Swapping Conflict for Conservation

NWF finds solutions to conflicts between wildlife and ranchers around Yellowstone

02-01-2004 // Gary Turbak

EARLY IN THE 1990s, Wyoming grizzly #209 learned to kill cattle, and for several years the 550-pound male made a good living preying on livestock in northwestern Wyoming’s Bridger–Teton National Forest, east of Grand Teton National Park. Twice wildlife managers captured and relocated the bear, but both times it returned to nearly 88,000 acres of public land known as the Blackrock/Spread Creek grazing allotment. In 1996, after the bear killed more calves, authorities had no choice but to euthanize the predator.

Today, thanks to an innovative agreement between NWF, the U.S. Forest Service and the family who held the Blackrock grazing permit, the allotment has become a wildlife haven. Roughly 25 grizzlies—and a pack of gray wolves—now live there in virtual anonymity. Not far away, on the west side of Yellowstone National Park, another accord has eliminated trouble between cattle and migrating bison. Similar agreements are helping wildlife elsewhere, too. In each case, conservationists have paid permit holders to retire their grazing leases. “These are win-win arrangements,” says NWF Special Projects Coordinator Hank Fischer. “NWF offers economic incentives to ranchers who retire their grazing leases on allotments that have experienced chronic conflict with wildlife. The Blackrock allotment had more cattle and grizzly problems than any allotment in the Yellowstone ecosystem.”

Paul Walton acquired the Blackrock grazing lease in the 1950s, long before concerns about clean water and endangered species made cattle grazing on public lands controversial. Then in the early 1990s, a few grizzlies acquired a taste for beef and began wreaking havoc on the Walton herd; authorities documented 108 cattle killed or injured by bears between 1992 and 1998.

Not knowing what else to do, the Walton Ranch removed its 800 head of cattle from the allotment in 1999. Around the same time, NWF launched a project to retire grazing allotments that suffered chronic conflict with wildlife, and out of a list of areas in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, the Blackrock allotment floated to the top of the stack.

Paul Walton’s widow, Betty, had wrestled with the question of what to do with the lease that had been in her family for decades. “She could have sold it to another rancher—perhaps someone who was not such a good land manager—but she chose the conservation route,” says Steve Kilpatrick, habitat biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

After spearheading a fund-raising campaign, NWF handed Betty Walton a check for $250,000 last August. In return, she gave her grazing lease back to the U.S. Forest Service, which retired 74,200 acres of the Blackrock allotment for wildlife. (The remaining 13,300 acres are still under evaluation.)

“This new approach provides an equitable and effective way to reconfigure where grazing takes place on public lands,” says Fischer. “In most cases the rancher has taken the cash and used it to secure grazing land in areas where wildlife conflicts are not significant.”

The retirement of the Blackrock allotment essentially tacks 136 square miles of habitat onto Grand Teton National Park. In addition to hosting bears and wolves, this property’s mix of forest, grassland, wetland and riparian habitat is also occupied by several hundred bison, nearly 900 wintering elk, a variety of sensitive bird species, moose, pronghorns and cougars. “The wildlife values for this piece of ground rival any found in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, even those within the national parks,” says Kilpatrick.

Another NWF-led endeavor recently raised $110,000 to retire a 2,400-acre national forest grazing allotment near Yellowstone National Park known as Horse Butte. Hundreds of bison migrating out of the park in winter have been slaughtered in recent years because livestock agencies fear that bison might spread brucellosis disease to cattle. Now the Forest Service plans to manage the area as a winter range for migrating bison. “This doesn’t totally eliminate the conflict because some livestock still remain on nearby private lands, says Fisher. “But it’s a very good first step.”

Gary Turbak is a frequent contributor to this magazine.

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