Northeast Wyo. grasslands an intricate ecosystem

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By Patrick Filbin

Gillette News Record

Via Wyoming News Exchange

GILLETTE — Driving slowly on the gravel roads of her property, Jewell Reed pulled her car to a stop and pointed out the passenger window to an open field of grassland.

“That’s where the old schoolhouse used to be,” she said, a tinge of nostalgia in her voice.

A few hundred feet north on the road was the former location of the post office. When the lone postman decided to up and leave almost 50 years ago, the post office essentially left with him.

Reed is a former rancher. She is retired now and left the family business to one of her grandsons, who lives a few yards away from her just outside Bill.

Their homes are tucked away behind rows of cottonwood trees and a mile away from the mailboxes.

She’s been in the area for 70 years now. She grew up 5 miles from where she lives, alongside the Cheyenne River, which is dry every day of the year except when it rains.

Scattered on the sagebrush, red hills and grassy plains are 40-year-old oil wells still in commission. Some are rusted and worn while others look rather new.

Reed’s cattle and sheep graze there, too.

About 25 miles north of Reed’s home is the Antelope mine, owned and operated by Cloud Peak Energy Corp. All along Highway 59, oil and natural gas wells flare day in and day out.

On a wire fence, Reed noticed a yellow-bellied bird, one of her favorite things about her piece of land.

“A meadowlark,” she said. “They sing the nicest songs.”

All of this, from agriculture to energy, happens in the Grassland.

Just south of Wright and spread out over five Wyoming counties is a stretch of land that spans nearly 1.8 million acres known as the Thunder Basin National Grassland.

The Grassland is home to one of the most protected yet mysterious ecosystems in the United States.

Elevations throughout the area range from less than 3,200 feet to more than 6,400 feet above sea level.

The U.S. Forest Service reports that humans have inhabited the land for at least 11,000 years. Mountain men traveling west looking for riches in the fur trade passed through in the 1830s.

The area was first homesteaded in 1864 and the Homestead Act in the 1860s gave 160 acres each to those who would live and farm on the land for five years.

The acreage was later changed to 640 acres because the climate and soil in northeast Wyoming could not support livestock on such small parcels of land. Early attempts to produce on the land beyond its capacity resulted in serious depletion of the soil and vegetation, according to the Forest Service.

In the 1930s, both the Great Depression and severe drought led to the abandonment of many homesteads and in 1934, the U.S. Government bought the land.

The Grassland was first called the Northeastern Wyoming Land Utilization Project and managed by several federal agencies.

In 1954, the lands were transferred to the U.S. Forest Service and six years later, the designation of National Grassland was official.

Since its inception as federal land, the National Grassland has been a point of interest for several sectors of the population in Wyoming, as well as the economy.

Ranching and energy development dominate both the land use and the revenue generated on it within the five-county area.

About 87 percent of the land is in private or state ownership.

The remaining (570,000 acres) is owned by the federal government and is overseen by several agencies. Some of that federal and state land is leased to ranchers who pay either the state or federal government for its use.

In 2011, agriculture made an estimated $250 million in revenue in all five counties, according to the latest numbers available from the Thunder Basin Grassland Prairie Ecosystem Association. The area also produced more than 6,000 coal jobs in 2011 and there is an estimated 77 billion tons of coal that can be mined.

To understand the Grasslands who uses them and how they are used, one has to understand this nonprofit organization is made up of conservationists, scientists, coal, oil and gas company representatives and two dozen ranchers.

Dave Pellatz is the executive director of the Thunder Basin Grasslands Prairie Ecosystem Association, which formed in 1999.

Reed, like many landowners, has been a board member since the group’s start.

The group’s main purpose is to develop a responsible, common-sense approach to landscape management using a science-based technique.

“We’re after the whole gamut,” Pellatz said. “From everything to land and wildlife management to facilitating coal, oil and gas development in the area while focusing on minimizing damage to the land.”

The majority of the association is made up of farmers and ranchers, while some represent the energy industry and conservation efforts.

To conserve the land and learn more about its potential uses and the future of the area, everyone has to be on board. Pellatz said that from Day One, this has never been an issue.

“We have all had a successful partnership and it’s been a productive association,” he said.

For instance, the group has put together more than $4 million of research into the Grassland with a lot of help from the energy industry.

Companies like Cloud Peak Energy and Peabody Energy have helped the nonprofit with grants to be used as matching funds to research things like on-the-ground treatment of invasive cheatgrass to floor planning to ensuring sage grouse, burrowing owls and other short-grass species can continue to survive within the ecosystem.

The group also has helped convert windmills that power water wells to solar power.

Removing tall structures like windmills prevents raptors from having a place to perch and hunt protected species. The solar-powered water wells also provide a more stable water source for livestock.

Alison Holloran is the executive director of Audubon Rockies, a sector of the Audubon Society in charge of Wyoming and Colorado.

She said that conservationists, ranchers and industry representatives have no choice but to work together in the Grassland.

“The bottom line is we have to have a relationship,” Holloran said.

“There’s a longtime belief that conservationists and ranchers seem at odds and that’s really a false perception,” she said. “We want to see the land preserved, open and for the grass to pop up. Healthy grazing will help and promote the habitat.”

The same goes for industry.

