In a breach of trust and faith, the Bridger Teton National Forest proposes to stock 30,577 acres of vacant grazing allotments with cattle in the Elk Ridge area of the Gros Ventre Range.
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.
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, bighorn sheep and grizzly bears.
The assumption of those who donated to the allotment buyout is that the area would never be grazed by livestock again.
It is important to note that the Upper Green River area is not just any typical national forest 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 giving 93% a special management designation under which wildlife protection is supposed to be the primary management emphasis.
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 least impacts on dozens of resource values.
In every instance, the no grazing alternative would bring about more rapid improvement, more favorable benefits and better ecological outcomes than any other 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 raises the question of who the BTNF thinks they work for? The public interest or private ranching interests?
The Upper Green has been the scene of numerous livestock conflicts with wildlife. There are endangered and rare species found here, including sage grouse, Colorado River Cutthroat trout, Kendall Hot Springs Dace and various amphibians like the boreal toad. The area is also a significant migration corridor and summer range for pronghorn, elk and other larger ungulates.
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.
At present, the BTNF permits 18,000 cattle to 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.
The BTNF should do a complete Environmental Impact Statement and demonstrate they put the public interest ahead of private industry. Grazing the Upper Green, one of the best wildlife areas in the entire West, makes no economic or ecological sense. Time for the BTNF to honor its commitment to the public and at the very least not expand grazing in this area.