Montana and national livestock groups denounce “cash-for-grass” pitch by wildlife groups

Today the Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA), Montana Public Lands Council (MPLC), Montana Association of Grazing Districts (MASGD) and the national Public Lands Council (PLC) denounced an effort by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and National Wildlife Federation (NWF) to buy out ranchers’ grazing leases on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR) in south Phillips County, Mont., to reduce supposed conflicts between livestock grazing and conservation of sage grouse and elk on the refuge.

“As many of our members in south Phillips County have shown on their own ranches, as well as on their leases; livestock grazing and conservation of native grassland species work best hand-in-hand.” said Errol Rice, executive vice president of MSGA.

Earlier this week, MSGA and many of its members received a letter from the WWF and the NWF declaring their intentions to offer ranchers cash payments for voluntarily relinquishing their entitled grazing permits on the CMR. The letter stated that the payment system would present permit holders an opportunity to “pasture their livestock in places that have greater long-term grazing stability.” The letter also states that this so-called solution will “facilitate alternative grazing that can result in less conflict.” Both of these statements imply that the permit holders will face losing their permits one way or another in the future. This letter was sent despite efforts by livestock groups to foster collaborative incentive based partnerships between north central Montana ranchers and conservationists.

“The approach proposed by WWF and NWF is neither constructive nor mutually beneficial, as they have purported,” Rice said. “It is an intrusive approach that is really a giant step backwards in finding ways for agriculture and wildlife groups to work together.”

WWF and NWF claim that this approach has worked before for wildlife and livestock conflicts in the area surrounding Yellowstone National Parks, but those conflicts were with predators such as grizzly bears and wolves. The wildlife they are concerned about on the CMR, specifically sage grouse and elk, can live in harmony with cattle grazing.

WWF has highlighted the CMR and surrounding area as one of the last intact grasslands in the Northern Great Plains, with unique opportunities for conservation.

“These grasslands are intact and in good condition because ranchers have been working so hard to take care of the land here for multiple generations,” said former MSGA board member, Lesley Robinson, a south Phillips County rancher whose family holds a CMR permit. “This approach is nothing less than a slap in the face for the ranchers here who have continually demonstrated that they value native wildlife and are willing to go above and beyond the call of duty to protect the important grassland species.”

Many of the ranchers in south Phillips County are involved in programs that emphasize conservation efforts. Seventeen ranchers in the area are certified by Undaunted Stewardship®, a cooperative program between MSGA, Montana State University and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that works to improve and certify the quality of stewardship practices on rangeland in Montana. Today, over one million deeded, private lease, BLM, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Forest Service and state-owned acres are managed to meet standards set by the Undaunted Stewardship® program. Three ranchers in the area have been awarded MSGA’s Montana Environmental Stewardship Award; with two winning regional honors in the National Environmental Stewardship Award. Many ranchers are involved with Ranchers Stewardship Alliance whose mission is to “promote the ecological, social and economic conditions that will sustain the biodiversity and integrity of America’s northern mixed-grass prairie for present and future generations.” Others are involved with the Matador Grassbank, a program that allows ranchers to graze on the Nature Conservancy’s Matador Ranch in exchange for conservation practices on their home ranches.

“A truly constructive solution in the CMR would seek balance,” Rice said. “Removing livestock from public lands is not a ‘good faith approach’ in this case. To meet conservation objectives while also meeting producer concerns, WWF and NWF should work to build a dialogue with ranchers to find mutually beneficial solutions.”

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