Milton Moffett drove through blowing snow, south to Casper from his Barnum ranch, to find out exactly what the Bureau of Land Management was up to.
The answer: Nothing specific. Yet.
Change, however, is coming. In January, the BLM kicked off a process to update its grazing regulations, action necessary after a 2014 congressional update to the Federal Land Management and Policy Act exempted some permits from environmental review and a 2016 Government Accountability Office report directed the agency to amend rules related to unauthorized grazing.
The Casper meeting last week was the fourth and final nationwide meeting held as part of a scoping process intended to solicit comments and identify issues before formal revisions begin. Public comment remains open through March 6.
The update will directly impact roughly 150 grazing permittees in Johnson County. At last count, half of the cattle operations in the state used a federal lease in their grazing rotation.
The BLM Buffalo Field Office currently manages grazing on 477 allotments scattered throughout Johnson, Sheridan and Campbell counties. Nationwide, the BLM oversees grazing on about two-thirds of the public acres it manages, an area roughly the size of Wyoming and Montana combined.
“These are regulations that affect permittees on a very basic and very foundational level,” said Kaitlynn Glover, executive director of the Public Lands Council. “This is truly the first time in 20 years, and maybe a once-in-a-generation opportunity, to have this level of engagement on this issue with the BLM.”
With the update, the agency says it aims to modernize regulations, improve permitting efficiency and promote land health. It will also analyze grazing as a fire-mitigation tool and the possible expansion of outcome-based grazing projects intended to promote weed control or improved habitat while eschewing traditional schedules or metrics.
Moffat said a set of proposed regulatory changes, never put in place, under the Obama administration scared him enough that he wanted to be sure he was on the front line of the new decision-making process – whatever might happen.
“They’re having this meeting at the worst time of year,” said John Hanson of Kaycee. “Calving season. We had a water-line break this morning.”
Still, said Hanson, who attended the meeting with his brother, Brock, it was important to show up.
“You never know what they’re going to do from administration to administration,” he said.
“Johnson County was not only well represented, but the people that were there were asking questions and engaging with the BLM leads,” said BLM Buffalo Field Office Field Manager Todd Yeager.
Local attendees were most interested in what the next steps would be and wanted assurance that there would be more opportunities for involvement, Yeager said.
“It has been my experience that public comment and involvement in a project of this nature results in a more informed decision,” he said.
BLM officials estimated that 180 attended the Casper meeting, while earlier meetings in Elko, Nevada; Miles City, Montana; and Las Cruces, New Mexico, drew between 200 and 300 participants.
“(Attendance) has really blown our expectations out of the water,” said the BLM’s project manager for the update, Seth Flanigan. “We were expecting around 100.”
Flanigan estimated that a draft environmental impact statement will be available for comment by late July or early August and a final version as soon as January 2021.
“I really didn’t understand what they were doing,” said Ken Graves, part of the fourth generation to operate Red Fork Ranch west of Kaycee. He planned to take the thick BLM-provided packet home and take his time digging through it before commenting.
Attendees sought assurances that they would be able to continue current practices, and said that, if anything, they would prefer less regulation.
“We are a manager; that’s our job,” John Ruhs, BLM Idaho’s state director, told Graves in response to concerns about excessive oversight. “We manage the resources, you manage your livestock. The headaches that you’ve encountered, that’s what you need to identify.
“We have to have you as part of the process,” Ruhs added. “It’s your business. It’s your operation.”