Gianforte, ranchers call for regulatory reform to protect grazing allotments

Fear of litigation, not stewardship of the land, is driving the management of federal grazing allotments, a third-generation Ruby Valley sheep and wool producer told a U.S. House subcommittee on Tuesday.

John Helle, owner and partner of Helle Livestock, testified at the behest of Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte, who chairs the Interior, Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The Helle Ranch in Dillon provides wool for the trendy Duckworth clothing line. (Helle Ranch Facebook page)

“These management decisions must be made at the local level,” said Helle, who described the dramatic loss of sheep producers in southwestern Montana during his lifetime as families could no longer bear the regulatory burden imposed by the federal government or the litigation of environmental groups.

Gianforte said he called the hearing out of concern for that regulation and litigation and a belief that Congress can set a new course that provides more even-handed multiple use of federal public lands.

“One of the greatest challenges to grazing is special interest litigation and the abuse of environmental legislation,” the first-term congressman said. “These groups do not support the agencies’ multiple-use missions.”

“Some special interests fundamentally oppose grazing and routinely turn to litigation rather than cooperation,” Gianforte said. “This distracts the BLM and the Forest Service from their missions, and results in land management decisions driven by fear and apprehension of the next wave of lawsuits.”

The intent of Tuesday’s “conversation,” he said, was to “preserve the opportunity for grazing while ensuring” other uses of public land as well – including “hikers, hunters and fishermen.”

Without regulatory reform, Gianforte said, the litigation, uncertainty and delays “could force many ranchers to walk away from their business” – a “devastating consequence.”

In fiscal 2017, livestock producers held almost 18,000 grazing permits on BLM and nearly 6,000 operating permits on Forest Service lands, producing food, wool and clothing.

Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe in central Idaho, represented several perspectives during the subcommittee hearing.

Tribal members pasture livestock on federal lands, he said, as part of their treaty rights across a broad aboriginal territory that includes lands in western Montana, Idaho, eastern Washington and eastern Oregon.

But the Nez Perce also value their traditional hunting of bighorn sheep, tens of thousands of which once thrived in their homeland’s steep canyons.

Those herds have been decimated since the arrival of white settlers, and now the threat of pneumonia that wild sheep contract from domestic herds, Wheeler told the subcommittee. The disease can kill 80 percent or more of a wild bighorn herd.

Wheeler said he was “here to speak for the bighorn because it cannot speak for itself.”

“Our canyonlands and ridges remain suitable habitat for bighorn sheep, yet they have been depleted,” he said. “Pneumonia is the culprit, transmitted from domestic sheep. These wild animals cannot share the range with domestic sheep.”

Where livestock grazing occurs irresponsibly, Wheeler said, “our treaty rights are affected.”

“We are not against grazing on federal lands,” he said during a later Q&A with the subcommittee. “We are against grazing that affects the viability of wildlife that are part of our reserved treat rights – our right to hunt, to fish in all of our usual and accustomed places.”

Dave Eliason, a fourth-generation Utah rancher and president of the Public Lands Council, provided the counterpoint, insisting that domestic sheep should not be blamed for the decimation of wild bighorns.

“Sheep, cattle and wildlife can be managed together, so the whole country can benefit,” he said.

“Sheep, cattle and wildlife can be managed together, so the whole country can benefit,” he said.

Helle pointed to Montana’s Gravelly Mountains and its healthy herds of bighorn sheep and grazing allotments for domestic sheep – the result, he said, of a strategic working group of Ruby River ranchers and conservationists.

Both Eliason and Helle joined Gianforte in calling for changes to the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act and the expansion of so-called categorical exclusions for the review of individual grazing allotments.

“Most grazing allotments have been sustainably grazed by ranching families for half a century or longer,” said Scott Horngren, staff attorney for the Western Resources Legal Center. “Ranchers should be able to renew their allotments if the rangeland is in satisfactory condition, using a categorical exclusion rather than a full environmental analysis.”

Endangered species reviews also need revamping, Horngren said, because of the delays they cause ranchers, followed by the imposition of restrictions that render some allotments barely usable.

Rep. Greg Gianforte

Gianforte cited a recent report from the Congressional Research Service showing that in fiscal year 2016, of the 12 million AUMs that could have been authorized by the BLM, about 8.7 million were used. And on national forests, 6.8 million head months were used out of 8 mllion that could have been authorized.

“What accounts for this non-use?” he asked.

Helle had the reply: “Right now, the real problem is getting the NEPA analysis done to get these allotments back out to producers. There is a huge backlog in getting the NEPA work done and on these vacant allotments they are not going to get it done.

“We’ve got to streamline the NEPA process.”