Betrayal on the Upper Green River

Recently I attended a meeting with the Bridger Teton National Forest (BTNF) officials to discuss future grazing plans for the Upper Green River grazing allotment.

The allotment, one of the most outstanding wildlife areas in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, contains the headwaters of the Green River and lies north of Pinedale Wyoming between the Wind River Range and the Gros Ventre Range.

Basically, the Forest Service plans to allow the continued degradation of public resources by livestock grazing on what is one of the most important wildlife areas on the entire BTNF. The Upper Green Allotment is an excellent example of PPSC or “privatize profit, socialize costs.”

The Upper Green Allotment is the largest Forest Service grazing allotment in the West. It is a mixture of aspen, rolling sagebrush/grassland, willow-lined creeks, intermixed with ponds, and springs.

It contains the best wildlife habitat outside of a national park. Home to grizzlies and wolves, endangered Colorado cutthroat trout, sage grouse, elk, moose, pronghorn, and various rare amphibians, among other outstanding wildlife values.

That is one reason why the BTNF Forest Plan has categorized 93% of the area as DFC 10 and 12 status where protecting wildlife values is the primary goal.

Unfortunately, this amazing wildlife habitat is annually trashed by private livestock for the profit of a few ranchers, all with the collusion and indeed the cooperation of the BTNF. It treats the Upper Green area as a feedlot for livestock.

In a recent Final Environmental Impact Statement, the BTNF acknowledges that the range condition of the clear majority of the allotment is between poor and fair. Don’t let the word “fair” fool you. It’s a nice sounding euphemism chosen by range managers to hide the real condition of the landscape. In range parlance, this means that much of the Upper Green allotment is in terrible range conditions.

Some 74% of the plant species that would be expected on this allotment are so rare as to be non-existent due to livestock grazing. In other words, by their own admission, the allotment is already severely degraded.

Worse, their proposed solution identified in their FEIS would only tweak the functional condition of the allotment slightly upwards. That assumes of course that the BTNF implements all the standards and guidelines and maintains regular monitoring as outlined in its FEIS.

Most of the proposed changes in grazing practices are “aspirational” rather than mandatory. In other words, they hope that ranchers will do this or that, and they hope that this will improve things for public lands.

I can assure you from my prior experience as a BLM biologist and many reviews of western lands such an assumption is questionable.

And even if there is some slight improvement, the FEIS also acknowledges that any improvements will be slow and incremental due to on-going livestock grazing.

This is readily acknowledged by many of the FS own biologists, hydrologists, and other “ologists” who all voiced their opinion to the FEIS staff that the preferred alternative chosen by the BTNF would not protect the resources under their purview.

Indeed, when confronted about this, the Forest Supervisor admitted that she had not read any of the scientific reports, and yet she went ahead and approved the deficient grazing plan anyway.

The only alternative that would create a significant improvement in the allotment to all resources is the no-grazing option. And, of course, the BTNF did not pick this option.

During our meeting, we were prevented from even discussing this option since the Forest Supervisor had summarily decided that No Grazing was not going to be entertained.

Yet a chart on page 157 table 19 summary of effects on the resource by alternatives of the FEIS compares the four alternatives, including the No Grazing alternative on dozens of resource values. In every instance, the No Grazing allotment would bring about more rapid improvement, more positive benefits and better ecological outcomes than any of the other grazing options.  Indeed, the only negative impact reported would be on “traditional uses” which is a euphemism for livestock grazing.

In other words, no grazing would be best for ground cover, detrimental soil disturbance, soil compaction, soil erosion, soil quality, riparian streambank stability and water quality, stream temperatures, riparian function,  elk, grizzlies, cutthroat trout, sage grouse, amphibians, recreation, plant communities, and a host of other values, yet the BTNF would not even entertain discussion about it, much less choose it as the preferred alternative?

When I questioned the FS officials why they were ignoring the No Grazing option, when by their own analysis, it had the greatest public benefits, the District Range Con lamely defended grazing by suggesting the FS was a “multiple use” agency and therefore livestock grazing was permitted.

But the Forest Service is charged with protecting the public interest, not the financial interests of resource exploiters. If the use of businesses impacts public values like water quality, wildlife, plant communities, and recreation, then the agency is not required to continue to permit this degradation. Indeed, we the public, are paying the agency to manage public lands for the public interest, not private interests.

Another example of their preference for the profits of ranchers than for the good of the public’s wildlife came during a discussion of grizzly bears. Since 1995, 34 grizzly bears have been “removed” from the Upper Green River allotment. When I questioned why the public’s wildlife was being removed instead of private livestock using our public lands, I was shut down and told I wasn’t allowed to debate these issues.

The discussion went on about some things the ranchers could do to reduce conflicts like the removal of carrion, and other measures, but these were all “voluntary” and not mandatory.

The FS was quick to point out that the permittees had range riders out on the allotment to “scare away” predators like wolves and grizzlies, not to mention this also affects elk and other wildlife.

Again, I questioned the FS why the public’s wildlife should be chased off the public land so that private businesses could operate on our public lands. If one assumes that elk, grizzlies, and wolves were picking the best habitat for their survival, then animals displaced by range riders would be relegated to habitat that was less desirable. It might also increase conflicts between individuals and packs, again to the detriment of the public’s wildlife.

Over and over when the BTNF had a chance to protect public resources or protect the livestock industry’s use and abuse of the Upper Green River allotment, they deferred to the ranchers.

One reason for this continued support of a destructive industry has to do with the makeup of the decision-making team. The review of grazing management is usually done by Range Conservationists or Range “cons” as they are called. And believe the public is “conned” by these people.

If you are a range con, your entire job depends on the continued use of public resources by ranchers. As a result, you are not going to recommend something like a No Grazing alternative for any public lands because it would result in no reason for your position. As a result, range cons have a financial vested interest in continuing livestock grazing on public lands.

As someone who studied range management as an undergraduate and in graduate school, I can also assure you that most range cons are “want to be” ranchers who were not lucky to be born the son or daughter of a rancher. So the next best thing is to become a range con so you can mingle with the ranchers, and get to drive a big government pick-up-and wear cowboy boots like the people you idolize.

The Upper Green Allotment’s importance for wildlife is being sacrificed to facilitate the exploitation of our land for private profit.

The only way this will change is if people continue to remind the BTNF that they have a legal and more importantly, a moral responsibility to manage these lands for the public good.

More articles by:

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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