Grizzlies Get A Win On Upper Green
The Upper Green River alloment and Wind River Range beyond. Photo George Wuerthner
The Upper Green River near Pinedale, Wyoming under the administration of the Bridger Teton National Forest (BTNF) is one of the most biologically important areas of the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Anyplace else, the Upper Green would be set aside as a national park based on its outstanding wildlife and scenic values.
The Green River is a major tributary of the Colorado River whose headwaters lie in the Wind River Range, Wyoming. Photo George Wuerthner
The Upper Green is also the largest grazing allotment in the West. The Forest Service allows 17,000 cattle to graze the area, much to the detriment of the public’s wildlife, watersheds, and riparian areas.
Recently Western Watershed Project, Alliance for Wild Rockies and Uinta to Yellowstone won a lawsuit against the Forest Service for its failure to protect grizzly bears, as well as other wildlife.
The Bridger Teton National Forest plan for grazing on the Upper Green Allotment would permit up to 72 grizzlies to be killed in ten years. Photo George Wuerthner
Under the recently adopted grazing plan, the Forest Service would allow up to 72 grizzlies to be killed over the next ten years. To make matters worse, the Forest Service put no limit on the number of female grizzlies that could be killed. Grizzlies are classified as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The court ruled that this decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”
Between 2010 and 2014 half of all grizzly deaths in western Wyoming occurred on the Upper Green Allotment. Since 1999, the Upper Green River Area had the highest lethal take rate for grizzly bears, with 37 deaths. In effect, the BTNF puts the welfare of the livestock industry ahead of the public’s wildlife. Even threatened wildlife has a lower priority on these public lands than private cattle.
Pronghorn that died when entangled in fencing. The occurrence of fencing is one consequence of public lands grazing. Photo George Wuerthner
The Upper Green is home to elk herds and migration routes, pronghorn (and path of the Pronghorn), Colorado cutthroat trout, sage grouse, several sensitive amphibians, along with wolves and grizzlies.
Due to the abundance of wildlife, the Forest Service’s own management plan has designated 84% of the Upper Green as an area where wildlife is to be emphasized in policy decisions.
The court agreed that the current grazing allotment plan did not adequately protect grizzlies. “Nothing in the biological opinion or the incidental take statement evaluated whether the authorized 72 lethal grizzly bear takes could result in enough female takes to jeopardize the grizzly bear population in the project area,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Scott Matheson in the 53-page opinion.
“If, as the biological opinion states, survival of the species depends on ‘minimizing’ annual female grizzly bear mortality, it should at least have considered whether a female lethal take limit should be included,” Matheson,
As good as the court’s decision to uphold the lawsuit is, livestock grazing will be permitted to continue while the BTNF revises its grazing management plan to adequately protect grizzly bears.
However, for years the area has been vandalized by domestic livestock with the permission of the Bridger Teton National Forest.
A new report by Dr. John Carter of Uinta to Yellowstone and Jonathan Ratner of Western Watersheds confirms that the Bridger Teton National Forest essentially permits legalized damage to public resources.
Heavily grazed Upper Green River allotmen. Photo George Wuerthner
According to comparative plot utilization before and after grazing the researchers concluded: “Our results demonstrate that the Upper Green and Fisherman Creek allotments are overstocked based on our measures of average upland and riparian utilization using Paired Plots at 73.1 percent and 75.5 percent respectively. These far exceed the 50 percent utilization or allowable use standard required by the BTNF.”
In their report, the scientists noted: “Herbaceous and grass production was lower than the potential at all sites, with most in Poor Condition, producing less than 25% of potential.” The finding of 25% of potential means that 75% of the important forage plants that should be found on the site are missing or nearly absent.
That the BTNF allows any livestock grazing under such conditions is nothing less than criminal.
Upper Green area rested from grazing for five years. Photo George Wuerthner
In effect, the forage that should be supporting native elk, pronghorn and other herbivores is being put into the belly of someone’s private livestock. This not only impacts the carrying capacity for elk and other wildlife, but these species are prey for wolves and grizzlies. So in effect, the BTNF is taking food out of the mouth of these predators as well.
Note the short “golf course putting green” stubble height on Upper Green allotment. Sage grouse need a minimum of 7 inches and ideally at least 10 inches of stubble after grazing. Photo George Wuerthner
The authors also noted that the stubble height (grass left after grazing) necessary for successful sage grouse nesting and brooding was absent from the majority of plots.
In addition, the researchers found that there was significant plant pedestalling, bare soil, and erosion—all indications of overgrazing.
Bluebunch wheatgrass was nearly absent even though it should be a dominant bunchgrass. Not surprisingly it is a species sensitive to livestock grazing pressure and decreases with overgrazing and lack of rest.
Dr John Carter and Jonathan Ratner on he Upper Green allotment. Photo George Wuerthner
To give an example of the destructive grazing permitted by the BTNF, Carter, and Ratner found that the Mosquito Lake plot produced 2842.1 lb/acre in ungrazed plots, while grazed residuals in the same area averaged 460.7 lb/acre for utilization of 84.3%.
Though livestock grazing on public land is a privilage not a right, the Bridger Teton National Forest clearly put the interests of private businesses ahead of the public’s right for abundant wildlife, clean water, and healthy riparian areas on its property. Given the BTNF past obsequious deferential treatment of livestock interests over the public’s interest, I do not have much hope that the agency will do more than window dressing its court-ordered grazing allotment revisions.
The best outcome for the Upper Green Allotment would be to implement the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act and eliminate livestock from the area.
At least the public can be grateful that groups like Western Watersheds, Alliance for Wild Rockies, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and Yellowstone to Uintas Connection are fighting to protect the public interest, and more importantly giving a voice to the voiceless wildlife that continues to be short-charged by the BTNF.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology
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The fact that ranchers and their cattle get priority over native wildlife, ecosystems, and habitat is outrageous, but it’s always been that way in the U.S. People need to greatly reduce their beef consumption in order to have any chance of reversing these priorities. If enough people stopped eating enough beef and made it clear that they were doing so because of the great harms that cattle grazing causes, we might get somewhere on this issue. Otherwise, our victories will be small and very limited, such as this one. As George wrote, this entire area should be a National Park, and the only reason it’s not is because of the damn ranchers & cattle.
Wow, great news! I’ve been concerned that another underhanded delisting scheme might take place with the latest debt increase conflict in Washington.
“Under the recently adopted grazing plan, the Forest Service would allow up to 72 grizzlies to be killed over the next ten years. To make matters worse, the Forest Service put no limit on the number of female grizzlies that could be killed. Grizzlies are classified as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The court ruled that this decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”
It’s absolutely jaw-dropping, isn’t it? Isn’t it one of Tester’s proteges who is Director of the Forest Service? Thank goodness it was stopped.
Jon Tester is a tool of the ranching and farming industries. He got his seat in the Senate in exchange for the Obama administration removing Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in the Rocky Mountains.
Sorry, that’s the Bureau of Land Management I’m thinking of. But that said, don’t these agencies communicate with each other?
So glad for this court win but I only wish it could be fully enforced. That Forest Service needs to be cleaned out, as does the BLM and other public lands/wildlife agencies. Absurd numbers of pro-grazing, hunting, energy/mineral development, etc., ruling for their selfish and harmful interests. What a racket. So fed up with these parasites.