Wooly range issues in Colorado and the West

Jul 19, 2013

During the Colorado Wool Growers 86th annual convention on Wednesday, July 17, a number of federal agencies were represented and spoke about ongoing and upcoming issues of concern regarding federal lands and wildlife. While the panel was Colorado focused, several of the issues addressed have ramifications or similar state-specific analogs all throughout the West.

Among the more pressing and widespread issues addressed were wildlife issues, particularly involving sage grouse, and the impacts of the sequestration on those agencies which deal directly with public land.

Sage grouse took the stage as one of the presenters urged all in attendance to be aware of an upcoming document. The Colorado greater sage grouse management plan will be coming out in August and will be the first of the grouseaffected western states. According to Helen Hankins, Colorado state director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the plan will be a lengthy document and requires  the attention of public lands ranchers.

“It is really important that you all take a look at that greater grouse amendment. It is very unlikely that we will be able to extend the comment period so please look at it right away and provide us your input because it does have the potential to impact what occurs on public lands…” She said the amendment has four possible courses of action, ranging from taking no action regarding sage grouse in the northwestern portion of Colorado, to the “NNT alternative,” which she described as the most extreme in terms of potential impacts to ranchers.

“That alternative represents scientific information and recommendations put together mostly by a team of biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Services and other agencies,” she said.

The amendment will come out sometime in August. Hankins was unable to specify a more specific release date, but WLJ will be watching it closely and in touch with Hankins and others at BLM about it. Though this management amendment will only address Colorado, Hankins said it will be the first of others coming out in other western states.

Relative to the sequestration, Hankins stressed the need for involvement of the public lands ranchers. The budget cuts of the sequestration have resulted in a lot fewer resources to go around—both financially and in terms of manpower—so field monitoring has suffered.

“It’s all the more important that our permittees, whether they’re sheep operators or cow operators, that you all document what is happening on your grazing allotment,” she said, referencing the sequestration-imposed difficulties.

“We may not be able to get out there as much as we would like because of our reduced capacity and it’s all the more important that you all help so there is documentation of improvements and conditions on your allotment.”

Hankins noted that BLM has received a request from “an environmental group”— later revealed to be the Western Watershed Project (WWP)—to be an interested party on all grazing allotments containing Gunnison grouse habitat, over 300 allotments throughout Colorado and Utah.

“When someone is an interested party… that entitles them to receive copies of proposed decisions and other documents, and gives them a lot of notification that the general public doesn’t receive. It’s not something to take lightly.”

Hankins also pointed out from her past experience working in Nevada that WWP had done the same thing there. That designation of “interested party” resulted in the group having a lot more involvement in BLM’s processes and decision-making where grazing allotments were concerned. She used this as another example of why permittees should actively monitor and document the conditions on their own permits as a way of protecting themselves.

A representative with the Forest Service also spoke about the importance of permittee involvement due to the impacts of the sequestration.

“We suffer some of the same woes as BLM with funding at the national level due to the sequestration.”

While he said the sequestration has not resulted in furloughs for the Forest Service, they are being stretched thin in terms of on-theground work. Speaking on the topic of permittee involvement in allotment monitoring, the representative mentioned the value of land managers collecting their own data. He said Colorado has a good level of permittee involvement, but that the agencies would always love to see more of that.

“The more and better information we have, the more we can incorporate into our documents as we move forward.

The better documentation we can provide, the better positioned we are in the future,” he said.

“I would encourage you all, if you aren’t participating in permittee monitoring, that you do participate. There is training available, so folks out there have a handle on the processes.”

He mentioned that your local contacts, either with BLM or the Forest Service, will be able to guide you on what training is available in your area, or at the very least what sort of information is most valuable to them.

One of the sheep ranchers attending the convention recommended the smartphone app “GeoCam,” which he said he relies on for documenting issues and noteworthy details on his allotment. The app utilizes the phone’s built in camera to take photos augmented with location information such as longitude, latitude, elevation, and compass direction as well as date, time, and user-written notes on the photo. The app is free and available on both Google- Play for Android phones and in the iTunes app store for iPhones. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor