by Perry Backus, The Montana Standard – 01/30/2004
ENNIS – Three environmental groups have taken the Forest Service to task over its proposed update of grazing allotments in the southern portion of the Gravelly Range, in southwest Montana. But a local rancher says the groups are just looking for a way to push cows off public lands.
The Gallatin Wildlife Association, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council filed lengthy appeals on the environmental assessment to update the Antelope Basin-Elk Lake allotment management plans. The assessment will direct management of domestic livestock on 11 allotments in the southern Gravelly Range over the next decade.
The same planning process came under fire last summer when supporters of the Buffalo Field Campaign mailed more than 150 letters asking the agency to remove cattle from the allotments to make room for migrating bison.
At the time, Forest Service officials said it was unlikely that bison would migrate from Yellowstone National Park to Antelope Basin. The area is about 35 miles from the park border and bison would have to cross private lands to get there. Because of the amount of snow the area normally receives through the winter, the area isn’t typically used by wildlife as winter range.
The recent appeals focus on how future management would impact wildlife species, including bison, sage grouse, wolves and elk, as well as debate over the economic analysis contained in the environmental analysis.
For instance, the Gallatin Wildlife Association said the agency didn’t do a good enough job of analyzing how elk might be displaced by grazing livestock. The group cited information from a 1982 study that concluded that one cow eats about as much as 1.25 elk each day.
Considering that the agency is proposing that 2,236 cow/calf pairs will graze for 4.6 months, the Gallatin Wildlife Association concluded that 385,710 elk “days of use” would be displaced under the agency’s proposal.
“This seems like a significant impact to us, to the elk, the people who enjoy elk and the predators that pursue them,” said the group’s appeal. “Please do an EIS.”
The association also said the agency didn’t consider the potential for the area being used by bison migrating out of the park. It urged the Forest Service to develop a wild bison conservation strategy that includes recovery and conservation of bison on the Beaverhead National Forest.
“Bison are native to this area, and while currently extirpated from the project area bison have proven a desire and an ability to migrate to this area from Yellowstone National Park,” the appeal said. “Why are these bison not welcome on USFS land within the project area? What is the USFS doing, if anything, to provide habitat for viable populations of native bison within the project or cumulative effects analysis area?”
The association said there are alternatives to domestic cattle grazing.
“Renewing the grazing permits for a few horses rather than thousands of cows for example, would provide a level of mitigation so the area would be available for habitat for native bison,” the appeal said.
Considering the concerns over the spread of brucellosis and that Montana will not allow bison to mingle with cattle, the appeal that Antelope Basin will only be suitable as summer range for bison in the absence of “exotic cattle.”
“Why is the USFS giving preference to exotic farm animals over native wild bison on the project area?” the appeal asked.
The area being reviewed by the Forest Service encompasses about 37,000 acres, of which about 27,500 is suitable for grazing. Ranchers have permits for about 2,193 cow/calf pairs. About 10 ranch families summer their cows there.
“It’s some of the most productive grasslands that we have on the entire (730,000-acre) Madison District,” said Madison District Ranger Mark Petroni last summer.