Meeting held over prairie dogs
November 23, 2016
The all-purpose room at Weston County Fairgrounds filled up quickly Tuesday afternoon Nov. 22. License plates on cars parked nearby showed they'd driven in from Crook, Campbell, Converse and Weston Counties.
The Weston County Commissioners chaired the meeting. They were joined by several Commissioners from Campbell County and the President of the Wyoming County Commissioner's association who is from Cheyenne. Senator Ogden Driskill, U.S. Forest Service rangers and district supervisors mingled with Inyan Kara Grazing association members and officers, representatives of Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis and Senator Mike Enzi, officials of the Wyoming Game & Fish Commission, Weed & Pest officials from several communities and the Weston County Attorney and Sheriff.
Ranchers filled chairs next to sportsmen, retired landowners, area businessmen and a few reporters.
The occasion was a "coordination meeting" resulting from a Weston County Commissioners' request last month to the U.S. Forest Service Douglas office, which administers the Thunder Basin National Grasslands. The request was prompted by a few ranchers asking Weston County Commissioners to direct Weston County Attorney William Curley to "seek an injunction against both the Douglas District Ranger and the U.S. Forest Service" as a last ditch recourse for relief from grassland ravaging and ruination caused by what they say are excessive and uncontrolled prairie dog populations.
Commissioner Chairman Bill Lambert opened the meeting and asked each attendee to introduce himself or herself and their connection to the issue before the discussion began.
Dennis Jeager, Forest Supervisor from the Laramie USFS office outlined a few of the responsibilities handled by his office like administration of public grasslands Montana to Colorado, including the Thunder Basin National Grasslands. On that unit he said his office "manages for multi-use" including 550 operating oil and gas wells and noted seeing "more APD applications last year than in the previous eight years combined" which leads him to expect an increase in those activities. He noted recent exhausting sage grouse monitoring efforts of "habitat assessment and mapping" on the endangerment issue, resulting in the "record of decision" last fall. Also in his jurisdiction "two of the largest coal mines in the world" operate, along with five others; plus the "largest grazing region" which he said was habitat for "21 or 22,000 cattle 12 months a year and 5,600 sheep."
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Addressing the prairie dog problems Jeager noted drought in the region as early as April and May this year and said there is "prairie dog expansion where it has not been before." He acknowledged it "affects the local economy" and framed the question "How can we do more together?" He said firefighting has been eating up their budget and noted a "funding fix for firefighting from the county commissioners would be helpful."
"My hope is that large fires might be treated like hurricanes and floods with relief funding not pulled from us" he said; asking the commissioners to get him their budget early so they can make plans.
"Here is how I see prairie dog control on the ground," he said, "1,600 acres was poisoned in October, but that is not enough. I've talked with Bob [Harshbarger] about the possibility of switching to more density control and less boundary control," concluding that whatever is done "in two or three years they are back – and we have areas out there that look like crap. The people are good to work with but we need to do more so we won't be here in a year talking about the same things…we mailed letters to landowners asking for input and 19 responded."
Jeager said he'd "like to try some different things like non-lethal boundary poisoning we tried two or three years back. There was success in South Dakota and the Pawnee National Grasslands in Colorado. We're not necessarily limited as much as some think, we eliminated prairie dogs from 572,000 acres of National Grassland north of Gillette," he said, "so let's look through the windshield instead of the rear view mirror."
Amid criticism of outdated USFS policies and Chairman Lambert's questions on which plan they're operating under, Jeager reminded the group of efforts to update the 2009 plan, at which time it was opened for public comment, resulting in 58,000 of those coming in …a situation that would bog down staff and prevent progress for lengthy time periods. "We need alternatives. We've reduced categories, opened more shooting areas, etc. Our strategy is basically to look at what we can do on the ground. We have to manage for multiple-use, we have elk, antelope, deer, beef grazing. It's a balancing act. Many areas need work. Prairie dog populations peaked about 2000 before we had the plague which reduced them, now they are back above the numbers of 2000. Therefore some permittees have had to take their cattle off early – devastating in time, money, efficiency – where do we get the biggest bang for the buck? Poison? Re-hab for land? The prairie dog expansion is like nothing I've seen before."
Commissioner Marty Ertman asked, "If we base on 2015 management strategy, how is that defensible?"
