Ed Arnett

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posted in: Outdoor Economy

June 5, 2019

Why Public Land Grazing is So Important to the American West

As the demographics of the West change, sportsmen and women can feel good about supporting working ranches that responsibly graze their livestock on public lands—these private landowners and land managers are key partners in conservation and often facilitate hunting and fishing access, unlike the condo complexes that might pop up without them

Private lands make up about 60 percent of the U.S., while hundreds of millions of acres are grazed by livestock. And though it may seem like sportsmen and women only have eyes for public lands, these private lands can also offer critical seasonal habitats and connectivity for fish and wildlife, as well as recreation access.

Working ranches are an incredibly important part of this public-private land fabric—not to mention the Western economy and way of life. But the reliance on public lands for grazing has remained a hot-button issue even after unregulated grazing was curbed by federal law decades ago.

Some of you may immediately think of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the armed confrontation over his failure to pay grazing fees to the federal government for the use of public lands. Others may have heard groups calling for the outright abolishment of all public land grazing. But smack dab in between these opposing and polarizing views lie most sportsmen and women and tens of thousands of hardworking families who own and manage millions of acres vital to fish and wildlife.

So why does this legitimate use of public lands still get a bad rap?

Livestock grazing can have positive or negative impacts on fish and wildlife habitat, but properly managed grazing is a compatible and sustainable activity on multiple-use public lands.

A Brief History of Grazing in the West

Livestock grazing on both private and public lands dates back to the homesteading era and westward expansion. As iconic and integral as ranching is to the West’s ethos and economy, grazing has also contributed to a long history of controversy and debate over public lands management, from the era of unmanaged sheep and cattle grazing after the Civil War to the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s into the present day.

After decades of unregulated livestock use in the West led to overgrazing and degradation of rangeland and water resources, Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934. Today, livestock grazing is much more heavily regulated, yet remains a hot topic, as grazing plays into the complex multiple-use management scheme that must address increasing demands on our federal public lands from a growing human population.

At the heart of this perpetual debate lies a wide range of issues surrounding private property valuation and rights, water quality and usage, endangered species, access to public lands, and habitat for fish and wildlife, among other things. Across Western landscapes, private lands often occur in a “checkerboard” arrangement with federal and state lands, further complicating issues and creating unique challenges for multiple-use management.

Despite the complexities of multiple-use management, maintaining economically viable ranches is of vital importance. The loss of family-owned ranches might mean development on some pretty special landscapes, loss of habitat for native species, or the end of “handshake agreements” for hunting and fishing access.

Not an Either-Or Proposition

So, why is public-land grazing so necessary to keeping these private-lands ranchers in business and on the land? To remain financially solvent, many ranches rely on their own acres AND federal grazing permits. Most of the time, they can’t have one without the other.

The Taylor Grazing Act put tens of millions of acres of public land into grazing districts and smaller units, or allotments. Ranchers apply for renewable 10-year permits to graze on these allotments. Each permittee must own their own base property near the allotment to be eligible and must pay for their use. So, not just anyone can graze their cattle on public lands.

Most Western ranches need both their deeded property and their federal grazing allotments to make an operation economically viable. If ranchers can’t sustain their businesses from the land they own and federal lands they have access to, most will undoubtedly hit a breaking point and sell to a willing buyer. And the sale of existing properties can present new challenges to sportsmen and women.

When private lands change hands, public access may change as well. New landowners may choose to keep or resign from an existing walk-in access program. There are no guarantees.

Private Lands in Other Hands

Much of what happens if a ranch must be sold depends on whether it has a perpetual or long-term easement in place, who buys the land, what their objectives are, and other factors driving the purchase and existing land condition. But a great reason to support responsible ranchers with public land resources is to avoid the risk of what could come next if they sell their property.

While many chunks of land would never be carved up for parking lots, luxury homes, condominiums, commercial real estate, or other development, sub-division of large tracts of land indeed is a real and ominous threat already pervasive across the West. Subdividing private lands does not usually bode well for wildlife conservation or our hunting and fishing access.

