Response to Upper Green River Allotment Rancher Complaints

Grizzly Bear Photo by George Wuerthnr

Pronghorn in Upper Green River Allotment, Bridger Teton NF, Wyoming. Photo by George Wuerthner

Cow bashed riparian area and wetland Upper Green River Valley Bridger Teton NF Wyoming. Photo by George Wuerthner

A recent article in Wyofile by Argus Thuermer was full of quotes from the ranchers grazing the Upper Green River allotment on the Bridger Teton National Forest in Wyoming.

The Upper Green River grazing Allotment at 170,000 acres, is one of the largest grazing allotment in the West. It lies near the base of the Wind River Range to the north of Pinedale, Wyoming. It is, in my view, some of the best unprotected wildlife habitat in the West. It should be given protection as a new national park.

Without a doubt it should no longer function as a feedlot for ranchers.

The ranchers in Thuermer’s article are upset that Western Watersheds Project, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Yellowstone to Uintas Connection filed objections to the Forest Service’s decision to reissue grazing permits for the Upper Green River Allotment. The authorization would allow ranchers or the misnamed “Wildlife Services” to kill up to 72 grizzlies in the next ten years.

The ranchers claim the objection violates their “rights” and that removal of cattle would lead to a host of negative environmental impacts.

They argue that driving 9,000 cows and their calves (so about 18,000 animals) across public lands, including the sole habitat of the endangered Kendall Warm Spring Dace is part of a “cultural” property owned by the ranchers.

They also assert that somehow ranching on public lands and their operations are important to the Sublette County economy.

The ranchers go on to assert they may be forced out of business and would have no choice but to subdivide their lands.

Let us take a look at these claims.

One of the ranchers asserts if the plaintiffs are successful, that “will have a severe impact on my rights as a federal grazing permittee because my ability to graze the Upper Green River Cattle Allotment will be significantly restricted, if not eliminated. This will have a devastating impact on my livestock operation and will also impair the use of private property water rights, range improvements and related infrastructure…”

Apparently, the ranchers are unaware that grazing on public lands is a privilege, not a right. Grazing can be terminated at any time, though it seldom is due to the stranglehold that the livestock industry has federal agencies. Ranchers do not have private property rights to public lands. This has been decided numerous times in the courts.

The Upper Green is some of the best wildlife habitat in Wyoming, including for grizzlies. The area supports wolves, sage grouse, pronghorn, elk, moose, Colorado cutthroat trout, several amphibians, and other species rare or declining in numbers.

One of the issues is that in its operating plan, the Bridger Teton National Forest has designated the entire Upper Green as a wildlife priority area. In other words, if there is a conflict between any use and wildlife, the wildlife is supposed to be given the preference. Apparently, the Forest Service does not view killing 72 grizzlies in the next ten years as a conflict.

And domestic animals-privately owned cattle—cannot be grazed here without damaging or degrading public resources.

That many cattle compacts soils. They pollute water. They spread weeds. Fences install to facilitate livestock operations, blocks wildlife movements and can even be a source of mortality. For instance, one Wyoming study found 30% of sage grouse mortality was the result of collisions with fences.

Grass going into cattle is not available for native wildlife be it elk, grizzlies or butterflies and grasshoppers, which in turn impacts other wildlife that may feed or depend on them (pollination).

In addition, the mere presence of domestic animals socially displaces some wildlife like elk. If elk are grazing in an area in the first place, you must assume it’s the best habitat for them. So, if they are displaced, they are being pushed in secondary habitat that may have less nutritious forage or be more vulnerable to predators.

Third, the presence of domestic animals damages important wildlife habitat like riparian areas, the lush vegetation like willows found along streams that are critical to some 70-80% of western species, in particular, many birds.

The Forest Service allows such degradation of our property if you wear a cowboy hat and have a big belt buckle.

As for their economic contribution, if all the ranchers using the allotment (a small subset of all ranching operations in the country) it would barely be missed. Farm income in Sublette County from all sources accounts for only 1.2% of personal income. Keep in mind there are over 400 farms or ranches in the county and less than a dozen ranchers graze the Upper Green Allotment. Thus, the percentage of income resulting from grazing the Upper Green River Allotment would be a fraction of even the 1.2% of income derived from Ag in the county.

