LETTER: Montana BHA Comments on Spotted Dog WMA Grazing

Randy Arnold, Regional Supervisor
Spurgin Road
Missoula, MT 59804

Dear Randy:

Re: SDWMA Grazing 

The Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers welcomes the opportunity to comment on the Draft EA regarding the proposal to graze parts of the Spotted Dog WMA. Our organization has grown to nearly 3,000 Montana hunters and anglers who value Montana’s wildlife and public lands. Many members value, enjoy and use the Spotted Dog landscape and its multitude of wildlife species. We seek optimization of all native wildlife and fish species on the WMA. We consider the outcome of this proposal as an extremely pivotal decision FWP will make regarding the future of Spotted Dog WMA.

Public Participation: Despite many communications with FWP re SDWMA and specifically grazing, MT BHA is disappointed to have had no advance notice and opportunity for the public to examine the proposed pastures on the ground before being covered with snow and practically impossible to visit in March. The schedule of the grazing to commence in July 2019 leaves no opportunity for the public to visit the proposed sites in time to suggest changes from the Draft to a Final EA. Several sportsmen organizations and individuals, including MT BHA, had previously submitted concerns about future livestock grazing in their comments to the Draft Plan for the SPWMA. Public concern regarding potential grazing was well established, and perhaps the most dominant issue concerning sportsmen in development of the Management Plan. In contrast to this tight schedule, we note that several adjacent ranchers were contacted in 2017-2018 (page 8) about grazing before this proposal was developed. Unfortunately, without on the ground knowledge we must rely only on the Hansen report’s Ecological Inventory and Health Assessment of Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area (EIHA). We request that any decision to graze be postponed until interested sportsmen groups can visit the proposed pastures during the summer growing season. After a summer field visit, we request that these sportsmen groups and individuals have an opportunity to provide additional comments into the decision process prior to any decision. 

Range of Alternatives: The range of alternatives, as either the Proposal or No Action, is minimal. There were no alternative grazing schedules, no alternative pasture systems, no alternatives to allowing livestock open water sources and no alternative to protect seeps and springs and riparian areas. There is no WMA need or obligation to graze SPWMA with livestock. To our knowledge, there is no recent authorized grazing by this rancher on what is now the SDWMA. This land was purchased with public monies solely for wildlife and public use.

The dismissal of the No Action Alternative (p 14) is worded negatively and is wholly inadequate, and seeks to dispel the value of No Action. The “analysis” fails to acknowledge that without livestock grazing riparian areas would improve more rapidly, that risk of invasive weed spread would be considerably less, and there would be no cost of implementation nor administration. The “analysis” fails to acknowledge that vegetative diversity is already abundant in the SDWMA, as measured by diversity of vegetative plant communities, elevations and aspects. The “analysis” falsely portrays that, because there is potentially attractive regrowth on a few hundred acres, elk will use the SDWMA more, rather than just be redistributed to a small part of the SDWMA. The “analysis” also fails to acknowledge that elk populations that are at 2x “objective” are doing well biologically and would be expected to do well with the current situation in the foreseeable future. The No Action Alternative “analysis” fails to acknowledge all wildlife obligate to riparian areas, wet seeps and springs would fare better with No Action than the proposed action.

Proposed Action Design

The design of the proposed action has several elements that contribute to a high risk of failure. The proposed pastures will require 2-3 miles of temporary perimeter electric fence that will not have constant monitoring, and are subject to probable multiple failures initiated by both livestock and crossing wildlife. The landscapes within pastures are not uniform (EIHA photo page 24) but vary by upland vegetative types, terrain and water, all of which will contribute to differential grazing rates. As a result some sites will likely be overgrazed. The EA does not display any calculations of forage capacity or utilization by pasture or vegetative type. The area to be grazed already contains several invasive species, which will likely spread by favorable spread conditions caused by grazing. Predictable livestock concentrations near salt and water, as well as at bedding areas will result in bare soil fostering more weed spread. Apparently there will be ATV use permitted by the permittee, which by repeated route travel will create new motorized trail routes and contribute to spread of invasive species. The proposed minimal monitoring without a baseline nor control area comparisons will not to be able to detect trends in plant communities attributable to livestock grazing. The remoteness of the pastures and lack of trained on-the-ground personnel will be unable to detect needed changes. The lack of definitive enforceable stipulations or requirements for the permittee will not enable FWP to assure desirable outcomes.

Given this proposal is not driven by a compelling SDWMA resource conflict or need, we have speculated that politics rather than resource needs are a primary driver in this proposal. We note that grazing the SDWMA was pushed by a member of the Land Board when the failed land exchange of State lands within the SDWMA was proposed a couple of years ago. Also, the local atmosphere in the development of the SDWMA plan was tilted by many ranchers toward grazing the SDWMA. 

