Ranchers pay price for overgrazing

Clarke McClung knew exactly what he was walking into the day he said “yes” in 2008. This didn’t involve a marriage proposal. Instead, it meant trying to prevent further divorce between livestock grazing permittees and the U.S. Forest Service personnel he would soon be managing.

Ranchers pay price for overgrazing

 

Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a 13-part series exploring public lands grazing in the West, using the Tongue District of the Bighorn National Forest in north-central Wyoming as a case study.

 

Clarke McClung knew exactly what he was walking into the day he said “yes” in 2008. This didn’t involve a marriage proposal. Instead, it meant trying to prevent further divorce between livestock grazing permittees and the U.S. Forest Service personnel he would soon be managing.

“Yes, I knew it was going to be contentious,” admits McClung, who stepped into a hotbed when he accepted the job as Tongue District ranger, one of three districts on the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming.

McClung knew well in advance that bad blood had existed for decades between some permittees and the USFS over a myriad of differences including range monitoring, stocking rates and seasons of use.

It would have been mind-soothing to turn down the job, but McClung was looking forward to a new challenge. And when it came to the grazing issue — the biggest challenge he would face — McClung hoped he could help mend fences, while at the same time recognizing that something had to be done to ensure the long-term sustainability of grazing on the forest.

“Historically, the district had been stocked very heavy with cattle and sheep,” he says. “I hate to use the word ‘overgrazed,’ but we know from our monitoring and the positive changes that we’re now seeing on the ground that the district was being grazed much harder than it should have been.”

Politics, grazing mix

It’s no secret that politics drive many decisions on USFS and Bureau of Land Management lands. This includes a total of 250 million acres managed by both agencies for livestock grazing, most of which occurs in the West.

McClung, who retired in late 2014 after a 35-year career with the USFS and BLM, suspects that politics, in part, allowed high levels of grazing to occur on the Tongue District and entire Bighorn National Forest until well into the 1990s.

Many years before he came on board as Tongue District ranger, McClung says, the relationship between permittees and the district was fine because permittees were still grazing livestock at historic levels.

But when the district began cutting stocking rates by up to 50% based on long-term resource damage, the relationship between producers and the agency became very contentious very quickly.

McClung says he made it clear to ranchers that he and his staff are advocates for grazing, but permittees and district personnel must do a much better job of working together to maintain maximum numbers of livestock while keeping other forest uses and resources in mind.

“When this is achieved,” he told permittees in a letter last year, “most of the concerns and issues we have discussed and argued about will be diminished, and grazing can be sustained on the Tongue District at a level that works for both the public and the permittees.”

Five permittees interviewed by Western Farmer-Stockman say they respect McClung’s view and are doing their best to work with USFS and be good stewards of the land. Their views, however, differ strongly from a minority of permittees on the district who remain highly critical of the agency.

“For those permittees who didn’t believe change was necessary, yes, it’s been a struggle for everyone,” says McClung, who was succeeded by Amy Ormseth in January. “Some meetings and conversations have gotten pretty heated, but we knew something had to change because we weren’t taking care of the ground like we should have been.”

McClung once again was asked if he believed the district had been overgrazed.

He hesitated, but finally admitted, “Yes, I can’t help but believe the entire district had been overgrazed for many years.”

District ranger: ‘Something had to change’

Ask a U.S. Forest Service district ranger how much time he or she spends in the field measuring grass, and the answer is likely “none” or “very little.”

Clarke McClung, however, did just that much of his first year as Tongue District ranger of the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming, which was tangled in controversy over livestock grazing.

“I spent about 35 days in the field monitoring allotments. For a district ranger, that’s probably very, very high,” says McClung, who toured riparian areas and uplands, measured grass and forbs, photographed pastures, and examined how geology and topography of the Bighorn Mountains affect vegetation growth.

Before making decisions about grazing, McClung says, it was vital for him to get a firsthand feel for conditions on the ground. On some of these trips, livestock permittees accompanied him.

“Anytime you have a contentious issue, whether it’s grazing, timber harvesting, wild horse and burro management, or oil and gas development, you have to take the time to learn what’s going on,” says McClung, who had spent much of his career as a rangeland specialist in Wyoming for the USFS and Bureau of Land Management before taking on his last job prior to retiring in late 2014. “For me, I thought it was important to see things with my own eyes.”

Throughout summer and fall 2008, McClung worked side by side with a neutral third-party rangeland professional — someone with a ranching background who had been contracted through the Wyoming Department of Agriculture at the request of permittees.

McClung invited permittees to go along because he wanted to listen to their concerns and weigh in on their suggestions, all while hoping to become an ally instead of an adversary.

After logging some 200 hours in the field, one thing became very apparent to McClung: Something had to change with livestock grazing on the district or the future of grazing was in jeopardy. He says his findings were backed by forage measurements taken over many previous years and hundreds of photos showing serious rangeland degradation, especially in riparian areas where cattle were often allowed to concentrate over extended periods.

That something, says McClung, was drastic cuts in stocking rates over much of the district he now managed, as well as reductions in the time livestock could be on the mountain. Though he remained intent on working with permittees to ensure grazing would continue on the forest, he knew the three-decade conflict was far from over, as you’ll see in upcoming editions of Western Farmer-Stockman.

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ON THE ROPE: A U.S. Forest Service employee uses a modified Robel pole to measure forage on Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest during a grazing permittee training session. Forage production is at its peak for the year, and the photo was taken prior to livestock grazing.

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FENCED OUT: A stand of young aspen actively grow within a control site on the Bighorn National Forest, while signs of heavy grazing use from livestock and wildlife are evident outside the enclosure.

Range

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Wars

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Mcclung

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“I would say the heck with the Forest Service and secure leases to graze cattle on private lands, but around here it’s very difficult to find private pasture for lease. Because of that, the federal grazing permit is vital to our operation, but some family ranches have said the heck with it. They turned their permit back to the Forest Service and sold part of their ranch because the Forest Service is impossible to work with.”

John Kane,

livestock grazing permittee,

Sheridan, Wyo.

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“Most ranchers who graze livestock on the mountain are very conscientious because grass is their bottom line. But, yes, some allotments have been in pretty bad shape, and some ranchers did have an in-your-face attitude toward the Forest Service. That small minority of permittees has hurt all ranchers.”

Dana Kerns,

livestock grazing permittee,

Ranchester, Wyo.

This article published in the April, 2015 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2015.

Grazing Management

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