Ranchers, feds talk what to do with grass | TSLN.com

Ranchers, feds talk what to do with grass

Rhonda Stearns
for Tri-State Livestock News

Conversations between ranchers and federal land agency employees are often "stormy" and the Association of National Grasslands meeting in Cody, Wyoming, was no exception to this rule. Prairie dogs, fire and grazing management were among the most-discussed topics. Photo by Carrie Stadheim

"International trade is the reason prices are where they are today … Poor countries change the global market … Management is key, and broker honesty is a big challenge … They can't assume that they know about your business – most of the time they don't … We have to build bridges … and build upon honest broker partnerships…"

Strong words from the "Washington, D.C. update" offered by Travis McNiven, Agriculture Legislative Assistant to U.S. Senator Barraso of Wyoming, to open the Annual Meeting of the Association of National Grasslands, Inc. in Newcastle, Wyoming last Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. His intense audience included Government strategists and representatives, economists, computer programmers, rangers, riders, stockmen, landowners, spouses and children from North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming.

Agriculture is under fire both literally and figuratively in today's world, as McNiven's words confirmed and underlined. He highlighted at least 20 kinds of experts today's agriculturalists must be in order to survive, and added fuel by pointing out the 70 percent increase in production they must accomplish by 2050 just to feed the world – in spite of the alarming rate at which available cropland-per-person is shrinking. One conference participant reported a granddaughter's recent school project showing 3,000 acres are being taken out of American ag production daily.

"We've got to keep all options on the table, that's the challenge," McNiven said. Highlighting the importance of grasslands he lauded the unique capacity of bovines to convert coarse grasses to high protein human nutrients. But in many places those bovines must compete for the grass with drought, wildfire and overabundant prairie dogs. Private landowners combat those things but often feel hog-tied by difficult regulations on state and federal lands they share.

“Nobody listened to the land. What is your goal in the Thunder Basin? Success depends on the land and how you treat it.” Ross Nielson, North Dakota stockman

Recommended Stories For You

No wonder voices were sometimes raised, doubt expressed and strong words spoken as hours of dialog and information were exchanged in the hovering shadow of such potentially devastating and monumental decisions as possible "endangered" listing of sage grouse. At one point eighth generation rancher and Crook County Senator Ogden Driskill, who pointed out that his private land stands pristine and productive alongside the prairie dog "denuded" Devils Tower National Monument said, "I have a hard time not being harsh, really harsh, about the Colorado timber and North Dakota losses on the back of the Forest Service. You [government employees] need to push your bosses and supervisors to look at it realistically. Cattle are healthy for the environment, based around management and multi-use. Our traditions are for groups like this to gather and help one another, like at branding times. Let's help one another, and do whatever we can to educate the public."

Forest service employees spoke frequently of "needing more tools in their toolbox" and the stockmen acknowledged the understanding that those federal employees, although they are "supposed to be working a wise use, multi-use agency" are also "like soldiers, bound by the rules you've been given, and there is no bend in those rules." In spite of deep differences of opinion, scarring of the land and loss of habitat, all realize and acknowledge that the only solution lies in working together, testing boundaries to find whatever bits of flexibility might lie on each side and stretching those to accommodate what is best for the land.

North Dakota stockman Ross Nielson remarked on the lack of range economics and common sense policies in FS administration. Nielson is near the area in South Dakota that suffered losses of forage, fences, and sustained erosion from a Forest Service-ignited fire two years ago (a fire for which they refuse to take responsibility, driving plaintiffs to seek court relief at their own expense).

"Nobody listened to the land," he said, addressing a Forest Service employee who has served in Colorado and is now with the Nebraska National Forest at Chadron. "What is your goal in the Thunder Basin? Success depends on the land and how you treat it. A dog pullin' back on the rope 'cause he wants to get loose is gon'na kill himself if he don't step up and give a little."

The Forest Ranger replied, "What I will take away from this is 'listen to the land. Can it function within it's present management?' What I've attempted everywhere I've worked is to go to the permittees and ask questions and work with folks to come up with solutions. I work with those who come to me; and always look for ways to accommodate those we serve, which include recreationalists and archaeologists and others as well as landowners. I do not have a lot of experience with prairie dogs but I need to expand my knowledge base so I am informed. Give and take is essential, with understanding. The central necessity is cooperate and communicate."

State Senator Betty Olsen of Reva, South Dakota comes from ranching traditions on both sides "since before South Dakota was a state." She represents her constituents from District 28, the largest in South Dakota and helps her husband run a Centennial Ranch, but she's not impressed with government decisions on things like endangered species.

"I have family in Minnesota, where they're overrun with native wolves," she said, "yet our federal government had to go to Canada and buy them so they could put them in Yellowstone, where they said they'd stay. Now we have them, (in northwestern South Dakota) and I heard they've been seen in Hot Springs," she said.

Lack of trust was frequently mentioned by private landowners as a major issue they have with the government entities who control public lands, and their representatives. In the face of comments about the Forest Service providing "shackles and chains" for livestock permittees in the Thunder Basin Grasslands, Bob Mountain, Rangeland Management Specialist for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest who has been around since the days of common sense, encouraged cattlemen that some relief may come sooner than they think he promised public meetings in Newcastle, Wright and Douglas and said, "If we get answers, hopefully we can have a charter by January. We have to think outside the box."

Coming together and talking always helps. And the hilarious yet deeply thought-provoking dinner address by working vet, rancher and former Montana legislator Krayton Kerns of Laurel added the perfect finishing touch.

Astute Wyoming legislator Eric Barlow said, "I can't take responsibility for what those who came before me did, but I sure take responsibility for what I'm not doing now."