Riparian: Riparian areas represent only 2% of the WMA on an otherwise relatively dry landscape, but are used disproportionately by the majority of wildlife species. Some species are obligate to riparian and wet areas. Big game, grouse and furbearers use them disproportionately as well. Through a century of grazing, Hansen documented riparian vegetative health is much reduced. Our personal observations have confirmed Hansen’s (EIHA photos pages 26,28,168, 186,221, 236, 237) that shrub components of riparian areas within proposed pastures has been greatly reduced by past livestock grazing. In many cases willows are either no longer present or reduced to old ice-cream-shaped individuals. The five years of partial rest (except trespass livestock) may have contributed to beginning recovery, but this is a slow process especially given the well-known, persistent livestock trespass. Although the proposed pastures avoid major drainage streams, there are small streams, wet riparian areas and wet seeps and springs remaining that are proposed to be grazed and would remain unprotected. However, EA page 6 states livestock watering will be limited to “water gaps”, which are normally defined as narrow fenced access points to a very small reach of stream, but none are identified in any of the pastures nor are protective interior fences proposed. Grazing a seep or spring is not considered a “water gap”. Grazing a stream reach is not considered a “water gap”. Livestock in summer disproportionately graze wet areas. Since the proposal relies on naturally occurring surface water for livestock, this proposal will inappropriately threaten these riparian areas, which apparently are considered overgrazed, “sacrifice areas”. With additional fencing and water delivered to each pasture with solar powered pumps, these most valuable areas could be protected before commencing grazing. 

All or nearly all the proposed private land pastures also have some riparian area, including that of Fred Burr Creek. How will confining livestock on these riparian areas in the hottest, driest summer months affect the riparian health on private lands? Hansen noted “Both polygons (note: both were in WMA) in Fred Burr Creek were barely above Unhealthy rating” due to invasive species, plant species that increase with heavy grazing and woody shrub browse levels. It does not seem prudent to implement perhaps an even more intensive grazing pattern where these problems may already exist.

Contract: There is no draft binding or obligatory document (e.g. Contract) provided to assure the public land stakeholders that grazing operations will satisfy measures to minimize risk and minimize potential adverse effects. From what we can gather from a Department slide presentation and subsequent questions, there are no upland vegetation utilization standards, no riparian vegetation grazing standards, no specific requirements to move salt at specific times, and no quantitative triggers that would remove livestock. There are no constraints on the ranchers use of ATVs on vegetation, riparian areas or wet soils. There is no specification on how cattle would be moved to WMA pastures from private ground. There are no preventative measures to assure that transported cattle from private lands would not introduce new invasive species onto the SDWMA. There are no requirements on how often the rancher needs to ride fences, repair fences nor remove escaping livestock. A guiding document titled “Pasture Grazing Leases: Put it in Writing” (Jeff Mosley, 
Extension Range Management Specialist, Montana State University) emphasizes, “A written lease agreement reminds all parties of the terms originally agreed upon and also provides a valuable guide for others if either the landowner or tenant dies or otherwise becomes incapacitated”. In this situation of a private party grazing public land, a signed, enforceable, detailed written agreement with quantitative stipulations is critical to avoid misunderstandings, and to communicate to the public exactly what is expected of the private party grazing their public lands. Without such a written agreement, the public inspecting these pastures has no way of knowing if the grazing and operators are within stipulations. Also without clear, specific stipulations, there is no ability for the public to hold either party responsible. We would expect such a contract to contain stipulations as to how perimeter fences are to be installed and how often inspected, when and how fences will be removed, when and how ATV use is authorized, time constraints to recover escaping livestock, how often salt is to be moved, how movement is to occur of livestock moved from private to public lands, how livestock predation by native predators are to be handled, and conditions which would require removal of livestock, and conditions which would terminate the contract.

Similarly on private lands, what stipulations will be in place for assuring grazing rest occurs as planned and there is a democratic hunting access process open equally to all qualified sportsmen? Why is enrollment in Block Management not required? A handshake or casual agreement between FWP and a private land owner is not a sufficient guarantee of protection of a public resource. 

Economics: We note that sportsmen will fund $10,000 to provide electric fencing. In addition, not acknowledged in the Draft EA, is the cost of preparing the EA, the cost of supervision and installing the fences, and cost of administering the agreement and monitoring and evaluation. There may be legal costs as well. As a minimum, we would expect these hidden costs to be several thousands of dollars per year. We note that the State Lands current grazing rate is approximately $15/AUM . With a verbally expressed (fwp employee slide presentation) expected use of 300-400 AUMs annually, a reasonable lease return should be in the area of $4000-6000 annually. Yet the proposal is to not require any payment for this grazing. Given the marginal benefits and significant costs of this proposal, we question the prudence of such expenditure of public monies. 

