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Sharing the blame	

Cattle producer Dana Kerns says ranchers and the U.S. Forest Service can share equal blame in the decades-long fight over grazing on the Tongue District of the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming.

Sharing the blame

Editor’s note: This is the fifth story in a series of 13 exploring public lands grazing in the West, using the Tongue District of the Bighorn National Forest in north-central Wyoming as a case study.

Cattle producer Dana Kerns says ranchers and the U.S. Forest Service can share equal blame in the decades-long fight over grazing on the Tongue District of the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming.

“Big problems started clear back in the 1970s and have continued, and the weak link has always been communication between some ranchers and some agency folks. Both parties were very guilty of this,” says Kerns, whose family has grazed cattle on the forest since the late 1800s.

When the Tongue District began cutting stocking rates and seasons of use, Kerns says, “some permittees reacted very angrily, and things got very personal very quickly. When that happens, there is no chance of coming to a middle ground; there is no chance of winning.”

Kerns emphasizes that the majority of producers have worked hard to be good stewards of the range and to forge professional relationships with USFS. However, he says, a few ranchers have fought the agency for decades, and that has hurt everyone involved, including agency personnel trying to do the right thing and ranch families that live up and down the east face of the Bighorn Mountains.

“Most definitely that has happened,” says Kerns, president of Guardians of the Range, a rancher advocacy group that addresses public lands grazing issues on behalf of many permittees in northern Wyoming.

Key Points

• Poor communication over the years leads to grazing dispute.

• Rancher says permittees and U.S. Forest Service are both at fault.

• Dana Kerns also admits that overgrazing and overstocking have occurred.

Nothing to hide

Four other Tongue District permittees interviewed by Western Farmer-Stockman shared nearly identical feelings, but they declined to go on record, saying the issue has strained neighborly relations.

Kerns, though, says he has nothing to hide and hopes other permittees and agency folks across the West can learn from the Tongue District dispute, which stems back to the 1970s and ’80s. At that time, he says, permittees did pretty much what they wanted when it came to grazing, federal agencies lacked oversight of the lands they were charged with managing, and few Americans (at least compared to today) watched closely how their public lands were being used.

When organizations ranging from fishing and hunting clubs to environmental groups began speaking up about perceived overgrazing and resource damage caused by livestock grazing across the West, and when USFS, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal and state agencies began implementing tighter standards, some permittees started rebelling, some furiously.

“Ranchers are generally very independent, and they don’t want anyone telling them how to run their business,” Kerns says. “I certainly would not say that those who are fighting the federal agencies are poor stewards of the land. Some of them just have a hard time accepting change, and I think that’s what they are fighting more than anything else.”

Those who didn’t want any change — including a number of ranchers who graze livestock on the Tongue District — started attacking USFS instead of trying to work amicably with the agency, and those attacks continue today by a small number of highly vocal permit holders, according to permittees and others who were interviewed for this series.

“Yes, I understand there have been some very heated meetings between some ranchers and agency people, but fortunately, I wasn’t involved in those,” Kerns says. “We all have our own individual personalities in how we deal with problems, but I believe you have to handle things professionally, not personally.”

Kerns makes it clear that he has disagreed with USFS personnel in the past, but he has tried to work out things politely and honestly. At times, he notes, “that has meant admitting that I made a mistake and that I was wrong.”

Kerns was hesitant to say that “overgrazing” has occurred on the Tongue District because he believes the word has very different meanings to different people, but when pointedly asked, he responded, “We all have ideas in our own mind what an area should look like, but, yes, I do believe some areas of the district have been overgrazed and overstocked.”


HOME ON THE RANGE: Wyoming rancher Dana Kerns works cattle on Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest. He says permittees and the Forest Service can share equal blame in the dispute over grazing.


NICE OFFICE: Members of the Dana Kerns family, along with ranch hands and guests, trail cattle on Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest. Kerns says fencing of individual pastures has dramatically increased operating expenses for ranchers.

Permittee: USFS a cop, not a manager

Orrin Connell’s family has held permits to graze livestock on the Tongue District of the Bighorn National Forest since 1958, and it’s his feeling that drastic cuts in stocking rates stem from changes in public sentiment and lack of vegetation management by the U.S. Forest Service, not overgrazing.

Connell charges that policies governing grazing are made in Washington, D.C., by bureaucrats who have no community buy-in and no concern for the residents who live in those communities.

“Our grazing leases are being managed by public opinion, including the latest poll taken by an environmental group,” says Connell, whose family ranches at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains near the small community of Big Horn, Wyo. “In the 1960s, forests were managed for production of food and fiber. Now, they are managed for scenery and wildflowers, and I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t adapt to change well.”

Because of that shift, Connell says, there is no longer a viable timber industry on the Bighorn National Forest and many other Western forests, and cattle and sheep permittees across the West have been the latest ones to take big hits.

Connell says the USFS on four occasions has slashed the number of cattle his family can graze. On the front-end was a 20% cut in the 1970s, while a whopping 60% reduction came last year. Additionally, he says, the amount of time cattle can remain on the mountain has been sliced from nearly five months to less than three.

“I have worked up there every summer for the past 40 years trying to manage the grass while putting weight on the cattle, but every few years the Forest Service takes a look at things and tells me I did a poor job. Then they reduce my numbers,” Connell asserts.

His family, which held two grazing permits for many years, has maintained historic stocking levels because they were able to secure three additional permits previously held by other ranch families.

“Those families were tired of dealing with the Forest Service and gave up their permits,” Connell says. “I felt bad for them. But if that wouldn’t have happened, we wouldn’t have been able to run enough cattle to support our operation. There would be a lot more land for sale around our community for rural housing.”

Money talks

Since the 1980s, land prices have skyrocketed in many scenic areas of the West, including along the face of the Bighorn Mountains, where many ranches have sold to wealthy out-of-staters for recreation and scenic values. Many other ranches, too, have been split up for ranchettes and rural subdivisions.

Connell believes that the permittees still running viable working ranches have been good stewards of the forest lands, but continue to face cuts because of mismanagement on the part of the Forest Service.

“They don’t manage by making improvements; they manage by penalizing permittees,” says Connell, who lists the following as just one example: The number of grazeable acres in the district has slowly but steadily decreased since the 1980s.

“The biggest problem is timber encroachment, but instead of properly managing the resource, the Forest Service takes these areas out of grazing and puts them into a resource [the timber program] that’s not even being used today,” he says. “Then they turn around and penalize ranchers. That’s not being a participating manager. That’s being a cop.”

Permittee Dana Kerns says that changes in USFS timber, fire and brush management programs over decades led to timber and sagebrush encroachment, which dramatically reduced grass production. This problem, he notes, has been compounded since the 1970s, when much larger cows and calves needed more feed on a daily basis, but stocking rates weren’t adjusted accordingly until more recent times.

“There were no adjustments made as ranchers were still putting the same number of cattle on the same range. Because of this, there wasn’t enough forage to support those cattle,” Kerns says.


HORSE-COLLARED: Orrin Connell’s family raises cattle and horses on their north-central Wyoming ranch, and they depend on the Bighorn National Forest for summer grazing. He blames much of the grazing dispute on Forest Service mismanagement.




This article published in the May, 2015 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2015.

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