Wyoming Legislature update
by Albert Sommers, House District #20 Representative
November 20, 2015
November 19, 2015
Hello Sublette County, during the week of November 9, I served on panels in two forums addressing issues related to wildlife conservation, including the challenges and opportunities of diverse groups seeking common ground. I firmly believe that if we are going to preserve the wildlife of the American West, then we must preserve and conserve working landscapes in states like Wyoming. Our natural resource based economies preserve the rural nature of Wyoming, and are not dependent upon large metropolitan areas that eat landscapes and habitat one subdivision at a time. Those of us living, working, and recreating on these landscapes of the West must find common ground to ensure the continuity of our culture and the wildlife we care so much about.
The first forum took place on November 9 and 10. The Ruckelshaus Institute at the University of Wyoming hosted a forum entitled "Sustaining Big Game Migrations in the West: Science, Policy, and People." Sublette County is in the heart of some of North Americaís longest big game migrations. We harbor not only the "Path of the Pronghorn," the antelope migration path between Teton Park and the Little Colorado Desert, but we also have the Red Desert-to-Hoback mule deer migration. Both of these migration routes are over a 100 miles long, and there are shorter elk, deer, and antelope migrations in the Green River Valley. The extremely rural nature of our county has allowed these migrations to continue nearly unimpeded. However, both of the large migrations I mentioned have pinch points related both to topography and housing development. The Ruckelshaus Institute invited four full-time residents and one part-time resident of Sublette County to serve as panelists. Wyoming Game and Fish Commission Chairman Charles Price, Sublette County Commissioner Jim Latta, Jonah Inc.ís Paul Ulrich, and I participated on panels. Julia Stubble, Public Lands Advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, was also a panelist, and her family has roots in the Upper Green.
One of the forumís first speakers was Robert Bonnie, Under Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture. Mr. Bonnie is in charge of both the National Resource Conservation Service and the US Forest Service, and he seemed sincere when he spoke about the importance of bringing all groups to the table to solve the difficult issues related to preserving big game migrations. He and Jim Lyons, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the US Department of Interior, talked about a grass roots approach to species conservation, not top down mandates from the federal government, as we have seen in the past. I was heartened by the idea of our federal land management agencies front loading local input and knowledge, but time will tell whether such policies will be implemented.
The advent of Global Positioning System (GPS) collars on big game have scientifically highlighted what many locals have known for years, which is that there are a lot of deer and antelope that move north and south in this county following the available forage. We heard very interesting presentations from Hal Sawyer, Matthew Kauffman, and Arthur Middleton on the science of documenting elk, deer, and pronghorn migration routes, and of the importance of this habitat component in the life cycle of these species. We also heard a global perspective from John Fryxell on migrations in the continent of Africa.
There were panel discussions on federal lands, the role of states, private land connections, land and people, and working across jurisdictions. I tried to highlight the importance of engaging private land owners and livestock permittees early in the discussions. Ranchers have seen the movement of these species for generations, and we can come to the table with a wealth of on-the-ground knowledge. Jim Latta and I both told the group that in order to engage ranchers you must go out and visit them at their kitchen tables. The BLM is beginning to incorporate these migration routes into their planning processes and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is developing recommendations on migration routes. However, it is essential that policy makers slow down and engage the communities along these migration paths. We must work together in a collaborative process to find good solutions, and it is not easy work.
The Western Governors Association, of which Wyoming Governor Matt Mead is chairman, convened a forum type discussion on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in Cody on November 12 and 13. This was the first of a series of west wide discussions developed through Governor Meadís "Species Conservation and Endangered Species Act Initiative". There were panels on the energy and industry sector, agriculture and forestry sector, governmental sector, on recovery and delisting, and on innovative conservation practices and tools. Panelists were asked to discuss how the ESA influenced their work and on conservation successes of endangered species. Sublette County Commissioner Joel Bousman and I were among the panelists asked to present, and there were panelists from across the west.
I told the group I was President of the Upper Green River Cattle Association, and that the members of the "Drift" embody the challenges of recovering large carnivores (grizzly bear and gray wolf) on a landscape. The National Forest Allotment we graze is in the Upper Green. The Association saw its first bear-killed calf in over a generation in 1993, and by 1997 we had a serious depredation problem from grizzly bears. In 2000 we documented the first calf killed by wolves since their reintroduction, which compounded our predation problems. Our calf loss rates on the allotment, prior to 1994, were around 2%, and these were attributable to disease and other non-predation deaths. From 2010-2014, our calf loss rates averaged over 9%, and in 2015, the worst year ever, calf loss rates on the allotment exceeded 13%. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department confirmed 80 livestock depredations by grizzly bears and 10 by wolves on the Allotment in 2015, easily surpassing last yearís all time high of 74. Since 1994, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has confirmed a total of 515 cattle depredations in the Allotment. These depredations resulted in the WGFD relocating 53 grizzly bears and removing another 25 grizzly bears.
I told the group that despite these alarming numbers, it is a success story for the recovery of the grizzly bear and gray wolf, as these species have occupied habitat down the entire length of both the Wind River and Wyoming mountain ranges. It is a success story in that we livestock operators are still in business despite heavy losses, primarily because the WGFD is very responsive and provides compensation for livestock killed by large carnivores. This is not a success story attributable to the federal government, because the grizzly and wolf recovery programs are funded mostly by the states, especially Wyoming. It is an opportunity, in that conservation organizations, like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, have reached out to me with the question "How can we help," and not by seeking another law suit. As livestock producers we cannot sustain losses rising as they have in the last five years. The grizzly bear and gray wolf have reached levels sufficient for delisting. Hopefully discussions like those in Cody will result in meaningful reform to the ESA. Reform, which reasonable people from diverse groups can find comfort in. Reform, which respects diverse values, but recognizes the importance of local communities, our custom and culture, and the working landscapes of the West.