Invasive Species: Hansen summarized Upland sites as only 35% Healthy and 65% remaining were either with problems or non-functional. In addition, Hansen documented 22 noxious weed species on the WMA. Invasive species are found on 43% of the WMA, according to Hansen’s study, with an average of 2.7 invasive species per sample plot. Multiple invasive species are found on the proposed pastures, and all of Hansen’s plots in the proposed pastures have invasive species. The EA fails to acknowledge the risk of irreversible spread of invasive species enhanced by introduction of livestock grazing. Reduction of ground litter (EIHA photos page 23, 224, 225), damage to the protective biological soil crusts, exposure of bare soil, trampling of seed, and reduced competition and vigor from desirable plants are all well-known factors favoring invasive species spread and dominance. Each of these contributing negative factors will occur if grazing occurs as proposed. According to Columbia University (2004) Introduced Species Summary Project-Cheatgrass “Grasslands…..are characterized by a delicate layer of cryptogams covering the soil between shrubs which are susceptible to damage from cattle” and further “cheatgrass has a competitive edge when grazing and frequent fires are introduced into native ecosystems.”
The Hansen plots within the proposed pastures document the presence of several species of invasive species, including cheatgrass (EIHA photos p 31, 50, 139, 242), spotted knapweed (EIHA p 148), houndstongue and thistle (EIHA p 51, 131). Grazing June 1 thru July 31 is perfect timing to encourage livestock hooves grinding seedripe cheatgrass seed (and other invasive seeds) into the soil ( p 15 1b).   All the four Hansen plots within pastures were scored as “Healthy with Problems”  How will grazing correct the problems that were identified by Hansen? 

Hansen (p 154) summarized the SDWMA invasive species risk “ Although present in small amounts, several invasive species represent very serious threats of rapid increase and disruption of ecologic function.” The SDWMA Habitat Plan emphasizes the threat of cheatgrass as “ Watch cheatgrass distribution and avoid creating niches for cheatgrass expansion”(Exec summary). This proposal is in direct contradiction to that direction by creating a niche for cheatgrass expansion with livestock grazing. Hansen (p 162) summarizes upland grasslands “Many of the native plant species found on Spotted Dog WMA can compete with introduced species, and given time and rest from livestock grazing (emphasis added) some of the introduced species may decrease.” Simply, with 22 invasive species already on SDWMA, the potential spread of any of these is significantly enhanced with livestock grazing. 

Once in place, cheatgrass is practically impossible to eliminate and prone to increase towards dominance with grazing. Several photos in Hansen’s publication document significant or dominant cheatgrass on the SDWMA where past disturbance have occurred (EIHA photos page 31, 50, 139, 242). Most importantly, the effect of cheatgrass spread has an adverse effect on productivity and health of desirable plants. Forage values can be reduced by 80% with cheatgrass dominance. Spot spraying cheatgrass, as is proposed in the EA, is simply ineffective, and effective herbicides are non-selective and therefore would likely damage native vegetation. Once cheatgrass becomes a major vegetative component, it increases wildfire frequency exponentially due to flashy fuels and early season curing. Frequent rangeland fires foster the decline in desirable components of the vegetative community and favors invasive species and annuals. With more frequent fires and grazing, other invasive species also proliferate. According to a Forest Service literature review “Cheatgrass alters successional trajectories of postfire plant communities by interfering with native seedling establishment, by competing with established perennials for resources, and by shortening the interval between fires.”

Monitoring: The proposal for monitoring is minimal and would not meet professional monitoring design standards to adequately address issues related to vegetative changes and vigor, riparian health and vegetative condition, effects of grazing on non-game species, nor expansion of noxious weeds. There is no science-based monitoring design nor sampling rigor in the proposal to assure statistical reliability of results. Replicating three of Hansen’s plots after several years and a few photopoints (no scale indicated) would only document the most egregious adverse effects. Hansen’s plots are insufficient in number and not designed to be a baseline for monitoring. As a minimum, a year of baseline of replicable vegetative composition plots of all vegetation types subject to grazing is needed. Because grazing is proposed to commence in July 2019 this would almost certainly not occur.

