A proposed Forest Service management plan that puts an emphasis on wildlife and recreation could cut the number of cattle grazing on Northern Great Plains National Grasslands and Forests anywhere from 10% to 50%.

That has ranchers and some rural communities concerned about their livelihoods.

If the plan is approved in its present form, "a good many of our operators would fold up," says Melvin Leland, a Sidney, MT, rancher who has grazing permits for 350 head on the Little Missouri National Grasslands in western North Dakota.

Some of the largest grazing cuts (as high as 50%) could come on the units in western North Dakota, Leland says.

The grazing reductions are part of a revised management plan proposed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) - the government agency that oversees the National Grasslands and Forests.

The plan, which was made public July 7, 1999, is the result of a routine evaluation conducted by the USFS every 10-15 years to account for changing ecological conditions, says Bob Sprentall. Sprentall is USFS Rangeland Ecosystem Coordinator for the Northern Great Plains.

A New Focus The new plan marks a shift toward managing the land to a desired vegetation condition, according to Sprentall. "We are trying to provide for evolving ecological conditions," he says.

The plan calls for increased roadless areas, wilderness areas, more wildlife habitat, restrictions on mineral development and on public access, and decreased carrying capacities of livestock. The grassland structure would be closely monitored to meet desired rangeland conditions using the Robel Pole, says Sprentall.

Sprentall says vegetation measurements would be taken annually to determine if desired conditions are being achieved. Adjustments to stocking rates would then be determined from those measurements. That's a dramatic shift from the existing plan which specifies animal unit months (AUMs) for a unit over a grazing period.

For Gene Veeder, economic development coordinator for McKenzie County (ND), the new focus in the plan comes as a surprise.

"It's kind of a surprise to all of us," he says. "What was based on range management has swung to wildlife management," says Veeder, also a rancher.

Leland agrees. He says in 1987 when the existing plan was put in place the emphasis was toward managing for grazing and range health. "Now, 12 years later, the direction is just the opposite. We've been trying to protect the resource," Leland says. "Permittees have been very careful to properly manage the land."

"The resource isn't in jeopardy, it's probably as good as it's ever been," says Mark Voll, a Sidney, MT, rancher who has grazing permits for 150 head.

Sprentall acknowledges that the range has been taken care of. "I would not say the grasslands are in poor condition," he says. "Some areas are in excellent condition, but things have changed as far as ecological conditions, rangeland health and wildlife habitat since the last plan."

For example, he says some riparian areas haven't regenerated with woody species like they should.

To address some of those concerns, the grazing reductions are being proposed. He says that those not moving toward improved conditions will be affected the greatest.

Economic Impact Will Be Felt Entire communities could feel the economic impact from the proposed grazing and mineral development restrictions.

North Dakota State University economics professor Larry Leisstritz says losing the producers who are permittees in the national grasslands will have a billion-dollar economic impact on North Dakota alone.

For example, in McKenzie County where half of the 2 million acres in the county are in public lands, less mineral development will mean less money back to the county tax base, Veeder explains. He says having carrying capacity reduced on lands would also result in a loss of equity on those lands, making it difficult for retiring ranchers to sell and for young ranchers to get started.

Voll says hunters should be concerned about the new plan as well. "This plan makes it much more difficult for hunters to have access to these lands."

Sprentall says the USFS has considered the economics of the alternative they are proposing. "What we're looking for is a plan that is more middle of the road. One that we felt could be implemented. We're not pleasing just the environmental groups or just the ranchers," he says.

Seeking Comments A public comment period will run through Nov. 29. Questions should be directed to local USFS offices or the Northern Great Plains Planning Team at 125 N. Main St., Chadron, NE 69337; 308/432-0300.

Sprentall says the comment period is not a vote, but it does allow the public to bring up issues that weren't addressed or provide information that was overlooked.

In North Dakota, the Heritage Alliance of North Dakota (HAND), a grassroots coalition of businessmen, ranchers, sportsmen, city and county officials, and individuals, has formed 12 committees - including one to evaluate economic effects - to research the impacts the new plan would have to North Dakota.

At the request of North Dakota's governor and congressional delegates, a team of range scientists is also conducting an independent study to evaluate current range conditions.

"We are very comfortable with that and anxious to see it done because we believe the range conditions are very good," says Leland.

The results from their finding will be filed with the Forest Service.

After the comment period is closed, the USFS will make final decisions for the plan, which Sprentall expects by November 2000. The Forest Service will then begin implementing the plan. Sprentall says, "There are time frames built in for adjustments. We expect several years to move toward ecological conditions."

Once the plan is finalized, Veeder says he knows issues between ranchers and environmentalists will continue to come up.

"There are a lot more people wanting to influence the management of public lands," Veeder says. "There are problems developing on the grasslands that are anti-beef things. Until we get that licked, there are always going to be problems."

Veeder says ranchers need to be more proactive about enhancing their image. "We want healthy grasslands, hunting and public access. We can do a better job of bringing the public out to see what we do. Then it would be obvious we aren't abusing the land. There will be a day when the public sees ranchers as the ultimate environmentalists."