“We may have a different perspective, but all have an interest in that land,” Holloran said. “To truly conserve those lands, we need to come up with common-sense solutions to the problems that may come up.”

Laurel Vicklund is the senior environment scientist for Peabody Energy. Peabody was part of the original group of landowners that started the Association nearly 20 years ago and, in the meantime, has been one of the leaders in preserving the land the right way.

“I have not seen the level of collaboration in other working groups that the Thunder Basin Grasslands Prairie Ecosystem Association offers from a unique combination of private landowners, industry and federal agencies,” Vicklund said.

Vicklund and in part Peabody itself, is in the reclamation business.

“We are very serious about managing the land, enhancing the rangeland and the habitat for the many species there,” she said.

In fact, Peabody — under Vicklund’s guidance — has been the one to teach federal agencies like the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Game and Fish and others about how to regrow sagebrush.

“Restoring the land, that’s what we’re tasked with doing,” Vicklund said.

Reed and her family work with the government on a regular basis. To regulate agriculture activity, one cow and a calf is restricted to 50 acres of land, meaning one parcel of 640 acres only allows for about 13 cows and 13 calves.

It keeps ranchers from managing their land how they want to only in certain ways, Reed said, but with the Ecosystem Association in place and decades of experience, she trusts that the government, ranchers and conservationists have the land’s best interest at heart.

Issues facing the grasslands

Reed, like most ranchers, can’t stand prairie dogs.

“They’re such destructive little critters,” Reed said. “They’re cute but don’t have much of a saving grace.”

A couple of years ago, prairie dogs were a huge problem in the Grassland. They are one of the many invasive species in the ecosystem and will not only build towns, but spread like wildfire if not controlled.

“The year before last, they were taking over,” Reed said. “It was terrible.”

Last summer, a plague wiped out a significant number of prairie dogs and left their towns vacant.

“There are people who don’t think it was good to have them plagued out, but there’s nothing else that will stop them,” Reed said.

Reed and other ranchers also deal with a number of predators like foxes, badgers, skunks and at least four species of snakes.

One of Audubon’s five initiatives is conservation ranching when it comes to the more than 250 species of birds found in the Grassland.

Holloran said grassland bird species are in the steepest decline of any fleet of birds in a particular ecosystem. North in Montana and the Dakotas, it is blamed on tilling for crop farming.

In the Thunder Basin Grassland, it’s caused by a number of factors ranging from industry development to invasive species and a changing habitat due a lack of stability in the agriculture sector.

“Ranching is a hard profession,” Holloran said. “We’re not seeing recruitment levels like we used to and kids don’t come back to work on the family ranch. They just can’t afford it.”

Because of that, she said, the habitat changes after ranches are left alone. Other times, the land is overgrazed.

Pellatz said that working with coal companies is something the association and ranchers are used to. However, oil and gas is a relatively new kid on the block.

“One of my concerns is capacity,” Pellatz said. “We think the land can continue to give, but we’re not sure it has the ability to do all these things at 100 percent like we’ve let it in the past.”

One of the unique things about the Grassland, Pellatz said, is how slowly they recover. The cycles are so long that after a sagebrush fire, it could take anywhere from 200 to 300 years for brush to regrow.

“It’d be nice to have the grasslands to show to my grandchildren. Is that going to happen or not? I’m not sure,” Pellatz said. “Change is inevitable and there are some different pressures we’re dealing with these days.”

Exploring the Grassland

The Grassland continues to be an overlooked part of northeast Wyoming.

“I think the reason for that is you can drive by them very quickly and generally, there doesn’t seem to be much going on,” Pellatz said.

Much like fly-over states, Pellatz said the Grassland can be considered a “drive-by area.”

“It’s not that sexy,” he said, comparing it to other Wyoming landmarks such as the Grand Tetons or Devils Tower.

The beauty of the Grassland is much more subtle, Pellatz said. It takes a while, and usually a tour guide, to appreciate the area.

At an even more basic level, anything that has to do with agriculture and wildlife in northeast Wyoming “is because we have the grasslands here.”

“It is an incredibly diverse area because we’re in between sage steppe and the Great Plains,” Pellatz said. “That gives us a huge variety of vegetation for wildlife and so many species that you won’t see in the same place anywhere else.”

You can see prairie dogs and sage grouse other places, but to see them cohabiting in such small quarters is what make the Grassland unique.

“It may look like this wasteland, but it’s an incredibly diverse ecosystem,” Holloran said.

One thing that people don’t understand about the area is how much carbon sequestration the grasslands and sagebrush do.

Without the conservation of the area, “all of that sequestration would be gone,” Holloran said. “It’s not a wasteland. It’s a dynamic, important piece of land that is one of the most vulnerable and disappearing ecosystems in the world.”

The main source of recreation on the Grassland is hunting. Reed says she runs into a lot of it, especially during deer and antelope big-game season.

She’ll also hear the occasional four-wheeler making noise in the distance, but it’s not the most sought-after recreation area in the state.

“(The grasslands) are not some big playground,” Reed said. “They’re not abused, either. They are taken care of.”

To enjoy the Grassland for what it is, Holloran offers a different approach.

“Take the time to not drive 70 miles an hour, pull off to the side of the road, turn off the car, roll down the windows and just listen,” she said.

It’s there to explore — or to just listen to — right in Campbell County’s backyard.

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