Land may transfer hands to another ranching operation—possibly even one with a stronger emphasis on voluntary conservation—but a new landowner could also choose not to re-enroll in a public access program or might move forward with converting wildlife-friendly rangeland to cropland.

The future of private land depends on many things that wind up looking like a roll of the dice in Vegas compared to keeping working lands in knowledgeable working hands.

Photo by BLM Oregon.

Partners in Conservation

Landowners are critical to conservation success and thus must be considered necessary partners in conservation. They shouldn’t have to feel threatened by species restoration plans or other resource conservation efforts. Conservation should present opportunities for landowners to keep their lands productive and thriving for both livestock and fish and wildlife.

Ranchers are already doing on-the-ground work through programs like the Sage Grouse Initiative, Partners for Conservation, Working Lands for Wildlife, and Farm Bill conservation programs like Voluntary Public Access.

There can be negative impacts on habitat from improper livestock grazing, and there will likely continue to be issues and disagreements among private landowners and public land users on how public land should be managed. We are all equally accountable to natural resources held in the public trust, whether you own cattle, land, or a hunting license.

Assuming the worst of landowners or attacking their interests does nothing to further conservation. In most cases, they are the worthy stewards of their own lands and our public acres. And losing working ranchlands to development would not bode well for fish, wildlife, or sportsmen in the long run.

Recent angst over sage-grouse conservation, leasing in migration corridors, and water issues should encourage us to strengthen our relationships with all stakeholders interested in finding common ground for conservation and use of our public lands. That includes ranchers who rely on public lands for grazing. The path forward for public and private land management that will sustain conservation is one of continued collaboration and partnership—not polarization.

Aldo Leopold once said: “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.” As the contemporary adage goes, the TRCP supports keeping “working lands in working hands.” We will continue working with our organizational partners, plus businesses, landowners, and decision-makers, to ensure that our landscapes provide all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.

 

Top photo by USDA NRCS Montana.

4 Responses to “Why Public Land Grazing is So Important to the American West”

  1. While I certainly agree with some of this article, and feel that private land owners will play an increasingly important role in land conservation going forward, there are aspects of ranching on public land that I strongly oppose. One big example for me has to do with predator culling, especially when we’re talking about threatened or endangered species such as wolves and grizzlies. To summarize my point in an example, if a pack is attacking livestock on private land, fine, reasonable measures and possible culling may be acceptable. However, for game and fish departments to be forced to remove whole packs due to predation of livestock on public land, public forests even, is absurd. This has happened recently in Washington State with the Smackout and Sherman packs. Ranchers wanting to graze on public land should have to acknowledge that there are predators in public forests and they should expect and ACCEPT some losses if they wish to graze there. These animals are appreciated and enjoyed by other users of public lands and are not “owned” by ranchers.

  2. Old Firefighter

    One of the most key points to your opinion/info piece is the term you use regarding “responsible ranchers”. Your points are well taken and I largely agree with them. Good range and wildlife science and management using modern techniques and methods is important to our cause. The problems occur when we allow good management decisions to be affected or replaced by greed for the almighty dollar or political or personal power. Overgrazing still happens across the west. It is a fact. Wildlife species pay for this because of it. Interactions between wildlife users and grazers must be respectful, thoughtful, and meaningful in order to find that proper balance between the use by man and the use by wildlife that also benefits mankind. Find and cultivate those “responsible ranchers.”

  3. Tom Chambers

    I think that while we need to work closely with those ranchers who attempt to sustain the environment we also need to be aware of those that for usually purely financial reasons overgraze and overcrowd the land. While BLM and the USDA is supposed to monitor the range allotments they usually do not and the ranchers who do overgraze get away with it for years. Overgrazing allows invasive weeds to have a much better chance to take over, most of which have little or no nutritional value to either livestock or wildlife and create a fire risk

