Forest Service Announces Draft Environmental Assessment For Thunder Basin National Grassland

Oct 14, 2019

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The U.S. Forest Service has released the draft environmental impact statement for amending the Thunder Basin National Grassland's management plan.

The draft contains four proposals to change the plan. Those include no changes, proposed action, grass-wide or prairie dog emphasis.

Thunder Basin Forest Supervisor Russ Bacon said these options represent public feedback and collaborative work with stakeholders. That includes conservationists, land owners, and local, state and federal governments.

"But that doesn't mean that we have 100 percent consensus. That's difficult to achieve when it comes to managing public lands. And I really think the alternatives we put together give us a wide range of options to work through our objective of striking this better balance," Bacon said.

Three of the four options result with the Forest Service taking away acres meant for prairie dogs. The no-action alternative "manages for the greatest extent of prairie dog colonies," reads the draft.

Dru Bower represents a tri-county coalition of county commissioners for Weston, Campbell and Converse counties. Bower said she was a part of an interdisciplinary team that helped to draft the plan along with the Forest Service. That group included representatives from Gov. Mark Gordon's office and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Bower said an important component in the draft, for her, is more options for controlling prairie dogs.

"This plan allows, in certain alternatives, it allows for control measures to put back in the toolkit to utilize to control prairie dogs," Bower said.

She said landowners and others needed more opportunities to control prairie dog populations.

"If those prairie dog densities and populations start to increase significantly, if drought occurs, if we have cycles where we see explosions of prairie dogs occurring, we have the ability to manage those populations over time so we don't get into a situation where prairie dogs increase, they significantly decrease habitat and we fall into some of the cycles we've seen over the last 20 years. So it's a very proactive plan if implemented, but we'll have to see which alternative is chosen, and each alternative has different ways that they deal with population densities," she said.

Lindsey Sterling Krank, director of the Prairie Dog Coalition with the Humane Society of the United States, said they've been focusing on the "no-action" alternative.

"I also recognize that the way things worked in the last plan didn't work for all the different stakeholders and we need a plan that is going to work for all the different stakeholders," she said.

Her group is thinking about ways to make compromises between interest groups and even how different components of alternatives could work together.

"There might be something in there or between the alternatives that could be a starting point or a positive place to start for all different stakeholders. I think there is a solution still out there, I don't think that's presented in the current alternatives," she said.

Sterling Krank said she thinks the community may not be ready to handle the total number of acres currently allotted and a solution may be starting with a smaller number of acres and having an agreement in place so that acreage can grow as it becomes successful.

She said the proposed controls differ with her ideas of what public lands are.

"It brings value to my life and other members of the community's life to go out on our public lands and know that what we're looking at is protected and that there's no harassment or intrusion on these animals' lives in this one spot," Sterling Krank said. "So I think where we can have and where we can have an emphasis on production for landowners and grazers and agriculture and that this grassland is big enough to do both."

The draft comes after the Forest Service released a proposed plan earlier this year. Bacon, Thunder Basin's forest supervisor, said his team took public feedback from that plan and worked it into this draft.

"We really tried to take components of public concerns and comments and suggestions and really look for ways to weave all of those different points of view into these alternatives," he said. "That was really the backbone of how these alternatives were developed and analyzed."

Part of the draft plan includes a section on the future of a collaborative stakeholder group that would be involved with the implementation of whichever alternative is chosen. Bacon said that could include conservationists, landowner, local and state agencies, ranching groups and others.

Group said the group is a crucial part to the plan.

"We really have tried to be very intentional and that's why it shows up in that appendix in naming that idea that we're going to continue to work very closely a working group to help us implement. And that working group will be represented by a wide variety of interests. And from my perspective, managing public lands is a difficult task for anybody and the more help we have from interest groups providing us different perspectives and advice, we're all going to be better off for that," he said.

Bower said the county commissioners she represents from Weston, Converse and Campbell counties agree that having a stakeholder group to represent interest is important to the future of the grassland.

But Sterling Krank said that over the past year, it felt like the collaboration felt like a "majority rules" dynamic, and more landowners were involved and therefore represented.

"That was difficult because I felt like it wasn't a consensus-based process, it was a majority-based process. That being said, there's a smaller group of people in that working group that are solution-oriented and want to continue to move forward. And I think there's still room to collaborate in that group but we're not there yet...If we don't have a solution that the community is supportive of, then we don't really have a sustainable solution," she said.

The public comment period is open through January 9. There will be a public meeting at the Converse County Library in Douglas on November 20, and a public webinar on November 21.

The Forest Service says the finalized plan is expected in late 2020.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Catherine Wheeler, at cwheel11@uwyo.edu.