Recently, the Bridger Teton National Forest (BTNF) released its final record of decision on livestock grazing on the 170,641-acre Upper Green River Allotment. The allotment includes the headwaters of the Green River north of Pinedale.
The Upper Green River Allotment contains the most superlative wildlife habitat in the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, yet the Forest Service treats this area as if it’s just another piece of public real estate.
The Upper Green is a pronghorn migration corridor, a calving area and winter range for elk, sage grouse habitat and home to the Kendall Spring dace, an endangered species, and Colorado cutthroat trout, a species of concern, not to mention lynx, wolverine, Columbia spotted frog, boreal toad and other species of special concern.
Livestock production contributes to the degradation of the habitat for many of these species. There are 58 miles of fences on the allotment, and the new management plan calls for installing another 10 miles of fence. Not only do fences inhibit migration and movement of pronghorn, but fences are a significant mortality factor for sage grouse.
The trampling of riparian areas and wetlands harms aquatic dependent species from frogs to trout. Livestock manure pollutes our public waterways.
However, the biggest problem with the continued grazing of the Upper Green is it contains some of the best unprotected grizzly habitat in the ecosystem. And livestock operations pose the greatest threat to the grizzly use of this area.
Between 2010 and 2018, there were over 527 conflicts reported between grizzlies and cattle. During this same period, 35 grizzlies were “removed” from the Upper Green River area in the past decade or so. The Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the plan’s grazing is “likely to adversely affect” grizzly bears, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. In fact, the FWS biological opinion finds that as many as 72 additional grizzlies in the next ten years are likely to be killed due to livestock conflicts on this allotment.
Why are we sending grizzlies to slaughter?
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Why are public wildlife, namely grizzly bears, a species listed under the Endangered Species Act, being removed or killed to accommodate private businesses using public resources?
Putting cattle out to graze the Upper Green is analogous to putting out picnic baskets for bears to dine on. It invites conflict.
If I were to leave my picnic basket out for bears to find while camping in Yellowstone or Grand Teton national parks, I’d get a fine, but if you’re a rancher you can put thousands of four-legged picnic baskets out for bears to find and consume without any consequence.
The Forest Service claims it has put into place some regulations to protect bears such as “advising” range riders to carry bear spray and requiring ranchers to move dead cattle away from roads and trails. Nevertheless, this still leaves carcasses out on the land which can introduce grizzlies to cattle as food, which ultimately leads to greater bear-cattle conflicts.
The presence of cattle essentially displaces grizzly food as well. There is substantial scientific evidence that the mere presence of livestock socially displaces elk from its preferred habitat. The displacement of elk means bears are often left with nothing to eat other than cattle.
The District Ranger is quoted as suggesting “Grazing is an appropriate use of the National Forest and is important to the community economically and socially.”
However, not all uses are appropriate everywhere. The significant value of wildlife habitat in the Upper Green River area should make wildlife preservation the highest priority.
Ironically the Forest Service justifies continued grazing of this area by exaggerating the importance of livestock production to the local economy. In Sublette County, all agriculture contributes to only 1.2 percent of local income. And the percentage of this local income derived from cattle grazing the Upper Green allotment is some subset (less than 1 percent) of this amount.
By contrast, tourism contributes to nearly 12 times as much of the local income. The degradation of clean water, wildlife and intact ecosystems by livestock ultimately harm the tourist economy and the public’s property.
The Upper Green Allotment decision demonstrates that the BTNF ignores its public trust responsibility to put the public interest ahead of private business.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published 38 books on natural history and environmental issues. He divides his time between Livingston, Montana and Bend, Oregon.