  4. John Gale

    Solid piece here from TRCP and Mr. Arnett. Most ranchers and farmers play a quiet but important stewardship role in the management of wildlife and our public lands. Their contributions aren’t often recognized (they tend to be modest and don’t have PR machines turning out press releases) and the Cliven Bundy villains of the world grab the headlines first with bad behavior. Same goes for hunters and anglers. How many headlines or stories do you read about the respectful hunter who did what they were supposed to? We only hear about poaching, littering and property damage. Too often, the worst actors in any one user group become the vilified example to represent everyone else. That doesn’t do any of us any favors. While we can all do a better job of policing our own, calling out bad behavior and setting better examples, the vast majority of any group whether it be hunters, anglers, mountain bikers or ranchers are deeply connected by a shared love of wild places, healthy habitat, robust critter populations, and open lands and waters. The more we can work together to accomplish great things for conservation across shared interests instead of becoming distracted by the slim margins of disagreement, the better off our hunting, fishing and living will be. Perhaps it’s up to us to remind our members of congress how to be good neighbors too…if we do our part to marginalize fringe behaviors and focus our attention on the positive contributions we’re all making within our own roles, the fish, wildlife and us human critters might just have a fighting chance in this world.

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Randall Williams

May 10, 2019

Building Packs and Giving Back

Mystery Ranch is a Bozeman, Montana-based backpack and gear company that knows a thing or two about hauling heavy loads over unpredictable terrain. So, it’s only fitting that they’ve been carrying more than their weight in the world of conservation.

Here’s their story:

We have around 100 people working at Mystery Ranch—this includes folks in production, our warehouse, warranty and repair, operations, product development, accounting, sales, marketing, IT, customer service, and more. It’s an incredibly diverse workforce from all over Montana and the rest of the U.S. with different ages, interests, and backgrounds. Preferred outdoor activities run the gamut, from backcountry skiing, ice and rock climbing, and trail running to precision shooting, bow-hunting, and fly-fishing.

All of these activities require two key ingredients: public land and access to it. What we do here, and the packs and gear we design and build, fuels these passions.

Our location in Bozeman certainly helps us—it may sound cliché, but we really do live in one of the best places for folks who love being outside. All kinds of opportunities on the water or in the mountains are available right in our backyard. And that fuels a company culture that is open, friendly, and just plain fun.

Without question, the passions we pursue deepen our commitment to conservation. We support a wide-ranging group of organizations in whatever ways that we can. We donate products for auctions and raffles at events like the TRCP’s Capital Conservation Awards Dinner, and for several years have sponsored the Western Media Summit.

We also believe we should stand up on issues and initiatives that we know are important. Recently, we signed on to a letter from the business community calling for a balanced roadless rule for Alaska, and we’ve also supported the TRCP’s Sportsmen’s Country and Sportsmen’s Access campaigns. At the end of the day, we want to make sure that as a company we support those who do the vital work, educate, inspire, and make a difference.

This is especially true with our hunting and outdoor product lines—so many of our customers and employees are personally involved in groups that advocate for public lands, trail maintenance, public access, watershed improvements, or habitat expansion and protection.

We know that our business—and our individual opportunities—depend on these efforts, and we think there’s real strength in the overlapping values and interwoven missions of companies like ours and the causes we support.

In short, we build packs and gear for people who love the outdoors and fiercely defend it. That means protecting the rivers and streams we float and fish; ensuring the mountains we hike, hunt, and ski remain public; and working to see that these opportunities will be available today, tomorrow, and beyond.

You can learn more about Mystery Ranch and the causes they support at MysteryRanch.com.

Marnee Banks

April 12, 2019

Lawmakers Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Strengthen the Marine Food Web

Forage Fish Conservation Act would improve recreational fishing opportunities

U.S. Representatives Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Brian Mast (R-Fla.) have introduced legislation to promote responsible management of forage fish—the smaller bait fish that larger sportfish rely on for food.

The Forage Fish Conservation Act would address a decline in forage fish populations, strengthen sportfish populations, and support better recreational fishing opportunities. Forage fish populations have been declining due to numerous pressures, including changing ocean conditions, and this legislation takes steps to support a more robust marine food web.

“This legislation uses sound science to preserve our nation’s fishing economy,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Declining populations of forage fish hurt the entire marine ecosystem and sportfishing opportunities. This bill will help prevent overfishing and create sustainable fisheries.  We appreciate Representative Dingell working with a broad coalition to advance conservation efforts across the country.”

