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Know the West

Grasslands take a step toward nature

Efforts to restore an ecosystem are bold but controversial


DICKINSON, N.D. — Ron Jablonski, district ranger of the Little Missouri National Grassland, remarked wryly last fall that a new plan for managing the million-acre patch of prairie would be judged successful "only if everyone appealed it."

Based on this criteria, the plan must be hugely successful. Oil and gas interests, ranchers, environmental groups, several local governments and a wise-use group have all appealed the new management plans for 10 national grasslands in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Nebraska.

The U.S. Forest Service spent more than six years on the plans, which were released together last summer. They constitute an ambitious attempt at regional ecosystem management, treating 2.9 million acres of public prairie, scattered over four states, as pieces of the same complex puzzle.

Cattle grazing will be reduced by about 10 percent, and road building and energy development limited to designated areas. Little Missouri staffer Jeff Adams says the land will be restored to a "mosaic" of plant life, benefiting an array of wildlife.

But environmental groups — including the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie, Wyo., the Predator Conservation Alliance and the regional office of the Sierra Club — have 180 pages of complaints in their appeal alone, filed in November.

The plans fall short on two big issues, says the Sierra Club’s Kirk Koepsel: protection of roadless grassland and restoration of wild bison (HCN, 6/8/98: Bison comeback meets resistance on the ground). "Those issues were completely ignored, even though the public overwhelmingly supported them" in the 75,000 comments sent to the Forest Service, Koepsel says.

A plan for the dogs

The national grasslands have always been difficult to manage. They were created when the government bought back homesteads abandoned during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. With parcels of private and state land still mingled with federal land, conflicts abound over who is in charge (HCN, 6/5/00: Change on the Plains).

The Forest Service has favored cattle grazing, and with the Bureau of Land Management in charge of the subsurface, the agencies allowed coal strip-mining and oil and gas drilling. In the 1930s, the government even poisoned millions of acres of prairie dog towns to preserve grass for cattle, unaware that more than 150 other species depended on the unique conditions cultivated by the rodents.

Despite the poisoning, the grasslands are home to some of the few surviving large prairie dog towns. These are the last haven for the rarest mammal in North America, the black-footed ferret, which feeds only on prairie dogs (HCN, 8/16/99: Standing up for the underdog).

The new plans aim to bolster both animals, by continuing recent limits on shooting and poisoning prairie dogs. In the next 15 years, the Forest Service says, prairie dog territory on the 10 grasslands could double or triple from the current 37,500 acres.

But environmental critics say the prairie dog protections are not enforced on the ground. The plans "have a lot of flowery language," says Jeff Kessler of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, "but they lack discrete, measurable, enforceable standards."

Environmentalists also want wilderness protection for 500,000 acres. The Forest Service recommends designating only two new wilderness areas, totaling 40,000 acres, on the Buffalo Gap National Grassland in South Dakota. With the prairie ecosystem already the most endangered in the West, the national grasslands "are the best chance for preserving some prairie as wilderness," Kessler says.

But several hundred thousand roadless acres are leased for future oil and gas drilling, and "we have to honor (those) rights — we don’t have a choice," says Dave Pieper, supervisor of four grasslands in the Dakotas.

A revolutionary step

The other appeals unite the concerns of ranchers, oil and gas companies and county governments, who all want fewer restrictions on grassland use. They describe the plans as clumsy attempts to balance different interests, based on unduly optimistic science.

Gene George, a consultant who helped Yates Petroleum Corp. appeal the plan for the Thunder Basin National Grasslands in Wyoming, says the Forest Service "has chopped the area up, kind of like subdivision and zoning laws." This makes it hard for the company, which already has coalbed methane wells on state land within the grasslands boundary, to expand its operations.

Ray Clouse, president of the Little Missouri Grazing Association, says tall grass won’t appear just because cattle are reduced. The Little Missouri is mostly arid badlands, he says, and the tall-grass goal "is unattainable here." All the appellants seem to agree, however, that good or bad, the new plans are revolutionary. "It’s a monumental philosophical shift for the Forest Service," says Jonathan Proctor, a Denver staffer for the Predator Conservation Alliance. "Traditionally, the grasslands have been nothing more than glorified cattle pastures with oil wells on them."

The appeals have been kicked up to Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the agency is supposed to respond by April.

Mark Matthews writes from Missoula, Montana.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article is accompanied by a sidebar, "Locals fight new railroad."

You can contact ...

      Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, in Laramie, Wyo., 307/742-7978 or www.voiceforthewild.org;
      Sierra Club, regional office in Sheridan, Wyo., 307/672-0425.
    You can view the planning documents on the Web at www.fs.fed.us/ngp/.