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Ranchers Anticipate Grazing Rule Announcement

Keith Winter is looking forward to May 20 with trepidation. That's the day a government report on the future rules for livestock grazing in the Dakota Prairie Grasslands will be announced in Bismarck, N.D.

WASHINGTON — Keith Winter is looking forward to May 20 with trepidation.

That's the day a government report on the future rules for livestock grazing in the Dakota Prairie Grasslands will be announced in Bismarck, N.D.

Winter lives west of Watford City, N.D., where most of the Little Missouri National Grasslands are located. He's a former president of the McKenzie County Grazing Association, a former president of the national Public Lands Council and is vice chairman of the federal lands committee of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

The Sheyenne National Grasslands in eastern North Dakota also is affected by the plan.

Two and a half years ago, the Forest Service, under pressure from North Dakota Gov.

John Hoeven and others, put into effect a revised management plan for the grasslands, but held up implementing changes in livestock grazing rules until a scientific review team was appointed and results published.

Results affect rules in the Little Missouri National Grassland in western North Dakota and the Sheyenne National Grassland in eastern North Dakota.

Winter spoke on the status of the grasslands report at a Public Lands Council meeting of the western states in Washington. The plan has been implemented for other issues, such as county road and oil industry leasing issues.

The eight-scientist panel on the livestock issues has held meetings in the past 2 1/2 years.

"At that point, the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture will have to decide what they want to do," Winter says. "It'll drive future decisions on the grasslands' grazing."

The Forest Service projected a cut in cattle grazing numbers under to the new rules, but the cattle producers projected an even larger cut as standards and guidelines are fully implemented as the years go by.

Winter isn't sure how the scientific review team will come out on the plan. They will comment on 10 scientific issues with the plan, as well as an overall conclusion.

"We went to all of the meetings," Winter says. "The only ones that could speak were the Forest Service. We had to listen."

The panel will release their information all at once and to everybody, in Bismarck, N.D., and not report it to anyone else first.

"We don't know what's in it," Winter says.

He says grazing association members are concerned about the impact of the study.

"Hopefully, the scientists will agree with our observations over the past six years and that the true science of the issue will emerge."

National interest Jeff Eisenberg, executive director of the PLC, says the decision over the North Dakota grasslands is of concern nationally because of a need for balance between conservation and "respect for people who work on the land." He says similar situations between the Bureau of Land Management and producers are occurring in California and Utah.

People who work the land have gotten a "better reception in the Bush administration than they have had in Democratic administrations" who had been "more concerned about resource conservation than about people and communities."

Eisenberg says he's hopeful there will be a good result -- that ranchers "will be able to continue with economically viable ranching on public lands in North Dakota."

Meanwhile, the state of North Dakota, counties and other entities remain in mediation with the federal government over a suit about control of section line easements in the national grasslands.

It involves three Forest Service rules -- a roadless rule, an off-road vehicle rule and other transportation rules, which in effect took county roads out of county control.

While the rules work in the Forest Service lands to the west, the state groups say the rules are inappropriate for lands acquired from farmers in the 1930s. The state argues that the public has a right to access on section line easements that remained in place after the acquisition. The Forest Service says the easements apply only up to the grasslands.

Other topics at the PLC meeting, included:

--A memorandum of understanding with the Forest Service and federal Bureau of Land Management.

The memorandum of understanding involves how grassland health is monitored in western grasslands, with issues on grass structure and riparian areas. The ranch groups want agencies to accept some data provided by permit holders.

--Endangered Species Act.

The PLC and National Cattlemen's Beef Association works in coalitions with other groups to influence Congress to make desired changes.

North Dakota has the piping plover and some sturgeon relating to the Missouri River.

Among other things, the Forest Service wants to stop controlling prairie dogs on 26,000 acres in Winter's home area, to expand prairie dog towns to support the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets.

The Theodore Roosevelt National Park is "full of" prairie dogs, Winter says. But if expansion is needed, that is where it should happen.

Ranchers think that expanding ferrets in North Dakota makes them too far north and east to survive. Winter wonders why the government should spend time and money on what likely will be a "failed experience."

"Our position is that we're not in the original black-footed ferret area," Winter says.

The ranchers also argue that the grassland should be used "primarily for agriculture," as originally intended and that putting prairie dogs on more land degrades the grassland quality.

"In South Dakota, it got so bad this spring, that with blowing dirt off the prairie-dog towns, they had a dust bowl down there, just like the 30s," Winter says.

The prairie dogs had denuded the land and were actually cannibalizing to survive.

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News