The ranchers also assert if they are driven out of business they will be “forced” to sell their ranches for subdivisions and they imply that is worse for wildlife. The old “condos vs cows” threat is always used by ranchers and their allies to frighten the public.

Beyond the fact that in many cases subdivisions with their landscaping provide more habitat for wildlife than a rancher’s hayfield, do not spread diseases to wildlife, do not normally kill predators, do not require dewatering rivers which destroys aquatic ecosystems, do not trample riparian area, do not pollute the water, do not occupy nearly as much territory as the 170,000 acres grazed and degraded by cattle in the Upper Green allotment, ranchers don’t have to sell to a subdivider. They can put their ranch under a conservation easement. Plus, in the Pinedale area, which is popular amenity area with wealthy individuals, selling intact ranches often brings greater economic returns than a subdivision.

In other words, there is more to the debate than the simplistic idea that a rancher denied access to public lands will automatically turn their ranch into ranchettes.

Since 1995 ranchers grazing the Upper Green have lost 1000 cows-not nearly enough in my view. I worry that the grizzlies are not getting enough to eat, but that is another issue. At the same time from 2010-2018 at least 37 grizzlies were killed on the Upper Green allotment while they are presumably “protected” by the Endangered Species Act.

The real issue is about public good. Should private businesses (ranching is a business) be permitted to destroy and ruin of public resources for private profit? Should the public tolerate the killing of endangered species to facilitate an archaic lifestyle?

There is a simple solution. Ranchers can take their cows and go home.  There is no “right” to damage public resources. Just because you have been doing something ruinous for a hundred years, doesn’t mean it should continue. We don’t condone slavery even though it existed for well over a hundred years. We should not condone the use of public lands for private gain at public expense anymore either.

The public and the wildlife that live in the Upper Green River basin deserve better.



  1. John R. Avatar
    John R.

    That area is a critical linkage corridor for the interchange of wildlife between Yellowstone and the Wind River Mountains. Because of cattle grazing in that area, it creates a stranglehold and bottleneck that results in the death of a lot wildlife. There are about 90 to 95 million cattle in the US. More than enough cattle exist in other less critical and less sensitive places.

  2. Bob Hitchcock Avatar
    Bob Hitchcock

    Right on!

  3. Susan Barmeyer Avatar
    Susan Barmeyer

    I am a neighboring Montanan and I agree that there is no “right” to damage public resources. Those lands belong to the people of the United States into perpetuity. They are an important part of our heritage.

  4. Frank Krosnicki Avatar
    Frank Krosnicki

    We can talk until we are blue in the face.But,until we elect real representatives of the people, and not of special interests, nothing will change.Big money talks and the benefits of a lifetime in office is so appealing that politicians always side with the big money donors, legal and under the table, in my opinion!

  5. francis mangels Avatar
    francis mangels

    As a long-time USFS Range Mgr. GGS-11 (retired) in Montana-CA, and having seen Green River Allotment for years, I support all comments and George’s article.
    These ranchers sound like broken records, They always say these things, usually unverified or exaggerated statements. One rancher threatened to withdraw his cattle, and I said “Good! It will save taxpayers a lot and help the watershed for farmers!” His jaw dropped and you could almost hear his teeth rattle out onto the floor. Ranchers’ stupidity was actually comical.
    Ranchers have no concept of the extremely minor importance of extremely cheap grazing fees. They have no concept of range facts and hold general contempt for ecology and science, and that was 40 years before Trump was bold enough to say so out loud. Still that way.

  6. Beeline Avatar

    “Creative anarchy is the path to survival in this universe” Frank Herbert-from Dune

    Maybe we could start by picking a couple days per week not to buy any beef products what so ever. Cows are more dangerous than we think. It was Mrs O’Learys cow that started the great Chicago fire and the mormon cow that started the plains Indian wars. Cows have no place on public lands.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Those new Beyond Burgers patties, cooked at home, are very good, and not like a lot of past meat substitutes. I also find them easier to cook to the proper degree.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner