Cat Urbigkit: Private Deals to Retire Public Grazing Permits

in Cat Urbigkit/Column

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist
Part 2 of 4-part series

As detailed in Part 1 of this series, the Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund (the “Fund”) was created when anti-grazing group Western Watersheds Project (WWP) agreed not to hinder construction of the Ruby Pipeline in exchange for $15 million to pay for the retirement of livestock grazing permits in the American West.

Although WWP said the Fund wouldn’t be used as a war chest for the anti-grazing group, within five years the Fund was funneling money to WWP, providing more than $2.2 million in six years. The Fund also reported to the Internal Revenue Service that it had purchased a 10,000-acre ranch a decade ago, but you won’t find any information about the Fund’s ownership of the ranch on its website where it touts its accomplishments. Nor will you find any information about the millions shifted to WWP.

When the Fund was established in 2010, its purpose was to “operate exclusively to protect and restore sagebrush habitats” through the acquisition of livestock grazing permits on a willing-seller basis through livestock grazing retirements,” as well as the acquisition of other leases, permits, easements and property, and to support federal legislation “to permit the voluntary retirement of federal grazing permits.”

In the nearly 12 years the Fund has existed, how much has it spent on retiring grazing permits? You’d be hard pressed to find the answer. There is no way to track exactly how much money the Fund has spent on the retirement of grazing allotments through public documents, but a process of elimination using other reported expenditures provides a good calculation.

Early on in its existence, the Fund included more details in its IRS filings, such as listing a $425,000 expenditure in 2015 as a “permit buy-out,” but its later filings do not report such detail. For example, its 2018 filing simply states that it provided $625,000 in grants, of which $400,000 of that amount went to WWP “to support the mission of the supported organization and its beneficiaries.” How the remaining $225,000 was spent is unknown, but this “grants” column is where funding to retire allotments would be located.

Of its $6.1 million in expenditures from 2015 through 2020, the Fund spent about $1 million on its functional expenses (compensation for board, staff and contract services, legal fees, property taxes, etc.), while WWP received $2.2 million, leaving $2.8 million for grazing permit retirements.

The Fund reported to the IRS that in the decade of its existence, it had retired over 1 million acres of public land grazing allotments, but a tally of the unduplicated acres reported in its annual IRS filings totaled only 864,701 acres, as follows:

 • In 2013, the Fund conducted its first allotment retirement, paying $672,200 for the retirement of 130,000 acres from grazing in Owyhee County, Idaho.

• In 2015, the Fund reported it provided $425,000 for a permit retirement for a reported 283,126 acres. This was the first year the Fund reported providing financial support to WWP, and incidentally, this was also the last year the Fund specified the amount it spent on grazing allotment retirements.

• In 2016, the Fund reported it provided $725,000 in grants. While the majority of that amount ($440,000) went to WWP, the remaining $285,600 could have gone to allotment retirements, as the Fund reported it also “provided grants to the National Wildlife Federation, and to others for voluntary grazing permit waivers and retirements.” The Fund reported that this effort resulted in the retirement of 188,575 acres from grazing, including: 6,000 acres in Idaho’s Boulder White Clouds; the 86,000-acre Cape Horn domestic sheep grazing allotment on the Salmon-Challis National Forest in Idaho; 67,000 acres of domestic sheep allotments in the Wyoming Range in Wyoming; and 30,575 acres for domestic sheep allotments in the Upper Green in Wyoming.

• The Fund’s IRS filings became even more vague in 2017, the year it reported to have handed out a record $1.7 million in grants, of which only its $320,000 grant to WWP is specifically reported. That leaves a balance of $1.4 million the Fund may have spent on grazing permit retirements. The Fund noted it had funded the retirement of the 86,000-acre Cape Horn grazing allotment in Idaho’s Salmon-Challis National Forest (which it also cited the year prior), in addition to the 65,000-acre Herd Creek Allotment in the same national forest.

• In 2018, the Fund reported it provided grants totaling $625,000, of which $400,000 went to WWP, leaving $225,000 that may have spent on grazing permit retirements. The Fund noted it “participated in funding” the retirement of 82,419 acres in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park and in Idaho’s Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

• In 2019, the Fund provided $614,475 in grants, of which $450,000 went to WWP, leaving the balance of $164,475 that may have been spent on grazing permit retirement. It reported that it retired 25,901 acres from grazing that year, including a 20,901-acre domestic sheep allotment near Dubois, Idaho.

• In 2020, the Fund reported $528,850 going to support WWP, leaving a balance of $347,918 that may have been used to retire grazing allotments. The Fund reported to the IRS that it had retired 89,680 acres from grazing in 2020, including four allotments totaling 88,000 acres in the Boulder Mountains near Ketchum, Idaho. In 2020, the last year IRS tax records are available, more than 60% of the Fund’s grant support went to WWP.

One lesson the Fund may have learned is that these closed-door deals in which permittees agree to relinquish their grazing permits without preference to another livestock producer does not necessarily result in permanent closure of the allotment to livestock grazing.

A private deal does not set public policy on federal land, because federal laws require that management of our public lands involve analysis and public participation – not he-with-the-most-money wins.

The Fund is now perturbed that the U.S. Forest Service is considering whether to allow cattle to graze in some allotments in Sublette County that had been used by domestic sheep.

The Fund provided some of the money used to buy out the sheep permittee, and the Forest Service wrote a letter at the time noting that it would evaluate whether to allow adjacent cattle permittees to use portions of these allotments to spread out grazing in the region further without increasing the number of cattle.

Now that the Forest Service has provided undertaken that assessment, using a public process dictated by federal law, the Fund protests.

This is part two of a four-part series. Part three will reveal how a grudge spawned WWP.

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

Disclaimer: Urbigkit is an enthusiastic supporter of pastoralism around the globe, including public lands livestock grazing in the American West. She’s gone on record as being anti-WWP.

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