From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 3, Number 41 - January 8, 2004
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

WG&F advocates allotment closures

by Cat Urbigkit

The draft environmental impact statement for domestic sheep grazing in the Wyoming Range Allotment Complex generated a great deal of public comment, most of which came from an orchestrated campaign critical of grazing.

The Big Piney Ranger District received about 300 e-mails and telephone calls opposed to continued domestic sheep grazing in the area.

Even some environmental groups that haven't been anti-grazing in commenting on other projects seemed to have changed their tune for the Wyoming Range domestic sheep grazing program.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Wyoming Outdoor Council, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and Wyoming Sierra Club wrote in their letter of comment how important the Wyoming Range area of the Bridger-Teton National Forest is for wildlife, then added: "In stark contrast, the Forest is marginal, at best, for the production of domestic livestock and this livestock use diminishes other nationally and internationally significant values."

The environmental groups' letter slammed the Forest Service for not mandating a separation of bighorn sheep from domestic sheep in order to protect wild sheep from disease.

The letter noted that these regional conservation groups had a meeting on Dec. 2, 2003 with Big Piney District Ranger Greg Clark to point out "in four years from 1997 to 2001, over half of the bighorn sheep in the Wyoming Range died as a result of contact with domestic sheep."

The letter alleged that domestic sheep grazing could result in the extirpation of both Colorado River Cutthroat Trout and bighorn sheep populations. It called for an official determination of the area's suitability for livestock grazing and also requested a full discussion of potential impacts to grizzly bears and gray wolves since these species are now known to occur in the area.

The environmentalists letter questioned: "What are the values of a few years' worth of lamb and wool production off of these lands compared to wildlife/fisheries economic values? This is an important question that should be a consideration in the decision for this project."

The groups concluded: "The Bridger-Teton National Forest has failed to supply the best available science that supports the assertion that domestic sheep grazing is compatible with other uses in the project area. In fact, the draft environmental impact statement makes a clear case that it is not."

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department continued to stick to its guns in opposition to the agency's preferred alternative for continued grazing throughout the allotment complex.

The state wildlife agency continues to advocate the closure of several of the allotments and is pushing for a private group to fund an allotment buy-out, with the Forest Service then permanently closing the allotments to domestic sheep grazing.

"Monetary incentive to waive the Upper Grayback/Phosphate and Pickle Pass allotment permits are possible," WG&F pledged in its letter.

"We are currently setting up a meeting with representatives of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep and Trout Unlimited to discuss further options that they may be able to support and help implement ... Recommendations, once developed, will be shared with other stakeholders for their consideration."

WG&F advocates not just a separation of species but a separation of "occupied bighorn sheep range from active domestic sheep allotments."

According to then-acting director Gregg Arthur, "It is important to note that there have been no studies reporting compatibility between wild and domestic sheep."

WG&F also recommended another option in which domestic sheep use be shifted to the south, by revoking the cattle grazing authorized there and replacing it with sheep use, since "conversion from domestic sheep to cattle has not helped range conditions" in the area.

The state wildlife agency's letter of comment included several pages of range monitoring suggestions, and even an offer to help monitor domestic sheep grazing. The letter stated, "In order to better understand how domestic sheep are herded through the allotment complex, we would offer to pursue funding for global positioning system telemetry collars to better understand domestic sheep use, distribution and movements in relation to occupied bighorn sheep habitat along the northern portion of the Wyoming Mountain Range."

WG&F requested GPS collars on domestic sheep be a "key condition" in permittee Bill Taliaffero's allotment management plan.

The WG&F letter was critical of the Forest Service for not adequately addressing cutthroat trout issues and then suggested that only Alternative 4, the no domestic sheep grazing alternative, "is the best alternative for watershed health, all wildlife/fish, and provides maximum benefit to ecological health of these watersheds."

The agency concluded: "Alternative 4 provides the greatest potential cumulative benefit to wildlife, fisheries and ecological health. By eliminating all interaction and competition between the domestic sheep and wildlife, the entire analysis area would immediately benefit all wildlife using these allotments."

According to the EIS, under Alternative 4, "No domestic sheep would be allowed to graze on the allotment complex."

The Western Watersheds Project, the Idaho-based organization targeting public lands livestock grazing, submitted a three-ring binder full of comments and references critical of continued domestic sheep use. WWP's Wyoming Office Director Jonathan Ratner of Pinedale submitted the notebook and letters.

Wyoming Department of Agriculture Director John Etchepare's letter emphatically supported continuation of domestic sheep grazing in the allotment complex. Etchepare's letter pointed out that 20 years ago, 10 bands of sheep were permitted on the current seven allotments for about 12,000 head. Today permitted sheep numbers are 6,500.

Norman Gillespie of Rock Springs wrote, "Sheep have the diseases, scrapies and pneumonia and we do not need them in our public forestlands," and "Ranchers hate elk on public lands because they are in competition with their livestock for the forage."

Ranger Clark said that he anticipates the final EIS and the record of decision will be issued concurrently in late May.

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