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New Report: Recent Forest Service Grazing Decision and Mismanagement in Yellowstone Ecosystem Promote Habitat Destruction

May 15, 2023 


Jonathan Ratner, (877) 746-3628, Western Watersheds Project;

John Carter, (435) 881-5404, Yellowstone to Uintas Connection; 


A report just released by Western Watersheds Project (WWP) and Yellowstone to Uintas  Connection (Y2U) documents habitat degradation by livestock in Wyoming’s Upper Green  River Basin, a major wildlife area in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  

A decision by the US Forest Service in 2019 authorized over 17,000 cattle to graze 170,643 acres  of suitable grizzly bear habitat here. Ninety-six percent of the area is designated as wildlife  emphasis in the Forest Plan. Fifty-two percent of the 27 grizzly bear deaths in western  

Wyoming between 2010 and 2014 took place in the project area, with an additional 18 bears  relocated. All were due to conflicts with cattle. The decision provided for these cattle to graze  the area for four months each summer for ten years. That decision is being litigated by WWP,  Y2U and others for failure to provide protections for grizzly bears and apply scientific  management and standards to livestock management.  

“I have monitored its condition for two decades,” said Jonathan Ratner, Wyoming Director for  Western Watersheds Project. “The Forest Service dismisses public input and assessments of the  failures in their monitoring and management programs. Streams and habitats are degraded,  native fish are declining, and bears are being killed. It’s tragic. And to make matters worse,  nearly all of the area is zoned in the Forest Plan for the protection of wildlife.” 

A number of livestock grazing allotments in the Elk Ridge Complex have been bought out for  conservation purposes, and have been livestock-free for five years, but the Forest Service is  currently considering re-stocking them with livestock. The report finds that these allotments  remain in poor condition as a result of past heavy livestock use, providing inadequate habitat  for sage grouse, elk, mule deer, and other native species. 

“Conservationists bought out over 30,000 acres of grazing allotments in the Elk Ridge Complex  to improve habitats and solve conflicts between livestock and grizzly bears, wolves, and  bighorn sheep, but now the Forest Service is threatening to go back on its word and bring the  livestock – and the impacts and conflicts they cause – back,” said Ratner. “This new report  demonstrates that five years of rest from livestock is nowhere near adequate to restore damaged  habitats, and makes a compelling case that the standard livestock grazing levels authorized by  the Forest Service are far too heavy to prevent major habitat damage.” 

Grizzly bears are classified as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. They rely  on a variety of foods, including whitebark pine seeds, plants, insects, roots, and animal  carcasses. Whitebark pines have suffered major mortality due to climate-related insect  outbreaks and are mostly gone now. The loss of this important food source increases the bears’  need for other foods.  

“The Forest Service is currently planning to log and remove nearly 6,000 acres of whitebark  pines and other conifers here, which will greatly reduce the security cover for the bears,” said  Dr. John Carter, Ecologist with the Yellowstone to Uintas Connection. “This habitat and food  loss for the bears is added to by the killing and removal of bears due to conflicts with livestock.  ESA-listed species are being killed to protect private livestock on our public lands.” 

The report describes the degraded condition of this area due to livestock grazing. It determines  that the Forest Service does not follow the long-standing science on how to manage livestock  grazing. It documents a significant decline in the forage plants that should be present. The  livestock producers that rely on this forage base may be unaware that grazing management has  contributed to the loss of forage production. This is due to overstocking of livestock, not allowing plant communities to recover from grazing, and a monitoring program that is unable to detect the use by livestock.  

To correct the problem, the livestock stocking rate would need to be reduced by about two thirds from present numbers. Management would change to reflect what leading range  scientists have recommended for decades in order for the grazing by livestock to be sustainable  and also provide for bears, fish, amphibians, migrant birds, and other wildlife.  

“We see this same situation across the west no matter where we conduct monitoring studies and  the damage is clearly observable in every case,” said Dr. Carter, Ecologist with the Yellowstone  to Uintas Connection. “Agency denial and deflection around the causes of the habitat  degradation are universal and like the 2019 Upper Green Rangeland Decision, they put band aids on the problem while failing to address the underlying causes, thus perpetuating and  increasing the damage while our wildlife and water supplies suffer.”

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