establishing a demonstration program that allows flexibility in the ability to manage conditions on the ground,” said Craig Uden, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “This decision ensures our public lands are managed in an efficient and sustainable way.”

The announcement also coincides with the execution of a Cooperative Monitoring Memorandum of Understanding between the Public Lands Council and BLM.

Permittees, lessees, rangeland ecologists and other stakeholders are all eligible for the program. Interested participants should contact their local BLM office. BLM plans to solicit project proposals through its state offices through Oct. 13.

Saige Albert, managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, compiled several press releases in writing this article. Send comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

The smoke from wild fires impacts health but also tourism and road safety, according to Troy Timmons, Western Governors’ Association (WGA) director of strategic initiatives.

“Prescribed fire is an important tool land managers can use to mitigate fire fuel buildup, address invasive plant species and promote resilience for forests and rangelands,” Timmons stated.

In a webinar titled, “Prescribed Fire: Smoke Management and Regulatory Challenges,” panelists provided an overview of opportunities for prescribed fire, among other topics. 

Panelists included Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils Chair Mark Melvin, U.S. Forest Service Smoke Manager Pete Lahm and Western States Air Resources Council (WESTAR) Executive Director Mary Uhl. 

Wildland Fire Leadership Council Executive Director Mike Zupko moderated the discussion.

Prescribed fire

Because of its efficacy as a treatment for lands prone to forest fire, Melvin looked at the use of prescribed fires across the U.S. 

He first explained that prescribed fire councils, which are groups of fire practitioners and managers, successfully manage against large wildland fires using a unique model. Their success is due to the professionalism and commitment of these groups, as well as their common interest in fire. 

“Through this partnership, prescribed fire councils can effectively build partnerships with local, state and federal entities, which is a major strength,” Melvin said.

The Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils partnered with the National Association of State Foresters in 2012 to develop a fire use survey for all the state agencies, he noted. The survey was focused on the amount of fire and location, how states managed fire and what state management programs were in place. The first survey set up a baseline and subsequent surveys help identify trends.

“The fire use survey was pretty consistent, and between the Northeast, Southeast and West, there is some fluctuation in prescribed fire activity,” stated Melvin.

Frequency

Annually, about 12 million acres are managed with prescribed fire but most fire activity is in the southern United States, he added.

“There is certainly an unlimited capacity for prescribed fire, and we all have increased needs to build the capacity. There are also opportunities to increase prescribed fire capacity in the West,” Melvin said.

Between survey years, the most significant change has been the increased number of state-certified burn manager programs, which are important for reaching the private sector.

“The state-certified burn manager programs teach and instruct people to meet state rules and regulations for prescribed fires,” Melvin noted. “Therefore, many states have incorporated these training programs into state law, which can provide liability protection to land owners if they’re a certified burn manager.”

Twelve states, including Wyoming, don’t require prescribed fire permits or authorizations.

Challenges

According to Melvin, the fire use survey identified nine impediment   categories for states regarding prescribed fires.

“Nationwide, weather, capacity and air quality and smoke management are the top three limitations for prescribed fire,” he noted. “Looking at the West, weather is the major impediment.”

After weather, there is a tie between air quality, liability, permitting, resources and public perception, which Melvin believes validates the need to discuss prescribed fires and burning.

“The communities are really important to think about, especially when trying to increase prescribed fires,” Lahm stated. “I think keeping the community in mind is going to be key to increasing prescribed fire and addressing the concept of living with smoke and fire overall.”

The webinar “Prescribed Fire: Smoke Management and Regulatory Challenges,” was presented by the Western Governors’ Association on Dec. 19, 2017. 

