Ranchers express concern with environmental assessment plan

The U.S. Forest Service chief addressed concerns raised by leaders from grazing associations regarding an update to an environmental assessment plan during a roundtable meeting hosted Monday by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

From left, Deputy Regional Forester Jane Darnell, Chief U.S. Forest Service Tom Tidwell and U.S. Senator John Hoeven listen to concerns raised by local ranchers on Monday at a roundtable discussion. (Abby Kessler/The Dickinson Press)

The U.S. Forest Service chief addressed concerns raised by leaders from grazing associations regarding an update to an environmental assessment plan during a roundtable meeting hosted Monday by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

The meeting was designed to hear from ranchers who use federal land to raise cattle, while also incorporating research conducted by North Dakota State University, before the agency makes final decisions regarding an environmental assessment plan that helps manage ranching practices.

“I want to make sure the decisions that are being made in Washington align with ranchers’ needs,” said Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service. “The best decisions are always made at a local level.”

A major point discussed at the meeting addressed the biological capabilities of land, which studies the amount of forage available for grazing animals, and differs depending on wet or dry weather conditions.  

The NDSU Research Extension Center has published a Ranchers Guide to Grassland management that, in part, studies viable herd capacities on grassland sites depending on variations in weather patterns. The study can be used by lawmakers and ranchers alike to strike a balance between grazing the maximum amount of cattle while maintaining sustainable plots of land in the future.


“We are looking at how we can improve livestock productivity while also ensuring we are planning for 10 to 40 years from now,” Tidwell said. “It is our responsibility to look into the future.”

But while Tidwell said the Forest Service is making progress at finding this balance, grazing association leaders expressed concerns about the environmental assessment plan, which could force reductions in cattle numbers.

Leaders from the McKenzie County Grazing Association were among those who expressed uneasiness. They said the county has already reported a reduction in cattle numbers due to grazing restrictions.

It was reported that in one allotment, reductions to herds have fallen due to overgrazing concerns.

Keith Winter, president of the McKenzie County Grazing Association, said the Forest Service promised there would be no reduction in the number of cattle, but that the assurance contradicts what the environmental assessment says.

“We would ask you to use NDSU science that has been presented,” Winter said.

Dakota Prairie Grassland Supervisor Dennis Neitzke said working together is the only way to stop reductions in cattle.

“We can create change while meeting grassland objectives, not by reducing cows, but by managing them, so we can meet mutual goals,” Neitzke said.


Other leaders at the meeting raised concerns about the Forest Service overriding suggestions during the objections process.

“We are being handed a document, which we would like to make changes to,” said Gordon Gerbig of the Medora Grazing Association.

But, Gerbig said, in the past, the Forest Service did not allocate enough time for the grazing association to make amendments during the process and rarely took ranchers’ considerations into account.

“We would like some give-and-take on the process,” Gerbig said.

The Medora Grazing Association said it would like to see a fundamental change made to the policy that would give them a louder voice in decision-making processes.

Invasive plant species were also addressed, including leafy spurge, as some policies implemented by Forest Services conflict with containing populations.

Director of the Sheyenne Valley Grazing Association Mark Huseth said his group is unable to spray certain tracts of land because of fears of harming a butterfly listed on the endangered species list.

“Leafy spurge are bad for everything,” Huseth said.


Restrictions are causing the plant to spread, which he argued does not work toward the objective of maintaining healthy plots of land.

Leaders across several associations said North Dakota believes the Forest Service should allocate more funds for management strategies, but Tidwell said there are financial issues.

“There is more need than there are resources,” he said. “So we have to set priorities.”

At the end of the two-hour discussion, Hoeven said the meeting highlighted some important issues.

“It does make a difference,” Hoeven said. “It is important that we keep this dialogue up, so that we can have good communication to so we are able to work out some of these issues.”

Tidwell agreed, saying he is leaving the meeting “with a greater sense that we are working together.”

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