"It's an adaptable guide," Jeager said. "I'd rather keep flexing yet moving forward . There are some frameworks we've got to stay within, without a lot of leeway," to which Ertman responded "Then how do we hold your toes to the fire? Where's our working relationship?"
"There's 1,600 acres of lethal prairie dog infestation. Are there other options or can we adjust our strategy?" Jeager asked, "or accept a two-year timeline for new regulations? I'd rather make adjustments and move forward."
"Is the notice of intent still on the table?" Ertman prodded.
"It's still on our website – yes," Jeager responded. After further discussion he said, "We're going to roll out in the next couple weeks with meetings on what needs to be prioritized, draft a charter, you should see it in two or three weeks, and we will be available with the counties and state."
To questioning from Commissioner Tony Barton about what percent of their budget is spent on lethal prairie dog control Jeager responded, "$50,000 on lethal control and about the same on five non-lethal spots…1,640 acres accomplished." After checking his figures Ranger Shane Walker from Douglas interjected that approximately $30,000 had been spent on lethal dog control.
The magnitude of prairie dog infestation in Thunder Basin National Grasslands is rated Category 1 for the heaviest, Category 2 next, etc. Commissioner Ertman pointed out prairie dogs are considered a "pest" and that in 2014, 15,900 acres were estimated as Category 1, and two years later, more than 18,000. "The entire county has felt this," she said, "it's exploded across the county."
Jeager pointed out the conundrum of prairie dogs being "pests" while the state of Wyoming considers them a specie needing conservation because they theoretically provide habitat cover for some hawks and mountain plover – another of the challenges they face in managing for multi-use. "Do we have the ability to put out lethal control – yes," Jaeger said, "but there's no way we're going to exterminate 18,000 dogs anyplace; so what is best, where is our money best spent, and where is the balance between pests and eco-system builders, cows, oil, the mines and sage grouse? We now have another 10-15,000 acres besides the 18,000 where control is needed. What is the priority – between the County Commissioners, landowners, grazing association? There's a whole bunch of options – let's ask the landowners and focus on the options."
Chairman Lambert said, "It keeps coming back to money. Have you asked the landowners for help?"
"Yes, but not enough," Jeager admitted.
So many factors and facets of interest vie for available dollars. Portions of grazing fees might be used for conservation against prairie dogs, but a lot of it in varied regions has been devoted to developing water sources, and piping water to increase availability. "The money is retained within the grazing associations, and they determine their priorities Jeager pointed out. Those things are critical to the distribution of cattle so funding has gone there instead of prairie dog control, but water is life on the grasslands."
Commissioner Tracy Hunt took the USFS to task for "not having a right attitude" toward the problem and for "allowing the World Wildlife Association, which is a despicable organization, to dust your grasslands for fleas. Would you suggest dusting for fleas makes prairie dog control more or less expensive?" Hunt queried.
"I don't think dusting for fleas has any bearing on this," Jeager replied. "We're going to get the plague again. Numbers will go up and down and we are now above the population levels when the last plague came. It will probably be soon, and larger in impact than before. For health and safety we try to keep a one mile buffer around private residences."
"A working group has to be put together and the Forest Service has to listen," Chairman Lambert opined. Asked if they'd consider lifting shooting restrictions on everything but Category 1 areas, Jeager replied, "that is one of those boxes that's still there in the protocol. We opened up 24 percent. We've been giving people maps showing where they cannot shoot, when we can get new maps they will show where you can shoot."
Discussion on poisoning only being utilized in the spring and how soon prairie dogs may begin to hibernate prompted Commissioner Tony Barton to encourage USFS to "immediately open as much as you can up for shooting . It would be in everyone's interest."
Campbell County Commissioner Matt Avery said he thinks asking neighbors for help to control your prairie dogs is a "bad neighbor policy" and remarked he'd set in on meetings similar to this for six years and "it's like we've stepped in wet bentonite and can't move on." Avery said he'll soon be going to Washington DC with a group of county commissioners and "would like to talk to them about putting up an account for you that's not in competition with your wildland fire funds."
"Our county 'found' $145,000 to eradicate 10,000 acres of prairie dogs north of Gillette, but they keep coming back and we're still fighting them," Avery said. "County Commissioners are elected to protect the interests and be a voice for the people and I want to speak for every landowner. The EPA is like a runaway horse with the curb strap broke, very disappropriate in way of life as well as business."