Heather Loraas is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Newcastle – If the months ahead go as planned, Bob and Jean Harshbarger’s 4W Ranch in Weston County could be the sight of the state’s first agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to protect species that are candidates for Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing while ensuring the Harshbargers can continue ranching. The agreement would protect their right to ranch should one of the four species included in the agreement be listed.
     It’s been nine years since the FWS unveiled final policy for its Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) and eight years since the Harshbargers first sought out such an agreement. “This policy is intended to facilitate the conservation of proposed and candidate species, and species likely to become candidates in the near future by giving citizens, States, local governments, Tribes, businesses, organizations, and other non-Federal property owners incentives to implement conservation measures for declining species by providing certainty with regard to land, water, or resource use restrictions that might be imposed should the species later become listed as threatened or endangered under the Act,” says the July 1999 Federal Register in which the incentive-based approach to ESA goals is announced.
    The 4W Ranch’s proposed CCAA includes black-tailed prairie dogs, mountain plover, ferruginous hawk and burrowing owls. By agreeing to provide 3,000 acres of habitat for the species, which have largely the same habitat requirements, the Harshbargers will be compensated for the habitat they provide and ensured they can continue existing ranching practices.
    “The reason I support this, and I stick to my guns today,” says Bob noting some of his fellow ranchers have questioned their efforts, “is that on our ranch there’s such a magnitude of prairie dog colonies that if they’re ever listed and they restrict the grazing, it would take away a quarter of our ranch.” He says another petition recently filed to give the prairie dog ESA status underscores his concern.
    Listing discussions surrounding the prairie dog were also pending when the Harshbargers first entered the CCAA process with the help of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture’s Matt Hoobler. “He’s the author,” says Bob of the document’s early drafts.
    “The 4W ranch CCAA is going to show us that we can do a Section 10 CCAA,” says Hoobler of the agreement that could be published in the Federal Register as early as this winter. Wyoming has one Safe Harbor Agreement, written on species already granted ESA listing status, in Albany County for the Wyoming toad. A CCAA hasn’t yet been written in the state, although in recent months there’s been talk of seeking a statewide CCAA for sage grouse.
    “We’re taking the step to create a document the FWS is comfortable with as well as a working ranch,” says Hoobler. “That’s a tremendous value in theory.”
    FWS responses to the document have been tied to changes in personnel, but both the Harshbargers and Hoobler credit FWS Biologist Scott Covington, who joined the agency six months ago, for bringing the process back to life. “He came to us with a timeline of when he wants to have things done,” says Bob noting Covington’s work has brought renewed optimism that the document might reach completion.
    “It’s one of the times when the service can take a proactive effort,” says Covington. While not many CCAAs have been completed, nationwide he says he isn’t aware of a species that’s been listed following completion of an agreement. “I’m really happy to be working with them on this. It’s a step in the right direction and I hope we can do more of them.”
    Covington says, “We’re trying to streamline the process.” Since the Harshbargers first sought a CCAA he says his agency has developed a CCAA template. “It was pretty new when they first started. They’ve been really patient and it’s a testament to their character that they’ve stuck it out and continued pushing for it.”
    Harshbarger’s proposed agreement is for 10 years with an option to renew as it nears the end of its life. In the event the Harshbargers sold their ranch during that timeframe the new owner would have the option of accepting the agreement. They also have an exit clause that allows them to abandon the agreement for a variety of reasons including inadequate financial compensation for the habitat they provide.
    “Jean and I want to make sure the language in this agreement doesn’t take away any of our private property rights,” says Bob. “We don’t want it to interfere with how we operate the ranch.”
    Hoobler says the Harshbargers have reviewed every draft of the CCAA. It’s important, he says, that landowners make sure the agreement is something they can live with.
    Jean says they’ve gone to great lengths to ensure prairie dogs can be controlled in the hay meadows using all legal means. They’ve also included language to continue their prairie dog hunting business, a tool integral to keeping populations in check. The business was launched in the early 1990s and continues on and off based on the plague cycles associated with prairie dogs.
    A private contractor hired by the ranch gathered baseline data on the four species in the spring and early summer of 2001. Population monitoring of the prairie dog was accomplished late summer of 2001 and monitoring of all four species has continued annually through 2007. The ranch stood the initial cost of obtaining the baseline data, GPS mapping of the prairie dog colonies and population monitoring through 2004. A grant has now been obtained to assist in the cost of monitoring and the annual reports associated with the data gathered.
    During the monitoring process Bob and Jean say the ranch’s prairie dog populations have been through one complete cycle of the plague and started another. “We’ve seen the prairie dog population go high, crash, come back up and now it’s down again,” says Bob. “We’ve probably got the only data in the country showing that.”
    Using FWS guidelines in their data collection, Jean says they also learned, in numerical terms, how quickly prairie dog populations are able to expand. Between 2003 and 2004 they say the population, recovering from the plague, jumped from 2,500 to 25,000. “In 2005 and 2006 we were able to resume limited recreational hunting of the priairie dog as the population continued to increase in those years. Hunting was again terminated in 2007 as the plague returned and annihilated the population,” says Bob.
    The CCAA sets out a population threshold at which recreational hunting can resume. Hunting, when populations allow, runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day with no more than six hunters at a time.
    “The biggest hang-up is probably funding,” says Bob, who insists the agreement must cover the cost of maintaining the prairie dog habitat, compensation for forage loss in the prairie dog colonies and the associated cost of monitoring and reports. With FWS lacking the necessary funds, he says they’re instead looking at an agreement in which FWS would help secure funds from other federal and state agencies.
    “We could be running 75 more cows at times if it weren’t for the prairie dogs, as they are a large consumer of rangeland forage,” notes Jean.
    “Not too many folks work on a document for eight years,” says Hoobler noting the drive the Harshbargers have shown in this process. Of the document, he says it’s good for the Harshbargers, good for the environment in which they live and good for the species the CCAA addresses.
    “We’ve got a really good, solid draft,” says Covington. “The next steps are to finish up NEPA work.” He says the document requires publication in the Federal Register and public comments will be taken for 30 days.
    “If  we can get this through it will be a real incentive for other people to try and follow,” says Jean.
    Jennifer Womack is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

A draft proposal under consideration by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and the Wyoming Board of Agriculture would reward those landowners who provide access for hunting on their private lands.

