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Grazing on monument divides ranchers, environmentalists

Cattle grazing tour highlights chasm between ranchers, environmentalists at Canyons of the Ancients

Despite less than perfect rangeland conditions on Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, grazing is still a legitimate use if managed carefully, monument officials say.

The hardscrabble monument in southwest Colorado is more known for having the most dense concentration of Native American cultural sites in the U.S. than for cattle grazing.

But during a recent public tour of the monument’s controversial Flodine allotment, the pros and cons of cattle grazing were debated between environmentalists who argue it is inappropriate in a fragile desert with ruins, and local ranchers who depend on it for their livelihood.

An overarching legal document for the monument is its Proclamation, which allows for grazing, said monument manager Marietta Eaton.

“As long as it does not compromise the other values such as cultural resources, it states clearly that grazing can continue,” she said. “We’re here to listen to all concerns, and work toward a balanced solution with a new analysis.”

Flodine and Yellow Jacket

These two allotments have become ground zero for the debate about how much grazing should occur on the monument. They have not been grazed since 2005, but because of pressure from Montezuma County and local ranchers, they were poised to be re-issued last month by the BLM at reduced stocking levels.

However, citing pressure from environmental groups and the need for an updated rangeland study, monument officials in October held off on issuing the permits until a new environmental assessment is done, expected to take a year.

Rangeland assessments will be conducted in May to determine vegetation and soil health, location of sensitive cultural sites and potential stocking capacity, said Mike Jensen, a BLM range specialist.

“We’re starting over with a clean slate, and will do a full evaluation, then come out with a range of alternatives, including a no grazing alternative,” he said. “The last range assessment was in 2001.”

Jensen defended the decision to re-issue the permits, noting that stocking levels for the allotments were reduced by 60 percent or more from 2005. Flodine dropped from 143 head of cattle to 57, and Yellow Jacket was reduced from 250 to 86 head. Also, one in every three years, the allotment was not to be grazed in spring.

Poor rangeland health

But despite the cutbacks, a coalition of local and national environmental groups protested re-issuing the permits citing, outdated range studies and poor rangeland health.

BLM officials admitted that most of the 23 grazing allotments on the monument do not meet the rangeland health standards set by the National Land Conservation Service. One cause was overgrazing, which led to the significant reductions in stocking. Trespass cattle and horses are also a problem.

Representatives of the Grand Canyon Trust and Durango-based Great Old Broads for Wilderness are pushing for a no-grazing alternative on Flodine and Yellow Jacket that includes active range restoration.

“Even after 10 years of rest, the range condition still appears poor to me,” said Rose Chilcoat, of Great Old Broads. “Because it’s a monument, is grazing looked at differently to protect the cultural and other natural values that are supposed to be protected?”

BLM range specialist Garth Nelson said grazing permits fall under a tougher standard in the monument, but are still a legitimate use.

“We are treating it as a little more special than other BLM lands, with more public input such as this tour,” he said. “The cultural clearances will be much more robust.”

Eaton added that standing walls and rock-art sites are protected from cattle and will be fenced off where possible. Corrals, fences and watering holes where cattle congregate are placed to avoid damaging ruins.

“I can tell you that some pastures will be closed to protect cultural sites,” Eaton said.

More exclosures?

Exclosures are acre sections of pasture that are fenced off from cattle to study plant diversity and range health. But not every allotment has one, which conservationists want to change.

“We need more exclosures so there is a baseline data of what a natural pasture should look like,” said Mary O’Brien, a botanist with Grand Canyon Trust. “Outside the exclosure should be at least 80 percent of the plant diversity inside the exclosure.”

During a tour of the Garden exclosure, established in 1963, O’Brien noted improved plant diversity and bio-crust, essential for holding down topsoil.

Officials said additional exclosures will be considered in the environmental assessment, but lack of funding and staff are limiting factors.

“We have 143 allotments on the BLM Tres Rios District to manage as well,” Nelson said.

Allotment is ‘critical’

Ranchers depend on affordable grazing in the BLM monument, which costs $2.35 per cattle-calf pair per month. The grazing season is typically four to five months.

Casey Veach was initially offered a permit, only to find out the decision to issue them had been delayed another year.

The permit “is critical for my operation,” he said during the tour. “It’s getting tougher to get these allotments.”

He said grazing is not what it used to be. Now ranchers staff their own range specialists, and herds are much smaller.

“We do our own monitoring, control weeds, do erosion control, and have scientists analyze forage condition,” Veach said. “We don’t run as many cows because we know the range can’t support it. We’re basically in the business of raising native grass, because you can always buy more cows, but you can’t replace native grasses.”

Cattle waste also helps fertilize soils, he said, which promotes forage growth.

Lively debate

Local rancher Gayle Alexander expressed frustration at the anti-grazing sentiment by some on the tour.

“The grass is never going to be 2 feet high in Southwest Colorado. I see a lot here my cattle would eat. I personally fence off areas with ruins, we work closely with the BLM on proper management,” she said. “What are your issues with grazing?”

Loss of plant biodiversity, increased invasive species, loss of range for wildlife and loss of biological soil crusts, the environmentalists responded.

“I’d love to experience walking across a landscape on my public lands that is not grazed by domestic livestock so I can see what true biodiversity could be, to experience a riparian area that has not grazed,” Chilcoat said.

“So your need is more important than my need to make a living?” asked Alexander. “There needs to be a balance.”

How about 50 percent of public lands closed to grazing instead of 5 percent? O’Brien asked.

“You don’t understand public-land grazing permit. Cows do not graze 100 percent of the permit,” Alexander said, then invited the detractors on a cattle drive.

Additional grazing tours on the monument will be made available next year, and there will be more opportunities to comment on the issue and propose alternatives, officials said.