Grizzly conflicts central to new Upper Green River grazing debate


Bridger-Teton National Forest is weighing 3,256 comment letters, many of which oppose a plan to allow cattle to graze new areas in grizzly country near the Upper Green River.

Expanding cattle range into abandoned sheep grazing allotments on the national forest, however, would give stock growers more options to keep cattle and grizzlies apart, supporters of the proposal say. Grizzlies have repeatedly killed domestic stock in the area around Union Pass and wildlife managers have trapped, moved and killed bears because of those depredations.

The 30,577 acres being considered for new grazing also would provide ranchers with options should the area between the Wind River Range and Gros Ventre Mountains be hit by wildfire or poor range conditions, the Forest Service said.

The former sheep allotments would be grazed “by currently permitted cattle in the Upper Green River Area,” the Bridger-Teton said in announcing the plan. In other words, grazing acreage would be expanded but not the number of cattle — technically counted by a metric called animal-unit months.

Wyoming Stock Growers Association, however, said the Bridger-Teton should do more than just authorize additional grazing acreage. It should consider allowing up to 725 more cow-calf pairs to graze there, Executive Vice President Jim Magagna wrote.

The Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation wrote that the plan “would be a way for ranchers to create new opportunities for themselves.”

Some conservation groups recognized the potential for reducing grizzly conflicts under the Forest Service plan, but others said that a larger grazing area would instead introduce conflict into grizzly country where there now is no strife between stock and wildlife. 

“The area is now a refugia for species such as grizzly bears and wolves which are killed in areas where livestock are permitted,” Jonathan Ratner, director of the Western Watersheds Project’s Wyoming office wrote. “Permitting livestock within this refugia renders the area lethally toxic to these species ….”

The push by Wyoming agriculture interests continues an effort to boost grazing on federal lands, including the restocking of domestic sheep in the Wyoming Range some 60 miles to the southwest. Conservationists paid sheep ranchers to surrender their permits in the Wyoming Range in a buyout aimed at protecting wild bighorn sheep from deadly pathogens carried by their domestic cousins.

Advocates for wild bighorns also bought out the sheep grazing interests in the Elk Ridge Complex on the Upper Green River for the same reason. The 2016 Elk Ridge buyouts left the 30,577 acres without any permitted grazing, a status that is now being reconsidered by the forest.

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. Many commenters noted the conflicts between grizzly bears and stock in the area.

Ranchers can graze about 9,000 cow-calf pairs — about 18,000 animals — in Upper Green River allotments near the Elk Ridge Complex. Ecologist George Wuerthner, a grazing critic, wrote in a 2020 opinion piece that 1,000 cows and 37 grizzlies have died as a result.

Wyoming Stock Growers Association believes those conflicts would be ameliorated with more grazing acreage on the old sheep allotments. “It will allow greater flexibility to manage cattle movements to reflect … the impacts of grizzly bear depredation,” WSGA’s Magagna wrote.

The Forest Service says the additional acreage would allow operators “to better address…predators.” Western Watersheds Project objected to that reasoning.

Authorizing the livestock grazing “will result in preventable mortality,” Ratner wrote. That runs afoul of an established Bridger-Teton target that calls for eliminating “preventable” grizzly mortalities.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition and National Wildlife Federation supported that notion, writing that the Forest Service should “avoid allowing new conflicts on these now-vacant allotments that would result in lethal removal of large carnivores.”

Criticism of the Bridger-Teton plan also knocked the idea of allowing grazing back into the Gros Ventre Wilderness, a congressionally protected Forest Service area where natural systems are supposed to reign. Forty-four percent of the Elk Ridge Complex is in the Gros Ventre Wilderness.

“[G]razing is an exception to normal wilderness protections,” wrote Gary Macfarlane, a board member of Wilderness Watch. “It is a use that, by definition and practice, degrades Wilderness. The Wilderness Act does not grant special privileges to those that graze their cattle or sheep in Wilderness…”

One of four allotments that make up the Elk Ridge Complex covers a wilderness basin that is a special place, a backcountry horseman told the federal agency. “There are some areas which I think would be better off left alone,” Ernie Wampler Jr. wrote.

“The Tosi Creek area has the greater amount of pristine alpine country in it than the other three [Elk Ridge Complex] allotments,” Wampler wrote. “I have probably spent as much time in that area as anyone since the sheep left, so I know of what I speak. 

There’s also debate regarding whether expanding the grazing area would benefit or harm habitat.

“Spreading existing grazing use across a broader landscape can allow some traditionally highly used areas to recuperate and generally lessen impacts across the larger area,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department Deputy Director Angi Bruce wrote. But the agency doesn’t back adding more cattle to the area. Instead, it supports “current stocking rates,” her letter reads.

The Bridger-Teton has been narrow-minded, other critics said, and has not proposed examining the Elk Ridge Complex “for permanent retirement from livestock grazing to restore habitats from past damage, or provide wildlife and watershed benefits.” Yellowstone to Uintas Connection and Alliance for the Wild Rockies wrote that instead of addressing the increasing demand for primitive recreation, hunting and fishing “this proposal is being made to satisfy the ‘desires’ of the livestock industry.”

Game and Fish also warned of potential damage to sensitive creeks that hold Colorado River cutthroat trout. Klondike and Rock creeks support “healthy but small populations” of Colorado River Cutthroat trout, a species of “greatest conservation need” in Wyoming.

“With no refuge habitat available, these populations are at high risk of extirpation,” Deputy Director Bruce wrote, advocating for special management for those waters.

Two groups that helped remove domestic sheep from the Elk Ridge Complex support expanded cattle use. The Wild Sheep Foundation and Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation endorsed “limited cattle grazing on suitable portions” of the complex, organization officials wrote. But such action should not include increasing the number of cattle, their letter states.

Conservationists invested in the Elk Ridge Complex buyouts understanding the permits could be reissued for “limited restocking of cattle,” the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and National Wildlife Federation said. The groups want to ensure any restocking is done “in a manner that may help reduce conflicts rather than perpetuate them,” they wrote.

After considering the comments, the Bridger-Teton plans to prepare an environmental assessment and possibly a more in-depth environmental impact statement analyzing expected effects of new grazing.

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