Bridger Teton National Forest Proposal Threatens Allotment Retirements

Hoback Peak in the Wyoming Range, Bridger Teton NF, Wyoming. Photo George Wuerthner

A recent proposal by the Bridger Teton National Forest threatens the ability to retire grazing allotments on public lands through permit buyout.

Grazing on public lands is a privilege, not a right. Nevertheless, the political power of the livestock industry makes it nearly impossible to remove domestic animals even where there is apparent damage to public values like water quality, wildlife habitat, and wildlife.

A potential solution has been the Voluntary Grazing Allotment Permit Buyout. The way it works is an agreement is reached between a rancher and some funding source, typically a private foundation or conservation organization, to close the allotment in exchange for a mutually agreeable fee. Usually, the managing agency, whether the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, or National Park Service, often agrees to close the allotment to future livestock use.

The best arrangement is permanent closure as part of Congressional legislation.  For instance, the legislation that created the Boulder-White Cloud wilderness units in Idaho had a provision that any allotment closed due to voluntary permit buyouts would be permanent. As a result of the Boulder-White Cloud legislation, several grazing allotments have already been permanently retired.

However, unless there is Congressional legislation, any permit retirement is potentially available for restocking.

In the past 30 years, almost a million acres of grazing allotments have been retired and closed on the Bridger Teton National Forest, much to the benefit of wolves, grizzlies, bighorn sheep, elk, trout, amphibians, and other wildlife.

As a result of a permit buyout agreement between the National Wildlife Federation and sheep ranchers, six allotments on the BTNF were voluntarily vacated. Bighorn sheep are particularly vulnerable to pneumonia and other diseases transmitted to them by domestic sheep.

Wyoming Range, Bridger Teton NF, Wyoming. Photo George Wuerthner 

The goal of these closures was to protect wild bighorn sheep in the Wyoming Range and other wildlife like grizzly bears and wolves that are expanding their range into the Wyoming Range.

The BTNF says it will protect “priority” bighorn sheep herds.

Bighorn sheep rams. Photo George Wuerthner

The Bridger-Teton’s proposed revision to its Forest Plan calls for two changes. The revision would also designate four “core” bighorn sheep populations: the Jackson, Whiskey Mountain, Targhee, and Absaroka herds. It would codify in the Forest Plan a prohibition against allowing any domestic sheep to graze lands near the core bighorn territories.

However, it would allow domestic sheep grazing on the territory of the Darby Mountain Bighorn Sheep Herd.

The FS claims that no domestic sheep would be permitted to graze in any core bighorn sheep area, but the presence of domestic sheep on public lands often precludes the restoration of bighorn sheep. No agency is willing to go to the trouble of transplanting wild sheep to lands where domestic sheep are grazing due to the risk of disease transfer.

Elimination of sheep grazing on the BTNF has also benefited grizzly bears and wolves. Photo George Wuerthner

Plus, the closure of grazing allotments benefits and reduces conflicts with many other wildlife.

While the proposed changes do not automatically mean domestic sheep will be permitted on previously closed allotments, the BTNF proposal has conservationists worried. There is a fear that the six allotments bought out and retired in 2012 could be opened for domestic livestock. Worse, this may set a precedent for other permit retirements around the West. If permit retirement isn’t permanent, fundraising to pay for these agreements will be more difficult. Perhaps that is the idea behind the BTNF plans?


  1. Jane Marsh Avatar
    Jane Marsh

    Public lands ranchers are salivating over the possibility of re-opening retired allotments. We MUST weigh in on this! I watched three days worth of the Public Land Council’s “Legislative Conference” via Zoom in March 2021, and many rancher attendees listed this as one of the key goals for the year. That, and influencing the 30×30 scoping and planning, and embarking on an aggressive public education campaign. Seems PLC wants the public to be on its side…I highly recommend signing up for its newsletters. They come six days a week…”, described as “A weekly analysis of western ranching politics…”. Indeed!

  2. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    This is a very informative read on the 30 x 30 goal! It would appear that the hype is not quite all that it should be. Much concern for “recreational opportunities” and less for actual preservation of public lands – still protecting the multi-use goal as has been the case concerning our wild horses and many other species of wildlife for years and years!

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      +1 Thanks for posting! This is something I have concerns about too.

      Things like our first offshore wind farm. My local news mentioned *nothing* about endangered right whales, and sadly, many articles do not either. What my local news did say is that the project is expected to be completed in two years!

      Beside the questionable reasoning of tearing up the sea floor and noise, the construction of and the actually functioning of these things is supposed to *stop cold* during right whale migrations. That is the agreement anyway, and two years doesn’t sound like it accommodates that.

      As we know, greedy developers are notorious for making all kinds of promises to get their way, and once they do – often to not honor those promises. If whales die, even if they are taken to court and fined, the damage has been done. 🙁

    2. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Where is any mention of wildlife corridors? Ranching beneficial to wildlife? Not impressed. It isn’t what I thought this was going to be about. 🙁

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    It’s just absolutely woeful.

    It reminds me of during the beginning of the pandemic, that aid for small business was exploited by those who did not qualify as small business. Everyone will make a mad rush to get their pet projects covered. Here, inner city parks and recreation does not count as conservation or preservation of our wild lands and waters IMO. Was this the intention of 30 x 30? These things should be a separate issue.

    And what they said about working lands and ranching is just absolutely horrid. What will Obama’s legacy be remembered for environmentally? Getting the ball rolling on delisting the wolves, for one.

  4. MAD Avatar

    It so nice to live among the enlightened out here in the Northern Rockies of the U.S. Things go from bad to worse as time passes. No one will listen to these biologists

  5. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    ^^Killing wolves from motorized parachutes? It truly sounds delusional. It is hard to believe the current administration would stand for it. They must be desperate.

    Whatever the 30 x 30 wilderness protection initiative has morphed into is insulting and should be torn up a la Nancy Pelosi’s response to DT’s State of the Union address. To paint ranching on public and private lands as defenders of wildlife is laughable. 🙁

  6. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    I’m still mystified why there’s a category for ‘working lands’. Haven’t they been set aside already? It’s like cheating or deception! If they want to include all that, they are well on their way to their goal already. To say that ranching benefit wildlife is a shocker; wolves coyotes, prairie dogs, bison, wild horses, sage grouse and others are all either killed or kept severely limited by this activity. I hope they are not going expand ranchland.

    I also thought there was a program already for protection and cleanup for waterways set up during the Obama administration. I thought 30 x 30 was for protection of wilderness.

    I guess that is what is to be expected though when our leadership is populated with mostly lawyers. Everything is treated like a negotiation – lay out absolutely ludicrous terms from the start, and then whittle down until all parties are (somewhat, but never totally) happy. It is disappointing and insulting.

    I do hope that letters from scientists who disagree are well publicized so that they do not get lost in the shuffle. 🙁


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