Grazing inside the Breaks National Monument: Ranchers wary as BLM forms watershed plan


SONJA LEE Tribune Staff Writer
Great Falls Tribune

Great Falls, MT - 4/21/02 - As the fax machine at the Bureau of Land Management in Lewistown began to spit out letters from folks as far away as West Virginia, BLM officials knew that working out new grazing permits was going to be anything but easy this time around.

When the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument was created in January 2001, ranchers were promised they would be allowed to continue grazing cattle on the public lands interspersed between the rugged bluffs.

They're not convinced.

The Sierra Times, a conservative online publication, posted an item in late February from an unidentified source that said the BLM was planning to end grazing on a chunk of land inside the new monument. That afternoon, those long-distance faxes started rolling in.

The BLM acted quickly to ease jittery ranchers, assuring them that the Sierra News story was "extremely inaccurate" and that grazing is -- and will be -- permitted.

The Internet post was prompted by an environmental assessment of the Upper Missouri River watershed -- a plan the BLM legally is required to make before issuing new 10-year livestock grazing permits on public land. This watershed review is the fifth in a series of 14, but it is the first since the monument was designated.

A draft of the plan was made public in December; it should be finished in May. It encompasses about 71 miles, including property opposite Coal Banks Landing and downstream to a point about 11 miles past Stafford Ferry.

"There is a lot of sensitivity to the fact that the monument is there," said Chuck Otto, assistant field manager with the Lewistown BLM. "But we haven't really changed our management philosophy as far as livestock grazing goes since the designation."

More scrutiny than usual

The BLM has extended public comment on the permits three times, held additional public meetings and continues to stress that it is not out to eliminate grazing along the river. BLM officials even briefed Montana's congressional representatives, in an effort to quell the fears.

Area ranchers, who continue to ask that private land be pulled from the boundaries of the monument, say they're pleased that the BLM has responded. Cattle pay the taxes and the bills in northcentral Montana, they said.

Ranchers have a right to be leery, said Matt Knox, founder of the Missouri River Stewards, which formed to fight the monument and protect private property rights along the river.

"I think the scrutiny is justified," Knox said. "We want to make sure we get it right. We're not trying to start a fight with the BLM, we are trying to work through this thing."

The watershed plan for the area inside the new monument, which is taking about five months longer than other plans to complete, includes 26 allotments, nine of which are along the river. The comment period has ended; the BLM now will review the public's opinions and revise the document, Otto said.

The agency is trying to work with ranchers to address any problems on the 55 grazing allotments that cover 229,423 acres of the entire river corridor. Ranchers are allowed to graze their cattle on the public land for a fee.

The BLM's watershed planning began in 1996; when it is done, the agency will have a plan for lands stretching from the Musselshell River to the Rocky Mountain Front.

About 75 percent of the allotments inside the new monument were reviewed and taken care of before the designation. The BLM decided to bump up the review of the 71-mile stretch to try to finish out the area. It next will review the Arrow Creek area, a portion of which is also monument land.

There are 20 permittees in the recently disputed plan. Of that, 14 are seeing absolutely no changes, Otto said. "They are already doing a good job," he said.

Knox said ranchers initial concerns were that the draft plan was released in December, so they had only 30 days to review the 108-page document. The BLM agreed to extend the review ultimately until April 5.

"We were able to have all the involvement we wanted on the range upland portion of the study," Knox said. "But we had some real concerns about the riparian portions of the study."

Knox, who objects to the wording in some parts of the plan that he says eventually could be used in the overall management of the monument, is hopeful the BLM is listening to rancher's concerns.

"I'm fairly confident they are going to make the changes we asked them for," he said.

The BLM examined all of its land in the area, including upland sage prairie and riparian areas along the river, Otto said.

"As we have done our inventories, the upper pieces are in good condition. The riparian areas aren't always in as good a shape."

About 27,900 of the river corridors 40,000 acres that support riparian vegetation are on private land.

More cottonwoods needed

Efforts must be made to regenerate the cottonwood trees, which take 30 to 40 years to reach maturity, Otto said.

"Most of the cottonwoods were established in the 1906 period," he said. "All of them will be dying at about the same time. We are trying to get them going now."

The BLM is requesting changes in riparian areas, like avoiding grazing during July, August and September. More cottonwood seedlings typically survive in areas that aren't grazed during the hot season.

Some fences -- three more on the river in addition to the 11 already in the monument -- are being proposed to keep livestock out and improve the riparian areas. One of the fences would be downstream at the Judith River.

Traditional flooding, which has been absent in the area, also contributes to cottonwood growth.

Knox said he has some concerns about the BLM's reluctance to just plant trees in the riparian zones. He also said using the fences as a management tool might have negative impacts. A cow usually eats right along a fence line, so in the long run, there is a huge difference between the quality on either side of the fence.

Jack Arnst has property about 25 miles north of Geraldine and some land along the river. He doesn't have cattle any more, but said he is concerned about the watershed plan.

"It's another way for the federal government to get more control over private property," Arnst said. "I don't think they have a right to control the water."

It isn't out of the ordinary for ranchers to scrutinize the plan, especially since it includes a lot of property they don't want in the monument in the first place, he said.

Most ranchers are doing what they need to get by during a drought, he said. The BLM should consider the weather; ranchers will hold up their end of the deal, he said.

Mark Good, field organizer for the Montana Wilderness Association, said he isn't sure why ranchers are objecting to the plan, considering how few changes are being proposed.

"I think there is an attitude among some monument opponents that the public doesn't have a right to be involved in the process of determining how public lands are managed," Good said. "What is important here is the BLM has a responsibility to manage for a variety of uses. It is not unreasonable to make some modest changes in livestock grazing that will improve range land growth and cottonwoods."

It may be a challenge for the BLM to enforce management changes, but the watershed plan is a step in the right direction, he said.

Chouteau County Commissioner Ken Evans said he would have liked the BLM to better involve local governments in the process.

"It affects us right in the county, and it affects the tax base," Evans said. "We don't want to lose producers. It really worries us."

The interim monument management plan states that "continued livestock grazing is permitted, pursuant to the terms and conditions of existing permits and leases."

"I have an uneasiness about, are the cards really on the table?" Evans said.

Rep. John Witt, R-Carter, said he would like the BLM to look closely at the economic impacts of grazing changes. He also is concerned the plan could be a tool to eventually move cattle off the river.

"When you take that income away from them, you are impacting the county, the people, the schools, a lot of things," Witt said.

The BLM proposal sounds OK for now, he said, "but there isn't anything built into the plan saying it won't change. Counties and private landowners have a right to know as much as they possibly can about what could happen."

The BLM agrees that the public must be informed and involved in the watershed planning, Otto said.

"It would really help if people hear a rumor if they go ahead and contact us on it," he said.

Matt Knox separates cows and newborn calves in the corral at his ranch northeast of Winifred. Knox is founder of Missouri River Stewards, which formed to fight the monument and protect private property rights along the river.

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