Apparently proposed monitoring will be limited to some photopoints and an annual ride by an eastern Montana FWP range employee which, given the distance, would occur perhaps once per season. Instead, because of grazing’s public controversy and potential expansion of grazing to other areas within the WMA, a replicable monitoring design and commitment for implementation must be a major component of this proposal. Monitoring must incorporate measurable elements to determine if the vegetative community is responding favorably, particularly with noxious weeds. Given differential grazing rates and effects within a pasture, monitoring must incorporate replicable vegetative plots on all vegetative types in each pasture. To compare grazed and ungrazed lands, monitoring must incorporate similar vegetative plots on adjacent lands not within pastures. Monitoring plots and baseline conditions must be established before any grazing commences.

Similarly, both quantitative and qualitative monitoring is needed on private lands proposed for enhancement with this proposal. “General Impression” (p10) is not professional monitoring. Vegetative plots need to be established before grazing begins, and continued throughout the grazing cycles. This should include riparian monitoring in Fred Burr Creek riparian, springs and seeps and other stream courses in pastures, including those within the private pastures.

Elk and Elk Distribution: Draft EA Figure 2 diagram shows only winter elk distribution in a single heavy snow year in 2018 as the only example. However, FWP has documented, but failed to display, elk distribution in other years with far fewer elk on private lands. Certainly elk use private lands to some degree, but varies greatly year by year. However, it should be noted that winter elk grazing on private ground occurs on dormant plants capturing dry, cured forage that, aside from litter reduced contribution, has no significant effect on desirable plant vigor or health the following growing season. The rationale for the grazing proposal is described to rest private land, which gives a rancher a substantial benefit, but little or no benefit to public elk. From an elk standpoint, there is little or no benefit to this proposal. Elk in and adjacent to the WMA have ample opportunity to move to find forage conditions satisfactory to their winter survival, even at present 2x “objective” numbers. To our knowledge, Spotted Dog elk are not starving and reproduction is adequate. The proposal also seems to contradict FWP’s Elk Management Plan objectives, while on one hand arguing that elk numbers are twice the optimum number, and on the other arguing that grazing SDWMA and private land rest are needed to sustain present elk numbers. The plan would, in effect, negatively affect a multitude of other game and non-game species to sustain elk, which are theoretically overpopulated in the area. Identifying a couple of non-game bird species that would benefit from reduced grass cover is not compelling, and ignores the adverse effect of grazing on the bulk of game and non-game species.

The proposed WMA pastures are described in the EA as spring or fall (page 9) habitat, not winter range. However that would likely depend on the winter conditions. Regardless, while elk may be attracted to a grazed area’s regrowth, there is no shortage of transitory spring and fall range on the WMA. Given the SDWMA diversity of elevations, aspects and variety of vegetative types, there is be ample diversity and opportunity for grazing elk in spring and fall. In addition, touting benefits of transitory grazing to keeping elk off of summer range longer is of dubious benefit to elk, given the plentiful public land summer range habitats.

Conclusion: There are many aspects to this proposal that raise serious concerns about proceeding:

1) The public sportsmen groups that previously expressed WMA grazing concerns were not notified or invited to view the public land areas to be able to respond with on-the ground knowledge of lands and resources in the proposal.

2) There are the narrowest of alternatives proposed, and the proposal design has several factors contributing to likely failure. There are insufficient safeguard stipulations to hold parties accountable or to assure the best possible outcome of this proposal.

3) Moving ahead with domestic grazing on public lands where potentially explosive invasive species already have a toehold does not appear to be professionally prudent, and ignores the advice of Hansen (EIHA p154, 162) .

4) The real cost from sportsmen-funded programs for a high risk, low return proposal is simply not prudent.

5) Reintroducing domestic grazing to riparian areas beginning to recover from a century of grazing does not appear to value the limited quantity and exceptional value of riparian habitats to wildlife species occupying the WMA.

6) The proposed monitoring design is grossly insufficient to evaluate effects of this action and instill confidence by sportsmen that their WMA is being optimized.

7) This proposal gifts a substantial benefit to a private landowner without significant benefits to public elk or the public. And there is no obligation to provide private land owners opportunities to graze public lands.

8) There is no formal requirement that the landowner assure public hunting access is not just limited to relatives, friends or acquaintances, nor is there a net gain in public hunting access. 

We respectfully request this proposal be withdrawn. If you choose to move forward with this proposal, to be in compliance with MEPA (EA p25 13f), the concept of domestic livestock grazing on the SDWMA has indeed ”generated substantial public controversy ”and, as such, warrants preparation of Environmental Impact Statement. In addition, this proposal has foreseeable significant effects if invasive weed species expand as a result of domestic livestock grazing. The impracticality of reducing some persistent invasive species enhanced by livestock grazing and subsequent reduction in wildlife forage would be an irretrievable commitment of resources.



Greg Munther, Board Conservation Director
The Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers

About Greg Munther

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