Heitkamp goes to bat for ND ranchers over grazing concerns
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., is frustrated by what she said is a lack of grazing access for ranchers in the western part of the state — and she’s making her feelings known.
On the heels of a letter sent by Heitkamp to Dakota Prairie Grassland Supervisor Dennis Neitzke on March 5, the senator said Wednesday that she’s pushing for the U.S. Forest Service to “provide fair grazing access for parts of the Dakota Grasslands.”
In her letter, Heitkamp specifically requested that the “North Billings County Allotment Management Plan revision draft record of decision be amended as part of the formal objection process.”
The Forest Service is in the process of deciding what will be included with the North Billings Management Plan, which will dictate the ultimate level of grazing access for parts of the Dakota Grasslands.
“The frustration level among our ranchers is exceedingly high,” Heitkamp said. “They feel like they have meetings and get commitments and then those commitments are ignored when the paperwork comes out.”
In her letter, Heitkamp stated that in “multiple communications,” with the Forest Service, the agency reiterated its commitment to working with ranchers in western North Dakota, though she is concerned after hearing from ranchers that the draft record of decision does not reflect an approach that includes working with western North Dakota landowners.
“What we’re trying to do is figure out how we’re going to get them to fulfil their commitments that they give us orally,” Heitkamp said. “We need to make sure those commitments are in writing and in the plan.”
Coupled with a number of weather-related events — including the blizzard that led to the deaths of thousands of cattle in North Dakota and South Dakota last October — Heitkamp said the uncertainty of not knowing exactly where cattle will be allowed to graze in relation to the grasslands is a headache ranchers don’t need.
“It’s kind of a double-whammy,” Heitkamp said. “To not know what your grazing access will be, along with bad storms that have taken out your herd, it’s not a good combination. We need to rebuild this industry in North Dakota, given what’s happened. The unwillingness of the Forest Service to give clear and concise directions is enormously frustrating, not only to those ranchers but to me as well.”
Consisting of four regional ranger districts in North Dakota and South Dakota, the Dakota Prairie Grasslands stretch over about 1.2 million acres of intermingled federal, state and privately owned land.
The pending draft record is expected to be released any time, according to Heitkamp’s office. Heitkamp added that a future move for her and the ranchers could be to take the issue all the way to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
“We had a meeting with the Forest Service and we expect there will be some follow-up,” Heitkamp said. “If that follow-up with those folks we met with doesn’t seem forthcoming, we may take this all the way to the secretary. We’d also like to see other experts — like those at NDSU — in the management of grasslands be given more of a say in how we do this. It’s good for the grasslands to be grazed and, sometimes, you don’t get that feeling at all from the Forest Service.”
A message left for Neitzke was not immediately returned on Thursday.