Sharing the blame
Editor’s note: This is the fifth story in a series of 13 exploring public lands grazing in the West, using the Tongue District of the Bighorn National Forest in north-central Wyoming as a case study.
Cattle producer Dana Kerns says ranchers and the U.S. Forest Service can share equal blame in the decades-long fight over grazing on the Tongue District of the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming.
“Big problems started clear back in the 1970s and have continued, and the weak link has always been communication between some ranchers and some agency folks. Both parties were very guilty of this,” says Kerns, whose family has grazed cattle on the forest since the late 1800s.
When the Tongue District began cutting stocking rates and seasons of use, Kerns says, “some permittees reacted very angrily, and things got very personal very quickly. When that happens, there is no chance of coming to a middle ground; there is no chance of winning.”
Kerns emphasizes that the majority of producers have worked hard to be good stewards of the range and to forge professional relationships with USFS. However, he says, a few ranchers have fought the agency for decades, and that has hurt everyone involved, including agency personnel trying to do the right thing and ranch families that live up and down the east face of the Bighorn Mountains.
“Most definitely that has happened,” says Kerns, president of Guardians of the Range, a rancher advocacy group that addresses public lands grazing issues on behalf of many permittees in northern Wyoming.
• Poor communication over the years leads to grazing dispute.
• Rancher says permittees and U.S. Forest Service are both at fault.
• Dana Kerns also admits that overgrazing and overstocking have occurred.
Nothing to hide
Four other Tongue District permittees interviewed by Western Farmer-Stockman shared nearly identical feelings, but they declined to go on record, saying the issue has strained neighborly relations.
Kerns, though, says he has nothing to hide and hopes other permittees and agency folks across the West can learn from the Tongue District dispute, which stems back to the 1970s and ’80s. At that time, he says, permittees did pretty much what they wanted when it came to grazing, federal agencies lacked oversight of the lands they were charged with managing, and few Americans (at least compared to today) watched closely how their public lands were being used.
When organizations ranging from fishing and hunting clubs to environmental groups began speaking up about perceived overgrazing and resource damage caused by livestock grazing across the West, and when USFS, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal and state agencies began implementing tighter standards, some permittees started rebelling, some furiously.
“Ranchers are generally very independent, and they don’t want anyone telling them how to run their business,” Kerns says. “I certainly would not say that those who are fighting the federal agencies are poor stewards of the land. Some of them just have a hard time accepting change, and I think that’s what they are fighting more than anything else.”
Those who didn’t want any change — including a number of ranchers who graze livestock on the Tongue District — started attacking USFS instead of trying to work amicably with the agency, and those attacks continue today by a small number of highly vocal permit holders, according to permittees and others who were interviewed for this series.
“Yes, I understand there have been some very heated meetings between some ranchers and agency people, but fortunately, I wasn’t involved in those,” Kerns says. “We all have our own individual personalities in how we deal with problems, but I believe you have to handle things professionally, not personally.”
Kerns makes it clear that he has disagreed with USFS personnel in the past, but he has tried to work out things politely and honestly. At times, he notes, “that has meant admitting that I made a mistake and that I was wrong.”
Kerns was hesitant to say that “overgrazing” has occurred on the Tongue District because he believes the word has very different meanings to different people, but when pointedly asked, he responded, “We all have ideas in our own mind what an area should look like, but, yes, I do believe some areas of the district have been overgrazed and overstocked.”
This article published in the May, 2015 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.
All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2015.
Best Management Practices