The proclamation designating Canyons of the Ancients National Monument west of Cortez allows for livestock grazing.
But that can conflict with the monument’s key purpose of protecting Native American archaeological sites, as is the case with the Yellow Jacket and Flodine grazing allotments.
Permits to graze the allotments have not been available since 2005 because of concerns about protecting cultural sites and the environment.
Monument Manager Ray O’Neal gave an update on the two grazing permits to the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday.
“I’ve spoken with both sides of the issue, and understand grazing on public lands is an important part of the history, heritage and economy of the area,” he said.
In 2015, the Bureau of Land Management proposed to reissue the grazing permits based on a land evaluation, but because of pushback from environmental groups, the monument and the Tres Rios Field Office were asked by the state BLM office to further analyze the proposal.
The issue is being closely watched by the ranching community, affiliated Native American tribes and environmental groups, O’Neal said.
The stalemate has dragged on for years, so a new process was developed that more efficiently models grazing feasibility within the specific allotments.
A programmatic agreement is being negotiated with monument stakeholders in collaboration with the Colorado Historical Society and Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
“Over the last year, we have met to develop a programmatic agreement that would allow the BLM to reissue the grazing permits while also protecting cultural resources,” O’Neal said.
The baseline agreement is a precursor to a pending BLM environmental assessment that will analyze grazing impacts to cultural sites.
“Our concern of potential damage centers on three types of sensitive cultural sites: standing architecture, rock art and rock shelters,” O’Neal said.
The potential impacts on rubble piles, which make up the majority of cultural sites on the monument, are less of a concern.
About 30% of the allotments have been surveyed for cultural sites. But a 100% survey would be cost-prohibitive.
Modeling that compares known sites with variables such as soils, geology, vegetation and aspect, has been able to identify where unsurveyed sensitive sites are likely to occur, moderately likely to occur, or highly likely to occur.
By melding the archaeology mapping model with range maps, officials can identify where livestock could graze that are away from sensitive sites and have access to water.
“Initial indications are that our process would reduce need for additional surveys by 90%,” O’Neal said.
Mitigation to protect cultural sites will be done in cooperation with grazing permittees who know the landscape well, he said.
Stakeholders will provide input on the programmatic agreement in the next two months, and a spring field trip is in the plans.
“The process is not fast, but we are trying to figure out a way to protect monument resources and allow grazing,” O’Neal said.
A pending monument land acquisition would be added to the Yellow Jacket grazing allotment, said BLM Tres Rios Field Manager Connie Clementson.
Commissioners were critical of the time it has taken to reissue the permits.
“It is frustrating, because in the original proclamation, grazing was protected,” said Commissioner Kent Lindsay.
“I question the time frame, a year or two years or 10 years, that is not efficient and effective. I think we should be better than that,” added Commissioner Jim Candelaria.
Interest in the impacts of grazing on cultural resources has increased, BLM officials said.
The Tres Rios office was ready five years ago to reissue the permits but faced disagreement and threats of legal challenges from opponents. The office was then instructed to update the analysis.
“We’re trying to navigate a new process, incorporate both what we know on the ground with modeling to get a good path forward,” Clementson said. “Government decision making is a public process and can make it time-consuming. We will continue our commitment to protect resources while recognizing grazing is an appropriate use on the monument.”