The first draft of a controversial study surrounding the future use of land in the Weminuche Wilderness was released last week, with Forest Service officials determining grazing will continue despite environmental impact concerns.
Public ire about domestic sheep grazing in the Weminuche, which has been going on for more than 100 years, drew intense scrutiny when scoping began in 2012.
At that time, environmentalists and concerned residents pressured the San Juan National Forest to conduct an intensive Environmental Impact Study to weigh the risks livestock pose to the wilderness area.
On Wednesday, Feb. 17, the Forest Service released the first draft of that study, which is open to public comment until April 4. A public meeting will be held March 12.
The tentative document lays out the Forest Service’s preferred course of action, which includes allowing the continued use of six active grazing allotments and adjusting boundaries to limit interactions with native bighorn sheep.
“We’re mandated for multiple use on this landscape, which is deemed as suitable for grazing,” said Rangeland Management Specialist Jared Whitmer, who is the project manager for the EIS.
In the 760-square-mile Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado’s largest wilderness area, about 166,700 acres on 13 grazing allotments (seven vacant) extend from the northern end of Missionary Ridge toward the Pine River.
Throughout that area, there are 44,500 acres of potential overlap of native bighorn sheep and domestic sheep – though fewer than 1,000 acres are currently active sheep grazing habitats.
Whitmer said the comprehensive study effectively reduces the risk of the two animals coming into contact.
“But this is just the starting point in my mind,” he said.
Risks to bighorn
The presence of domestic sheep on migratory lands of the bighorn poses serious dangers to the native animal as diseases are easily transmitted when livestock roam the high country during the summer.
“I’m not very confident substantive changes have been made to protect the bighorn sheep to an acceptable level,” said Terry Meyers, a conservation director with the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep Society.
“We would like to see the Forest Service not continue grazing of domestic sheep in high-risk areas of bighorns. There’s room in the Colorado landscape for both, but not in the same place.”
The presence of domestic sheep dramatically decreased during the 20th century. Almost 200,000 livestock roamed the San Juan’s in 1920, however, the latest records show that in 2013, just 6,100 sheep forage the area in question.
Though the bighorn population has remained stable, Meyers said herds near livestock have declined over the last three to four years. He said the EIS must make those wild animals the top priority.
“We need to maintain effective separation,” he said.
New vision for public land
The debate over grazing on public land plays into a bigger theme throughout Western states in what has become a battle between Old West and New West values.
“The American public’s desires for how we manage our lands has changed, and the Forest Service has not kept up,” said Bryan Bird, a program director with WildEarth Guardians.
Bird said in the last 10 to 20 years, the paradigm for how Americans imagine the use of their public land has shifted from historical rural uses to a focus on recreation and conservation.
Livestock grazing, in Bird’s estimation, is the antithesis of the idea of public land.
“We believe in the management of public lands for the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. Not private livestock interests,” he said.
“We’re obviously disappointed they didn’t use the no-grazing option. This just perpetuates the private commercial interest on our public lands.”
Royalties are low
If you’re going to argue livestock grazing on public land results in a healthy stream of royalties for state and federal revenues, you’d be sadly mistaken, Bird said.
Though the grazing fee for five sheep is set to increase to $2.11 a month in March, costs for the use have been chronically low. For the same amount of sheep, private interests charge around $20 a month.
In 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity found receipts from grazing fees were $125 million less than federal projections – bringing in just $143.6 million. Had the federal government charged private industry rates, receipts would average about $261 million a year.
“As taxpayers, we really subsidize ranching,” said Andrew Gulliford, a professor at Fort Lewis College. “And that doesn’t even include wildlife services. I support ranching, but I think the economics, we need to take a hard look at it.”
Gulliford is referencing the cost on the federal government’s wildlife services to cater to livestock grazing, which includes killing predators and expending funds for fire mitigation caused by grazing practices.
“Clearly, one of the big issues in the 21st century is high-altitude grazing and recreation,” Gulliford said.
Leases make life possible
Still, a few ranchers hold on to the ways of the past.
State Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, whose family has ranched in the area since 1971, said his operation follows a nomadic lifestyle.
In the winter, his herd settles on federal and private land in New Mexico. Springtime months are spent on land he owns in Ignacio. And in summer, his sheep graze in the Weminuche Wilderness.
“We wouldn’t be in business if it weren’t for the leases,” said Brown. “Quite frankly, our place would be up for sale.”
The Forest Service’s EIS will go through the public process over the next several months, with a final decision slated for mid-summer.
For now, it appears Brown’s operation, as well as the other half-dozen ranchers’ in the area, is safe.
“We have one of the old-type sheep outfits, and it’s important to have that public land grazing for our operation,” he said. “It’s been a good life.”