The Forage Fish Conservation Act ensures that enough forage fish remain in the water by:

  • Providing a national, science-based definition for forage fish in federal waters.
  • Assessing the impact that a new commercial fishery could have on the marine ecosystem and coastal communities prior to the fishery being authorized.
  • Accounting for predator needs in existing management plans for forage fish.
  • Requiring that managers consider forage fish when establishing research priorities.
  • Ensuring scientific advice sought by fisheries managers includes recommendations for forage fish.
  • Conserving and managing river herring and shad in the ocean.
  • Preserving state management of forage fish within state waters.

The Forage Fish Conservation Act is also co-sponsored by Representatives Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Billy Long (R-Mo.), and Jared Huffman (D-Calif.)

 

Photo by the Chesapeake Bay Program via flickr.

Charlie Booher

April 8, 2019

What Is Chronic Wasting Disease and How Does it Kill Deer and Elk?

The key to understanding the threat of CWD is learning more about the particles that cause it

My home in Wisconsin is less than 20 miles away from the detection site of the first case of Chronic Wasting Disease east of the Mississippi River in 2002. Michigan State University, where I attend school, is within the same proximity of the first detected case in the state of Michigan. It is safe to say that this disease has been in my backyard for most of my life.

As the disease spreads across the country, more and more hunters are finding CWD in their backyards, too. And while its name is increasingly familiar among sportsmen and women, CWD still remains a source of confusion for many.

Much of this confusion pertains to the small particles that cause it, known as prions. Although we commonly associate transmissible diseases with viruses and bacteria, prions are neither. Nor are they Fungi. They are not even alive.

So just what are these things, how do they spread, and why should we be worried about them?

Prions 101

The term “prion” is derived from “proteinaceous infectious particle,” and it was coined in 1982 by Stanley B. Prusiner of the University Of California San Francisco. In the United States, it is commonly pronounced PREE-on, while in the U.K. it is usually said PRY-on.

In short, prions are malformed proteins. Like other proteins, they are made up of complex chains of amino acids and exist in the membranes of many normal cells. Many forms of prions are not harmful, but certain prions can be highly destructive when they accumulate in the brain or other nervous tissues of an organism.

As prions do not have their own genetic information, they cannot reproduce independently, like bacteria, or through a host cell, like a virus. Prion molecules are dangerous because they “reproduce” by denaturing the normal proteins that are in close proximity to them. This process both facilitates the spread of the disease through the body and can cause the degradation of nervous tissue.

[Jump to: These Changes Are Worth Your Time to Stop the Spread of Chronic Wasting Disease]
Modeled structure of a prion, by Jawahar Swaminathan and MSD staff at the European Bioinformatics Institute
How CWD Kills

Prion-caused diseases, CWD among them, form holes in the brains of affected organisms and are known as Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies, or TSEs—a very technical name for diseases that affects the brain (Encephalo = brain; pathy = disorder) by causing nervous tissue to become porous (spongiform = sponge-like), and can be spread from one individual to another (transmissible). These neurodegenerative disorders exhibit a comparatively long incubation period, are fatal in all circumstances, and include “Mad Cow” disease in bovid species, scrapie in sheep, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

Because they are not alive, prions cannot be killed. The collection of amino acid molecules comprising a prion must be chemically denatured to lose their detrimental capabilities. As a result, prions are incredibly resilient to change–exposure of up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit will not deform the proteins—and can remain in a given environment for long periods of time.

In a deer infected with the disease, prions may be found in diverse body fluids and tissues, but particularly those relating to the nervous system. Bodily contact, urine, feces, and saliva can all serve as transmission vectors. In addition, a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that prions can also be present in and spread through environmental vectors, including soil columns and waterways.

