Breach of Faith on the Bridger-Teton: Forest Service Expands Grazing on Abandoned Allotments in the Upper Green River

Elk summer in the area but are socially displaced by the presence of cattle. Photo George Wuerthner.

In a breach of trust and faith, the Bridger Teton National Forest (BTNF) proposes to stock 30,577 acres with cattle in the Elk Ridge area of the Gros Ventre Range, including the upper Tosi Creek, Lime Creek, Rock Creek, and Klondike Creek drainages. Approximately 44% of the site is within the Gros Ventre Wilderness. These allotments were previously grazed by domestic sheep and are within the Upper Green River valley. Angus Thuermer wrote a good overview of the controversy in Wyofile.

I recently visited the area to see how the allotments were doing without livestock. Although the impacts of past livestock grazing are apparent in many places, with particular plant species typically avoided by livestock still dominating the landscape, the recovery of vegetation is ongoing. In addition, I found evidence of elk, pronghorn, and other wildlife use of the area.

These allotments were closed in 2016 when private interests paid millions of dollars to the ranchers to voluntarily retire their grazing privileges in the area to reduce conflicts between livestock and public values like wilderness integrity and protecting bighorn sheep and grizzly bears. The assumption of those who donated funds to allotment retirement is that the area would never be grazed by livestock again—or so the people donating funds assumed this would be the case. Restocking these allotments could jeopardize future voluntary grazing buyout proposals.

It is important to note that the Upper Green River area is not just any typical FS landscape. It contains some of the best wildlife habitat in the West and is an area of increasing conflicts with wildlife like elk, grizzlies, and wolves.

In its Forest Plan, the BTNF recognizes the significant wildlife values of the area by designating 93% a special management designation where management is supposed to be the primary management emphasis and importance.

The heavily cropped vegetation seen here in the Upper Green allotment means little forage left for native herbivores, hiding cover for small mammals and birds, and greater soil compaction. Photo George Wuerthner.

A recent Final Environmental Impact Statement that reviewed livestock grazing in the Upper Green River area concluded that the No Grazing alternative had the most benefits and most negligible impacts on dozens of resource values. In every instance, the No Grazing allotment would bring about more rapid improvement, more favorable benefits, and better ecological outcomes than any other grazing option. Indeed, the only negative impact reported would be on “traditional uses,” which is a euphemism for livestock grazing.

Now the Forest Service is planning to restock those allotments in a breach of trust that not only jeopardizes the ecological integrity of these public lands but the entire voluntary grazing retirement system. It also puts raises the question about who the BTNF thinks they work for? The public interest or private ranching interests?

The Upper Green River lies between the Wind River Range and the Gros Vente Range and is the headwaters of the Colorado River. It is a mix of flowery sagebrush meadows, aspen groves, and timber patches that include lodgepole pine, subalpine fir whitebark pine, and spruce.

The Upper Green has been the scene of numerous livestock conflicts with wildlife. As a result, there are endangered and rare species found here, including sage grouse, Colorado River Cutthroat trout, Kendall Hot Springs Dace, various amphibians like boreal toad. The area is also a significant migration corridor and summer range for pronghorn, elk, and other larger ungulates.

Dozens of grizzly bears have been killed in the Upper Green River area due to conflicts with domestic livestock. Photo George Wuerthner.

However, the most immediate conflicts involve predators like wolves and grizzlies. In the past decade or so, dozens of grizzly bears have been killed to appease the ranchers utilizing our public lands for their profit. It’s critical to understand this idea.

A grazing allotment is a privilege. It is not a “right,” though many ranchers assert this myth. Grazing on public lands, like any other use, can be modified or terminated if there are significant conflicts with other public values.

Cattle grazing in the Upper Green River allotment this summer has already reduced hiding cover and cropped vegetation to golf course height. Photo George Wuerthner.

In the case of the Upper Green River area, the conflicts are numerous (but not unique), including trashing of riparian zones (the vegetation and banks of streams) by cattle hooves, the pollution of water (where cattle graze E Coli levels are often much higher than legal limits), the consumption of forage that would otherwise sustain native herbivores from ground squirrels to elk, the social displacement of native species (elk avoid areas actively being grazed by cattle, thus are pushed into less suitable habitat), the creation of range “developments” like fencing, water pipelines, and so forth that are paid for with tax dollars to benefit private industry, and so on. This litany is only a partial list of the problems of livestock operations in this area. For more see this link.

The Elk Ridge grazing complex is recovering from past sheep grazing. Photo George Wuerthner.

In its previous environmental analysis, the Forest Service failed to consider the economic impact of livestock grazing on the public’s values. Instead, it focused on the financial interests of a small percentage of local ranchers who graze the Upper Green. Farm/agriculture in Sublette County only contributes about 3.1% of income in the area. The contribution of public lands forage to this total is some subset of this that is considerably less, likely fewer than 1%.  Other public lands values like wildlife, fisheries, wilderness, water quality, and other values are far more critical to the local economy. Still, they are compromised by the livestock grazing of the Upper Green River allotments.

At present, some 18,000 cattle graze in the Upper Green area each summer. The BTNF suggests that reopening the Elk Ridge grazing area to approximately 700 cattle can reduce conflicts between grizzlies and livestock. But all this will do is create the opportunity for more conflicts. The Forest Service sought comments on the Elk Ridge plan last month as it launched an environmental review, garnering 3,256 letters by the close of the comment period.

Elk Ridge in the Gros Ventre Range is over 10,000 feet in elevation. Photo George Wuerthner.

The public must write the BTNF and urge them to do a complete Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before deciding about future grazing in the Elk Ridge area. Be sure to mention in your letters that restocking these allotments with cattle will compromise existing wilderness values, harm grizzly bears and other wildlife, and demonstrates bad faith when it comes to voluntary grazing retirement.

You can write and urge them to protect public values, not private interests.

Patricia Oconnor Forest Supervisor
Kevin Khung Deputy Forest Supervisor
Griebel, Randall L -FS ( Resources
Hoelscher, Rob -FS District Ranger

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy