- Investigates the causes of economic imbalances.
- Investigates causes tending to destroy or impair the free-market system.
- Explores and develops market-based solutions.
The National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Wildlife Conflict Resolution program (WCR) resolves conflicts between wildlife and livestock through the market-based approach of compensating ranchers for retiring high conflict grazing leases on federal land. In addition to helping restore populations of threatened wildlife, removing grazing from large acreages is a key strategy to restoring healthy, ecological functional landscapes. Thanks to over a decade of funding from the Walker Foundation, the WCR team has retired over 75 grazing allotments totaling over 1.5 million acres, 85% of which are in the Northern Rockies. In an effort to export this success to other large landscapes, in 2017 NWF launched the WCR Southern Rockies, Colorado Plateau and Great Basin state of Colorado program. Since that time, we have retired over 150,000 acres of grazing allotments in this new geography. Last year, a generous grant from the Walker Foundation provided essential staff support for this work.
Green areas are completed NWF grazing lease agreements. Purple marks high-conflict grazing allotment prospects.
The Alex C. Walker Foundation has continued to support the work of the Wildlife Conflict Resolution Program (WCR) program’s expanded geographic area. Following the grant award in July of 2020, we have been focused on developing new allotment retirement leads and negotiating three allotment opportunities, one in Colorado and two in Nevada, which are described below. Just prior to the 2020-2021 grant, we finalized the closure of two grazing allotments – the Santos allotment in Northern New Mexico and the Endlich Mesa allotment in Southwest Colorado. We also continue to work on the retirement of the last cattle allotment in Capitol Reef National Park. The situation remains the same; the rancher is willing to move, however, finding other suitable grazing areas has continued to be challenging to identify.
Although less of a focus for this grant, we continue to make progress in our Northern Rockies work including ongoing negotiations with a permittee of two high priority domestic sheep allotments in the Centennial Mountains of Southwest Montana, west of Yellowstone National Park and an area critical for grizzly bears and wolves. In addition, we continue to negotiate the retirement of several allotments also in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. These include an allotment up the West Fork of the Madison River, just west of Yellowstone which has had a very high number of grizzly-livestock conflicts over the last several years; a cattle allotment south of Big Timber, MT and North of the Park that has had years of grizzly-livestock conflicts; two domestic sheep allotments in the Wyoming Range south of Jackson; and several cattle allotments west of Cody, WY and just east of the Park.
Another exciting development is our launch of an effort to retire cattle grazing allotments on tribal lands that would allow for the reintroduction of wild bison. Our first focus is the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming where we the goal is to free up over 60,000 acres of habitat that will allow the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe tribes greatly expand their bison herd.
Colorado: Dominguez Escalante National Conservation Area, Hotchkiss Ranches
After two years of discussion with Bureau of Land Management (BLM) staff, we have recently reached an agreement in principle with a rancher that holds the permits for two domestic sheep allotments that directly overlap with one of only two Colorado desert bighorn sheep herds. This will be a complicated deal that will permanently retire 300 domestic sheep AUMs (Animal Unit Months) and convert another 1000 domestic sheep AUMs to cattle AUMs. Closing the second allotment’s grazing is not an option which is why we agreed to the conversion of livestock class. The good news is that Colorado Parks and Wildlife is fully supportive of the conversion to cattle given that 140 years of sheep grazing has severely degraded the shrub component of the habitat leading to a severe decline in the mule deer population as well as impacts on a number of avian species. Permanently removing domestic sheep will dramatically reduce the potential for disease transmission to the bighorn sheep which has been designated as a Tier 1 herd, one of only five in the state. The timeline for the project is somewhat long due the need for BLM to develop an Environmental Assessment meaning that the nearly 10,000 acre deal will not likely be complete until early 2022.
Nevada: Eureka Ranches and Ellison Ranching
Due to a number of factors, a majority of the opportunities we are exploring in Nevada regarding public land grazing involve the conversion of domestic sheep allotments into cattle allotments. The wildlife benefit is that we would remove the threat of disease transmission between domestic and bighorn sheep. When either the BLM or USFS converts an allotment from sheep to cattle, they almost always significantly reduce the number of AUMs by a factor of three or even five. The additional benefit then is a significant reduction in the grazing pressure which can benefit many species including mule deer, elk, pronghorn, sage grouse, etc.
Over much of 2020, we were in oftentimes intense negotiations with Eureka Ranches to convert just over 250,000 acres of domestic sheep grazing allotments to cattle in northeastern Nevada. This included allotments administered both by the USFS and BLM and would have removed domestic sheep from a very large landscape and opened up three different mountain ranges for transplanting new herds of bighorn sheep. Despite having extended a generous financial offer to the ranch owner, we were ultimately outcompeted by another sheep rancher in Nevada. We are including this update in our report to demonstrate that we occasionally are unable to close on one of our opportunities. This is part of our process and fortunately, this is very much the exception rather than the rule.
A good counterpoint that followed a similar time-line are our negotiations with Ellison Ranching over the last four years that in September, resulted in an agreement in principle to convert over 2.2 million acres of domestic sheep allotments to cattle. The benefit to existing bighorn sheep herds as well as opening up new areas for transplants cannot be understated. In addition however, we are likely to see an eighty percent reduction in livestock use across an absolutely enormous area. It will take a minimum of three years to complete this transaction, but given the geographic scale, we believe the benefit will far outweigh the cost.
Acute conflicts between livestock and wildlife on public lands have existed for decades. In the most common approach to resolve these conflicts, conservation NGOs have litigated with the goal of forcing the federal agencies to cancel high conflict grazing allotments. As an alternative, NWF developed a market-based approach that recognizes the economic value of grazing allotment permits and offers compensation to ranchers for waiving those permits. Conservation NGOs are not allowed to acquire grazing permits for the sole use of conservation or other words, if an NGOs acquires a permit, it is required to stock it with livestock. Instead of acquiring grazing permits, NWF recognizes the value of a grazing permit and offers market-rate based compensation for that permit to the rancher in exchange for waiving the permit. We then receive assurances from the land management agency (usually the US Forest Service of the Bureau of Land Management) that the allotment will not be restocked.
The WCR program has operated for nearly 20 years in the the Northern Rockies, but in 2017 expanded the program to the Southern Rockies, the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin. In the southern extension of the program where we lack grizzly Bears and wolves, we focus primarily on addressing the conflict between pathogen carrying domestic sheep and bighorn sheep. We also will employ our strategy to mitigate impacts on rare and endangered species, such as the three plants that were protected as a result of the retirement of the Hartnet Allotment in Capitol Reef National Park. It should be noted that in the summer of 2019 in NW Colorado, a wolf pack appears to have become established for the first time in over 70 years. As a result, a new benefit of our our success in Colorado retiring domestic sheep allotments to benefit bighorn sheep, is "opening up" space for wolves as they expand across the state which we expect them to do over the next decade.