There was considerable discussion of the black footed ferret situation, with Commissioner Ertman insisting "introduce" should be the term rather than "re-introduce" because she does not think they ever survived here. She asked Forest Manager Jeager why they should be introduced and he replied, "We manage habitat, range, forage and wildlife. A black footed ferret recovery plan was released earlier this year. I manage habitat and the decision is not mine, but we would be a player. It is in writing that the Woming Game and Fish does not support black footed ferrets in the Thunder Basin Grasslands but we are going to continue to do what we are required to do. I'm not an expert but we will manage as we are directed for the American people," Jeager promised.
"We need to go a step further and seek restoration. Many areas are bad, I'm embarrassed," Jeager confessed. "How will we increase the forage? We have areas that are decimated by prickly pear – what works with cactus – burn, spray? We sprayed over 3,200 acres for cheat grass. We paid for the herbicide and they hired the helicopter. Our job is to balance all those uses out there, and I would not have expected what we saw this year."
Tyler from the Wyoming state office of US Fish and Wildlife Services said, "Not one person is making decisions. The 10J Rule is to protect landowners and agencies. We place a high value on livestock production, culture and history."
A number of astute individuals made brief comments to close the session.
Bob Harshbarger of the 4W ranch referenced how many landowners' legal rights have existed in law since 1888, and were strengthened in 1933, 1935 and 1937. His wife Jean pointed out that many of the landowners within the Thunder Basin Grasslands region have offered to poison prairie dogs in the most challenged areas at their own expense, but the Forest Service will not allow them to do so; the last time FS translocated prairie dogs they did not follow the Game and Fish regulations; and "the Forest Service is mandated to: one – protect the economic stability of a community from unaffected parties and, two – protect resources."
Ty Checkett, owner of the historic Fiddleback Ranch established on the Cheyenne River in 1883, says in the short time he's been there prairie dogs have increased so badly they cover 40 percent of his allotment. He has a bad prickly pear infestation, and he's feeding his cattle year-round. "I've reached out to NGOs (non governmental organizations) for assistance and they've shown a lot of interest. I just need grass for sustainability and my individual plan reads that after there are 18,000 acres in Category 1 there are triggers to more tools, but now there's over 22,000 acres on me alone and there's still a bunch of signs "NO SHOOTING BEHIND SIGNS" – so people who might help some by shooting them just drive on by – the signs need to be taken down."
Jim Darlington, another hard hit rancher said, "Prairie dogs are a roadblock species. I have rocks and cactus with my topsoil gone, fixing it would be like restoring bentonite. They need to drop the black footed ferret and do away with the no-shooting areas."
Mark Stenson, who operates a prairie dog eradication business says, "We need to take a good look at the enemy. They have four to six young in spring and can have another four to six in the fall, and they reach sexual maturity in seven months. If you poison a 12 foot barrier and beat back in 30 days you'll find 35 percent to 40 percent back in. You just have to find one area and do a good job there. As a contractor on private land we can get 85 to 90 percent in lethal control, I've never seen 100 percent success. I've also been in prairie dog towns about every day for 15 years, and I've never seen a black footed ferret."
Longtime Weston County Commission Chair Leonard Seeley from Osage commented, "This discussion has been more open than ever before, I thank everyone for being open to funding. It's all about timing. If everyone worked their tails off we could maybe get the pups. If we could stop the increase it could be different in a couple of years.
Steven Lorenz, sportsman and ranch supply store owner said of the Thunder Basin Grasslands, "I've never seen it so bad. The soil erosion into the Cheyenne River, cows to the top of steep slopes seeking a bite of grass, a hundred elk moved out, prairie dogs are destroying sage grouse habitat every day."
Senator Ogden Driskill from Hulett said, "The Forest Service should be embarrassed, the environmental destruction is as bad as a fire not restored. This is God's country, it'll take decades, a generation to restore plus the lost wildlife. We need to commit to publicize what management is doing to the ground. And they don't need EPA water standards on Antelope Creek."
Rancher Randy Oleson commented on grazing fees saying, "We get a portion allocated for providing water and managing leafy spurge but we gave 50 percent of it back the last few years. The biggest monetary gain they could find would be letting the landowners self-support their prairie dog control. Some of my neighbors and I spend 60 percent of our income on it."