SPEARFISH — While the showdown between the federal government and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy receeds back out of the spotlight, potentially for another 20-years, local ranchers are preparing to move their livestock onto federal lands for the same purposes as the Nevada man — to feed their livestock.
There are four federal land management groups that allow grazing: the National Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the National Park Service.
Tom Smith, range staff officer for the Northern Hills Ranger District of the Black Hills National Forest said there are 36 allotments in his district, eight of which are vacant. The allotments add up to 304,387 total acres and each allotment ranges from 1,223-20,479 acres in size. The number of animals allowed to graze on each allotment range from eight to 350 cow and calf pairs.
The eight vacant lots are vacant because they’re no longer suitable for grazing, Smith said, mainly due to all of the private inholdings in the allotment, while some simply did not have good primary forage.
Smith said in the unlikely event that the Forest Service decided to open one of the closed allotments there would be a public grant process and the allotment would then go to the rancher that previously grazed cattle there or a rancher adjacent to the allotment.
“The only real way (to obtain a grazing permit) now is for someone to buy the livestock from a current permittee, or buy the base property. It would be associated with the ranch,” Smith said. “That would make the (new owner) eligible for the permit.”
Forest Service records on grazing allotments date back to the turn of the 20th century, though their boundaries and the names of the ranchers holding them have changed. In the past cattle, sheep, and horses grazed on public land in the Black Hills in the thousands, but today only cattle are allowed to graze in local districts.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has 504 grazing allotments in Western South Dakota said Carmen Drieling, the group’s rangeland management specialist.
Those allotments add up to 207,093 total acres, each individually ranging in size from 40 acres to the thousands, she said. Ranchers primarily graze cattle on BLM land, followed closely by sheep and a few horses and buffalo.
Drieling said there are some unallocated parcels on BLM land that are landlocked or do not have suitable feed for grazing.
The number of livestock allowed on each allotment is based on carrying capacity.
“Some allotments are better than others,” Smith said. “An allotment that has a lot of meadows and bottomland, they will be capable to carry more livestock than one with primarily pine overstory because the grass won’t be as good.”
Ranchers pay the government to graze their livestock on federal land.
“It’s a rate based on a formula that we have nothing to do with,” Smith said. “Congress set up the formula during the Regan administration and has done nothing to change it.”
Currently that rate is $1.35 per grazing pair, per month.
Smith said the rate is based on feed prices, livestock selling prices and the price of meat.
“It’s ridiculously cheap,” he said. “If you were to lease private land to do the same thing, you’re looking at $30. $20 would be cheap.”
Cattle are usually let onto Forest Service land in early June, but that depends on forage and weather.
“Sometimes its too wet , sometimes it’s been such a cold spring that the grass isn’t where we would like it,” said Smith.
Occasionally at the end of the summer a drought, or the cattle themselves eating more than the 50 percent of the grass allowable for grazing use, force herds off their summer pastures.
“The weather has been totally bizarre,” Smith said. “In 2012 we dried up so fast we couldn’t get the cows off fast enough. There were people getting sent home six to eight weeks early. In 2013 there was so much grass out there it was unbelievable. I’ve never seen so much production before. Maybe this will be a normal year.”
Smith was happy to reflect on the Bundy situation in Nevada.
“That was a situation that got totally out of hand. I think it was poorly handled,” he said. “Bottom line is you have to pay your car payments. You have to pay your utilities. If you don’t pay your power bill your electricity gets shut off. Well, if you don’t pay your grazing fees, you don’t have the privilege of putting your cows on public land. He doesn’t seem to get that. I can’t believe they didn’t nip it in the bud a long time ago.”
Smith said while he was working in Northern California there was a rancher who refused to pay his grazing fees.
“Their permit got canceled and we confiscated their livestock,” he said.
Locally there have been some conflicts with ranchers, but never to that extent, and the issue always was resolved. Perhaps the worst was about a decade ago.
“In 2003-2005 we were in a pretty good drought. There were ranchers whose time on public land got cut in half,” Smith said. “We ran out of grass on Forest Service land. The problem was, they didn’t have any grass on their land. The only thing they could do is sell their stock. It was a real unfortunate situation, but there was nothing we could do about it.
“We don’t have any Bundy’s here. They are a lot smarter than that,” he added. “Bottom line is, it is Forest Service land and it needs to be managed in a certain manner, whether you want to tear around on your (dirt bike), you’re someone who wants to search for gold in the streams, or someone wanting to graze livestock.”
Smith said the biggest conflict he sees comes not from ranchers, but from people who build their homes in the woods.
“We have a lot of conflict with people who move into the Black Hills and they purchase their five acres of a little piece of heaven. And they don’t realize it is right in the middle of the forest, and they have cows that show up in their back yard, or a timber sale going on in their backyard,” he said.
Eric Jennings, who ranches northwest of Spearfish, depends on his summer allotment.
“It’s where all of our summer pasture is. It’s vital in that regards,” Jennings said. “We live down along Spearfish Creek and most of it is farm ground. We don’t have a lot of pasture. So we depend on the public ground for summer pasture.”
It is also a source he can count on year after year.
“We don’t have to worry about someone coming in and outbidding us or taking it away from us,” he said. “It’s on a 10-year renewable unless we do something to abuse the land or not follow the rules we are going to have it for those 10 years. With a private land lease things aren’t as stable, someone could come in and take it away from you.”
Although the cost to graze on public land is cheaper than private pasture, permittees on federal land are responsible for improvements such as fencing or water production.
“Up in the forest it’s pretty rugged and harder to access. With fencing you have to walk along it. You can’t just drive along it,” he said.
Jennings said he, along with other ranchers who use the summer grazing allotments, support the multiple uses of the Black Hills.
“We recognize there are a lot of different disciplines that want to use the Forest Service for recreation and other uses. But with use comes the possibility of abuse or overuse,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to regulate it. The Forest Service does a very good job of regulating it. All of the uses need to follow the forest plan and we can all live together.”
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