Cat Urbigkit: Why working ranches should matter to tourists who care about Yellowstone’s wolves

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

Tourists flock to Yellowstone National Park every year to admire its natural wonders, and high on the list of wildlife-spotting priorities is the chance to see gray wolves and grizzly bears in our country’s first national park. .

To enter the park, they travel along state highways that run along private and public lands that support animal farms. Cattle and sheep farming provide continuity to the vast open spaces that characterize the West, but are mostly overlooked by tourists visiting the national park.

But the successful management of ranches in the area is essential to the success of the national park itself. The wolves that tourists see and photograph inside Yellowstone National Park live off the consumption of elk.

The Clarks Fork herd of elk that serve as prey for the park’s wolves spend much of their time outside the park and, as researcher Arthur Middleton has reported, 40% of the park’s winter range herd is private land located outside the park. These private land managers co-manage these elk, he reported, with public wildlife heavily dependent on private land.

Middleton, who spent his career studying relationships with wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) through a position at the University of California, Berkeley, is now a senior policy adviser to the USDA and spoke last week at a Wyoming cattle and sheep rally. producers and conservation district officials.

Middleton reported that mule deer research has also found that deer inhabiting Grand Teton National Park in the summer migrate and spend considerable time on private ranches in Sublette County in other parts of the year.

While wildlife conservation has traditionally focused on “land preservation” by creating large protected areas (e.g. Yellowstone National Park) as the primary global strategy for protecting wildlife, habitats and ecological processes, these protected areas fail to meet all the needs of populations. widely distributed or migratory species, while excluding the traditional economic activity and cultural practices of local human populations.

This is why private ranches in the West are essential to healthy and thriving wildlife populations. “The migrations are there because of the management of private property by ranchers,” Middleton said, noting that some of the largest and most intact tracts of land in the United States are agricultural properties.

Conservationists are increasingly recognizing the importance of protecting and stewarding these working lands (“land sharing”), as demonstrated by a new article highlighting the importance of private lands and protected for wildlife migrations in the GYE.

Researchers examined 26 elk herds in the GYE, finding that all herds used land encompassing more than one type of property, and most herds (92%) used the highest proportion of private land in winter, ” period during which elk are under greater physiological stress”. .

Therefore, conservation of private lands and efforts to mitigate human-wildlife conflict will be essential for the continued persistence of migratory elk populations within this system, as protected areas alone cannot conserve these populations.

The document notes: “While the GYE is often considered a conservation success story due to the sheer size of the protected area, private lands have also been critical to this success.

However, future development and land use changes threaten to upset the role of private lands in sustaining large-scale wildlife in the system. As the GYE continues to experience an increase in human population and human development, as well as land use changes, the need to maintain migratory connectivity is critical.

While zoning regulations are one option that can be used to protect important wildlife habitats, these regulations are often opposed by landowners and not necessarily enforced, and researchers suggest that other incentive programs be used. to maintain habitat connectivity for wildlife, as well as complementary tools to mitigate human-wildlife conflict, such as reducing or reimbursing costs associated with damage, as well as providing technical assistance to landowners land.

It was this kind of consideration that led Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon to sign an agreement with the USDA to support the voluntary conservation of private working lands and migratory big game populations in Wyoming, putting the focus on wildlife migration routes.

Although conservation easements and habitat leasing are included in the options for private landowners, the program offers a wider range of practices, including assistance with planned grazing systems, modifications or diversion of fencing, removal of invasive weeds and other practices that sustain wildlife populations while providing financial support to ranching enterprises.

Visitors to our national parks care about the wild animals that inhabit the region, but the importance of the interconnected private and public lands outside the park’s borders remains largely unknown.

While the tourism and hospitality industry benefits from tourism spending, private landowners who provide habitat for migratory and wide-ranging wildlife bear much of the cost of conserving these animals.

Wyoming Rep. Albert Sommers sponsored a successful resolution in the Wyoming Legislature asking federal officials to implement a “wildlife conservation tax” in Yellowstone that would provide funding to adjacent states to pay for efforts wildlife conservation. Although the resolution was passed in 2018, the federal government has not acted to impose such a fee program.

With the USDA stepping up to recognize that production agriculture and conservation are interconnected, ranchers are beginning to see recognition for their stewardship of the land. Through locally-directed incentive compensation programs, they may be able to stay in production on the working lands that keep this ecosystem intact.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the beach in Sublette County, Wyoming. His column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

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