The Sublette County Journal
Volume 4, Number 23 - 2/3/00
brought to you online by Pinedale Online
Commission Hears Ranchers' Concerns, G&F Responses to Piney Elk Herd Issue
The Piney Elk Herd issue dominated the afternoon of Tuesday's County Commissioner meeting. The Commission asked Pinedale Game & Fish Supervisor Bernie Holz to attend the meeting, explain the G&F's position, and address concerns from Big Piney-area ranchers with grazing leases in the Bench Corral Area.
This issue revolves around grazing permit renewals for the Lower and Upper Bench Corral allotments between Big Piney and Daniel, which were up for review and renewal last year.
The BLM conducted a standard Environmental Assessment (EA) for the allotment renewal, and during the public comment period, received several comments from the environmental community calling for a reduction or complete elimination of livestock AUMs on the Bench Corral allotments. Those opposed to continued livestock grazing cited the increased number of elk, which used the Bench Corral forage during the winter.
Prior to 1996, the Game & Fish fed just 250 elk at its Bench Corral feedground. However, that winter, it chose to bait approximately 500 elk from the North Piney feedground to the Bench Corral feedground. According to Mr. Holz, the G&F took this step after consulting the BLM and ranchers with grazing permits in the Bench Corral area.
From the G&F's perspective, Mr. Holz said moving the elk from the North Piney feedground to the Bench Corral feedground offered two main advantages. First, the elk on the Bench Corral feedground were more dispersed, went on the feed later, and left the feedground earlier - all of which reduced the spread of brucellocis between the elk.
Secondly, Mr. Holz said the elk, which wintered on Bench Corral could graze on the native forage, thus reducing feeding time and cost to the G&F by nearly 50%. He estimated that moving the elk from the North Piney feedground to the Bench Corral feedground could save the G&F approximately $15,000 per year.
However, that first trailing effort in 1996 raised the ire of both the BLM and the permittees, and the G&F attempted to stop the trailing and force the elk back to the North Piney feedground. The attempt was unsuccessful and the North Piney feedground elk have left voluntarily and made their way to Bench Corral every winter since.
During his presentation, Mr. Holz told the commissioners and several ranchers in attendance, that as far as the G&F was concerned, there was enough forage available on the Bench Corral allotments to accommodate both the increased numbers of elk from the North Piney feedground and the current levels of livestock grazing. Mr. Holz based this position on range utilization studies the G&F has been conducting in the Bench Corral area.
However, he also acknowledged the permittees concerns and uncertainty. Specifically, he said he understood that if there ever was an overgrazing issue on the Bench Corral allotments, it would be much easier for the BLM to react by reducing livestock AUMs than elk numbers - simply because the G&F doesn't need a grazing permit for the elk.
Piney Rancher Dan Budd told Mr. Holz and the Commission that many of the North Piney elk weren't making it to the Bench Corral feedground and instead were wintering on private land along the North Piney Creek drainage. Not only were these elk eating ranchers' forage and getting in their feedlines, Mr. Budd said there was the potential that brucellosis-infected elk would abort their fetuses on the private ground, thereby exposing livestock to disease.
Tagg Guio questioned how much input the permittees had into the original G&F decision to bait the elk from North Piney to Bench Corral in 1996. He also wondered why the G&F doesn't try to stop the elk from leaving the North Piney feedground. "I question whether you are really trying to hold them there," he told Mr. Holz.
Mr. Guio also raised the issue of the damage the elk do to young plants when they migrate back to the forest and high country when winter breaks. Mr. Holz responded that the G&F has followed the elk tracks during this migration, and hasn't been able to detect any grazing.
Rancher Kenny Fear expressed concerns about the current population of the Piney Elk Herd. The G&F population objective for this herd is approximately 2,400 elk, and it currently estimates the population at 3,500 animals. He questioned the G&F's commitment to reducing this population.
Mr. Holz responded that the G&F has liberalized hunting seasons, and authorized depredation hunts in an effort to bring down the elk numbers, but its efforts have been frustrated by mild, dry fall weather which decreases hunting success. "We're interested in killing elk," Mr. Holz maintained.
Mr. Fear also asked why the G&F opposed two water developments he's proposed for the Bench Corral allotments. Mr. Holz responded that the G&F is concerned that water developments would move cattle to utilize areas being grazed by elk now.
Finally, Mr. Fear asked if the G&F would accept a grazing permit for 250 elk at the Bench Corral feedground - and enforce these numbers.
Boulder Rancher Joel Bousman spoke of a more general problem the livestock industry in Wyoming was having with G&F department. He said the Wyoming Stockgrowers' Association had requested a meeting with the G&F Department Director John Baughman several weeks ago to discuss increasing tensions between the ag industry and the G&F but has yet to even get a response to the meeting proposal. He saw several "train wrecks" between ag and the G&F lying ahead in the future concerning perceived conflicts between wildlife and livestock.
"Cooperating Agency Status"
At the end of the discussion between the ranchers and Mr. Holz, commissioner Gordon Johnston asked the ranchers what the Board could do. Mr. Budd and Mr. Fear requested that the Commission request to be a "cooperating agency" with the BLM concerning the grazing permit renewals at Bench Corral, and appoint four local ranchers to represent the County in the decision making process. Mr. Fear gave the commissioners a memorandum from attorney Karen Budd-Falen that he said outlined the mechanics behind requesting "cooperating agency" status. Ms. Budd-Falen is the daughter of Piney Rancher Dan Budd and is a prominent wise-use attorney.
Mr. Budd told the Commission that if the county were given this status, the ranchers and the county would have an equal place at the table with the BLM and other agencies when it came decision time for the grazing allotment renewals.
The Commission decided to request "cooperative agency status" with the State and other federal agencies. If this status is given, they plan to appoint the ranchers to represent the County in decision making process.
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