Officials see Thunder Basin Grasslands up close
While it wasn’t the Pony Express who delivered his letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, the result of Ty Checketts’s note was, indeed, a very special horseback ride.
The owner of the historic Fiddleback Ranch, which is located along the Cheyenne River between Newcastle, Wright and Douglas, Wyoming, saddled up horses for Wyoming’s Governor Mark Gordon, Representative Liz Cheney and the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in the early morning hours of July 31.
After the ride, which gave government officials and a few staff – 9 riders total – a first-hand look at the Thunder Basin Grasslands, the three met with several individuals involved in local industry related to the grasslands, including ranchers as well as energy interests.
One of the main topics of discussion during the meeting was an amendment to the Forest Service Plan that would change the prairie dog management strategy.
In April of 2019, the U.S. Forest Service (the managing agency for the National Grasslands) released a proposed plan amendment that would change the prairie dog management strategy going forward.
The proposed changes would manage for habitat of cattle, deer, elk and some prairie dogs, said Checketts, rather than just for an increase in prairie dog numbers.
Some of the proposed changes include:
•Managing to prevent harmful runoff
•No black footed ferret re-introduction plans
•Removing some prescribed burn strategies
• Removing prairie dog shooting restrictions
•Reducing the “target” acreage size of prairie dog towns
•Providing more flexibility for prairie dog control
To see the full proposed amendment, go to https://www.fs.usda.gov/nfs/11558/www/nepa/110862_FSPLT3_4638368.pdf
In an April, 2019, story reporting on the release of the proposal, Russ Bacon, the Forest Supervisor for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest and the Thunder Basin National Grasslands said prairie dogs were getting out of control. While the plan included keeping them on 18,000 acres, the population had exploded to about 75,000 acres, he said, in a Wyoming Public Media story. He also said that the proposed plan amendment gives his agency more options to control the rodent when numbers grow out of control.
Checketts said he wrote to the USDA Secretary Perdue about a year and a half ago in an effort to help him understand the dire situation prairie dogs had put Checketts and local ranchers in.
“I heard him speak at a Farm Bureau convention. He asked which regulations and laws are hurting farmers and ranchers.”
Checketts said that in 2017, overgrazing by large populations of prairie dogs was destroying the rangeland, so he wrote to Perdue to explain the problem.
“He followed up with a phone call and letters, and after a lot of work behind the scenes, we ended up with this meeting.”
While prairie dog numbers are currently relatively low due to a plague infestation in 2016 and 2017, the rodents had been reproducing exponentially before that, taking a significant amount of forage. In a 2016 TSLN story, Checketts was quoted saying they were covering 40 percent of his allotment, forcing him to feed cattle year-round.
Checketts was pleased the government officials took the time to hear his concerns, and he appreciates their support thus far, for a more common sense approach to prairie dog management.
“I feel very blessed to live in a country where they take the time to come out and help us and are concerned about us,” he said.
Dave Pellatz, the executive director of the Thunder Basin Grasslands Prairie Ecosystem Association also took part in the meeting with the government officials.
His organization, which represents ranchers as well as energy interests, mostly coal, is dedicated to urging the Forest Service to work through issues collaboratively, and to include input from all interested stakeholders.
“They have done well with this and we encourage them to continue. We have no complaints – we just encourage them to continue heading down that same direction, involving all of the different groups.”
Pellatz said one overriding point made by a number of people at the meeting was a desire for less bureaucracy.
There was also talk of a land exchange that has been in the works for years.
With good old Wyoming hospitality, Checketts’s wife and mother in law fed the crew ranch-grown beef and homemade chocolate cake on the Fiddleback Ranch, and his father provided wagon rides for those who didn’t join the horseback crew. While the government officials didn’t see cattle on their early morning ride, they were able to see some cattle grazing in a pickup tour later in the day.
Checketts said Secretary Perdue specifically requested a horseback ride in order to see the landscape in detail. Perdue is an “experienced and good horseman,” said Checketts.