[Jump to: Experts Respond to Chronic Wasting Disease Skeptics]
Chronic Wasting Disease sample sorting, photo courtesy of USFWS
The Big Picture Threat

It is important to consider the epidemiology of CWD when comparing it to other threats against whitetail herds. Due to the nature of this disease, it can take years of prion buildup for a deer to exhibit symptoms of CWD such as weight loss, stumbling, lethargy, and other neurological conditions, whereas viral diseases like EHD (Epizootic hemorrhagic disease) can be evident after only seven days. This is one reason why hunters do not often find heaps of deer carcasses in the field from CWD, but see mass die-offs from EHD more often. However, this does not mean that CWD is not harmful. In fact, this feature makes CWD more insidious because it is more difficult to detect early infections.

While there has never been a recorded case of cervid-human transmission, the Center for Disease Control advises against eating meat from infected individuals. As early as 1997, the World Health Organization recommended that known agents of prion diseases be kept out of the food chain. Recent research suggests that CWD could be transmissible to primates, but this has only been studied on Cynomolgus Macaques and was a single, limited study.

The nature of this disease, especially the rapid transmission and longevity of prions, makes CWD the biggest threat to herds of whitetail, mule deer, elk, and moose populations. If hunters and conservationists hope to successfully combat this disease, it will be important to support wildlife professionals and scientists in their research efforts to learn more about prions and how to appropriately address their effect.

Take action to support better research and testing for CWD across the country.

 

This was originally posted July 13, 2018 and has been updated. 

Kristyn Brady

March 27, 2019

Recreational Fishing Groups Formally Object to “Sustainable” Stamp on Menhaden Fishery

Mining the base of the food chain is neither sustainable nor economically justifiable

Today, three recreational fishing groups filed a formal objection against the Marine Stewardship Council’s recommendation that Omega Protein should receive a certification of sustainability for its U.S. Atlantic menhaden purse-seining operations. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, American Sportfishing Association, and Coastal Conservation Association signed onto the objection, filed with MSC’s leaders in the United Kingdom.

The industrial harvest of this important forage fish by a single foreign-owned company, Cooke Inc.’s Omega Protein, has a negative impact on striped bass and other sportfish that rely on menhaden for food. Earlier this month, MSC—a private international organization, not a government entity—signaled that it would likely put its stamp of approval on Omega’s menhaden reduction fishing operation, in which the oily baitfish is harvested and reduced into meal, pet food, and other products.

MSC reached this conclusion in spite of the fact that menhaden stocks are less than half of what they would be without industrial harvest, which currently suppresses the striped bass stocks on the East Coast by about 30 percent. Striped bass are the single most valuable marine recreational fishery in the country.

“This certification would put a blue ribbon on the practice of robbing sportfish of their forage base, even as striped bass numbers decline in the Atlantic,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the TRCP. His organization collaborated with a legal team to object to MSC’s findings and rallied individual anglers to sign an open letter opposing the certification. “We felt it was important to put pressure on MSC, in every venue possible, not to do this. It is irresponsible to call Omega’s operation sustainable when it affects striped bass numbers and the recreational fishing economy.”

MSC’s published assessment indicates that the certification of sustainability would be granted on the condition that Omega reach certain milestones over four years—not because the operation can be considered sustainable now. Sportfishing groups objected to the rationale behind two of these conditions and the MSC’s overall method of assessing the stock’s status.

“The MSC certification undermines ten years of work by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to establish ecosystem reference points for Atlantic menhaden, a process expected to be concluded in the next year,” says Mike Leonard, vice president of government affairs for the American Sportfishing Association. “For sportfishing businesses on the East Coast, the stakes are very high going into the striped bass season. Menhaden are an important food source for striped bass, and the latest striped bass stock assessment shows a continued decline in spawning stock biomass. This is the worst possible time for MSC to make a misstep like this.”

“In Maryland, anglers are concerned with the health and future outlook for many different recreational fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic coast, and menhaden are a major piece of the ecological foundation and balance in the region,” says David Sikorski, executive director of CCA Maryland. “This is why we anxiously await management options to be unveiled after nearly 20 years of conversation on how to manage these important fish for their role in the ecosystem. It would be negligent for MSC to hand out its certification just as the game is about to change.”

 

Top photo by Stephan Lowy

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