Although hunting access for wildlife population control continues to be a challenge for both the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) and landowners, WGFD Director Scott Talbott says it’s important to recognize those who allow access.

“Sometimes we focus on the problems, but there are a bunch of folks out there who are doing a really good job,” comments Talbott. “This program would recognize those landowners who allow access and who actively participate in wildlife management. That’s clearly to the benefit of the ag community, to hunters and to the general public.”

Of the draft proposal, Talbott says, “It’s a project that’s been identified by both groups as something on which they could work together. The initial program would be to recognize those landowners who provide access throughout the state.”

He says that program would include a grant program for landowners who provide access, to give them seed money that could be matched with other funding sources for projects on the land that would benefit both wildlife and ag operations.

Commission President Fred Lindzey of Laramie, who represents Sweetwater, Carbon and Albany counties, explains that the program would raise funds through an auction of Commissioner licenses donated to the Wyoming Wildlife Foundation.

“What we hope to do is recognize those landowners who have provided and still provide access to hunting on their property,” says Lindzey. “The program would be in recognition of the fact that it’s hard to manage the animals if hunters can’t help, and there are many landowners who have allowed people to hunt, even though it’s not an easy deal.”

“The idea is being batted back and forth between the two groups, and they would like to have something in place by mid-year next year,” says Talbott.
“We hope that by next fall we’ll have this thing rolling, and have money in the bank to support it,” says Lindzey. “It’s a positive thing the Commission and the Board of Ag can do together to recognize those who have allowed access.”

In addition to the new program that’s in the works, Talbott says there are three other projects that encourage landowners to allow hunter access on private land through the Hunter Coordinator Program. The program was a pilot project near Laramie Peak in 2010, and for the 2011 hunting season it expanded to the Meeteetse and Cody areas.

“We are working with several participating landowners in the locations, and we hire a person who goes out and works directly with the landowners and sportsmen to facilitate elk harvest,” says Talbott, adding that, although it wasn’t as successful as they would have liked in the Laramie Peak area last year, it did well enough for the agency to commit to try it in other areas.

“Although in its first year the program didn’t really harvest that many more elk, it provided a view for landowners of what could be done,” says Lindzey. “By and large, the landowners were pretty happy with the way it went. There was Game and Fish presence there all the time, and they didn’t have to worry about people leaving their gates down or driving four-wheelers or pickups across their pastures. It was a tightly coordinated effort to get a harvest on animals, and I think it turned out well and will be attempted elsewhere in the state as we look at ways to get hunters into these areas.”

Talbott also mentions the Hunter Management Program and the Walk-In Program as other WGFD strategies that have helped with elk harvest. The Hunter Assistance Program also exists to connect landowners who need to lower wild game populations with hunters who need places to hunt.

“Our programs have expanded by leaps and bounds,” says Talbott of the collective strategies. “There is no doubt that we have more interest in them than we have the money to fund them or the personnel to work with them.”

“Overall, there are two things to look at,” he continues. “Access issues are stable, if not increasing, and there’s a tremendous interest in our programs, although access to some places is still very difficult.”

Of WGFD enforcement for those who hunt irresponsibly, Talbott says many landowners are in the Walk-In and Hunter Management Area programs simply because their participation allows the agency to enforce ranch rules, such as forbidden off-road travel.

“If those rules are ignored, we can cite them for it, and we can assist landowners with some of the problems like hunter behavior, four-wheelers and gates,” says Talbott.

Lindzey acknowledges that one ongoing problem is that, although there may be several landowners in an area who allow access, that doesn’t do any good if there’s a big adjoining block of land where hunter access is not allowed.

“It disrupts the whole thing – elk tend to run to places where they don’t get shot at, and it disrupts the whole thing. We have some landowners who don’t even live in the state who create problems by not allowing elk harvest, so a few are harvested, and after the season they find their way back to the landowners who allow access,” says Lindzey. “That’s an issue that tends to be a real problem in parts of the state.”

“It’s their right to not allow hunting on a big chunk of land they’ve bought, but the question is how to sit down with them and talk about it,” he adds.

Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..