For much of the past two decades, High Country News has tried to wrap its head around one of the most vexing subjects in the West: livestock grazing on the public lands.
We have talked with angry environmentalists and scientists who can't understand why public-land managers ignore the ecological damage caused by cattle and sheep, or why the federal government only charges ranchers the cost of a cup of coffee (or even less, if you happen to imbibe Starbucks) to graze a cow-calf pair for a month on the public's lands.
We have talked with multigenerational ranchers who are deeply attached to their place in the West, who believe that they actually improve the land's ecological health through careful grazing, and who worry that they will be forced to sell their private lands to developers if they lose the right to graze on public lands.
And we have documented the dozens of administrative appeals, lawsuits and even cabinet-level initiatives - recall Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's ill-fated effort in the early 1990s - that have aimed at "grazing reform" and wound up proving that the phrase is an oxymoron. How could the country's public-grazing system continue in its eco-unfriendly and financially indefensible state, year after year? Well, for one thing, the West's ranching community continues to hold political power far beyond its numbers in many state legislatures and county commissions. There is also the sheer weight of history itself.
"You've got to remember that when the national forests were created, we didn't have a Clean Water Act or an Endangered Species Act, and so every piece of public land with grass on it was set up for grazing," veteran wildlife advocate Hank Fischer reminded me recently. "Undoing any part of this system is not easy."
Fischer, who works for the National Wildlife Federation, would know. Over the past five years, his organization has quietly cut deals with a number of ranchers and the Forest Service to voluntarily "retire" controversial grazing allotments on the borders of Yellowstone National Park. The deals - which can take years to negotiate and often involve a cash payment to ranchers and access to alternate allotments - have removed cattle and sheep from 500,000 acres of prime grizzly bear and timber wolf habitat.
Half a million acres is small potatoes compared to the hundreds of millions of federal acres that are currently grazed, but the Wildlife Federation's success shows that the grazing knot can be loosened when everyone stands to gain from a change. Around Yellowstone, conservationists, ranchers and forest managers are eager to end the constant conflicts that arise when slow-moving livestock are mixed with hungry - and federally protected - predators.
The knot may also be loosening in central Idaho, where sheep ranchers and wildlife advocates have long battled over efforts to establish bighorn sheep populations around Hells Canyon. As Nathaniel Hoffman reports in this issue, the evidence that bighorns cannot survive near domestic sheep is now so strong that a federal judge has pushed the Forest Service into closing several sheep allotments on the Payette National Forest.
Some sheep ranchers are fighting the decision, but the writing is on the wall: Bighorn sheep, which are not only popular with wildlife watchers, but also with hunters, must be given more space if they are to survive as a viable wild species.
This decision is a tough pill to swallow for sheep ranchers who graze near bighorn herds, but it is the right medicine for the West's public land agencies, which for too long have favored livestock over wildlife. One can hope the parties at Hells Canyon will embrace the collaborative approach that has worked so well at Yellowstone. With some creative changes to herd management, and some grazing allotment buyouts, there's no reason that ranchers and one of the West's most spectacular animals can't both thrive.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.