Cat Urbigkit: Who Stands with the Anti-Ranching Vendetta?

Columnist Cat Urbigkit writes: Western Watersheds Project is classified as a non-profit organization. This public charity has a staff of 15 that are paid to attempt to accomplish the organizations goal to permanently remove livestock from public lands.

Cat Urbigkit

December 03, 20227 min read

Cat urbigkit cropped scaled
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

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

Ranchers whose livestock herds graze public lands in the western United States are continuing a tradition that has long been practiced by pastoral peoples around the globe. Herds are moved with the seasons, and domestic stock grazing the West’s arid rangelands produces food and fiber in a relatively natural manner.

The annual feeding cycle for these animals requires use of forage from a combination of rangelands, linking private ranchlands with state and federal rangelands – similar to the feeding cycles of wild ungulates which share the same range.

Grazing use on federal lands is now highly regulated when compared to the situation of more than a century ago when unregulated usage resulted in widespread overgrazing.

Those winner-take-all days are relegated to the past, as are widespread predator eradication campaigns. When grazing critics claim otherwise, they aren’t being truthful. Equating predator control and management with eradication is a fiction of their creation.

While grazing critics howl about the lower grazing fee charged on federal lands, they disregard the differences between grazing these properties, the differences in the factors that are covered with differing grazing fees, and the end result of affordable food on the kitchen table.

On private lands, ranchers can focus on forage availability and nutritional value as they manage their herds and can change the type and class of animal as conditions change.

Grazing on federal lands involves numerous legal restrictions and requirements that are conditions for permission to graze on federal range, with set dates and stocking rates rather than responding to actual range conditions each year.

Public land ranchers share the range with numerous other users and interests, although some of these folks prefer to demonize ranchers and ranching in their zeal to move away from the notion of shared range.

They prefer some imagined utopia from centuries past, blame ranching for all manner of perceived deficiencies, and admittedly use any tool available to try to force ranchers off the public range. They ignore any benefit from livestock grazing, whether to the environment, local communities, human nutrition, or the economy.

Public Charity

Western Watersheds Project is classified as a non-profit organization. This public charity has a staff of 15 that are paid to attempt to accomplish the organization’s goal to permanently remove livestock from public lands.

When WWP files a lawsuit against a federal agency in attempt to get a grazing allotment closed, it’s not the government agency that is harmed or in jeopardy. The harm is to the livestock grazing permittee, an individual ranch, but the harm often has cascading impacts in a community.

The rancher usually tries to intervene, but often has more of a third-party status. The ranchers are not paid to be at the table or in the meetings, but their livelihoods depend on their involvement.

So who exactly is WWP? Erik Molvar serves as WWP’s executive director, and the organization is represented by Jonathan Ratner in Wyoming. See the group’s website to learn who else makes their living working for WWP.

The group is governed by a six-person board of directors, including:

• Board President Kelley Weston – originally from Boulder, Colorado and currently co-owner of Native Landscapes, a Ketchum, Idaho landscaping company.

• Secretary Louise Wagenknecht, a U.S. Forest Service retiree, now a book author living on a 7-acre sheep farm in central Idaho.

• Treasurer Rose Chilcoat – a former National Park Service staffer, founder of Great Old Broads for Wilderness, and now a resident of Durango, Colorado.

  • Director Dr. John Carter – a former WWP staffer who left to develop his own “private reserve” – first in eastern Idaho, and currently near Bondurant, Wyoming. He’s also founder of the Yellowstone to Uintas Connection, another non-profit organization.

• Director Dr. Bruce Hayse of Jackson, Wyoming: Co-founder of the radical environmental group EarthFirst!, Hayse was also founder of the now-defunct Africa Rainforest and River Conservation, which hired mercenaries to form a 400-man paramilitary force to hunt poachers in the Central Africa Republic in the early 2000s.

• Director Karen Klitz is an archivist at the University of California at Berkeley and is a Bay Area activist.

According to WWP’s most recent newsletter, the organization also has a seven-member Advisory Board:

Debra Donahue – Emeritus professor of law at University of Wyoming, and author of the 2000 book, “Western Range Revisited: Removing Livestock from Public Lands to Conserve Native Biodiversity,” earning her the Wyoming Wildlife Federation’s Resource Conservationist of the Year honor that year.

Lloyd Dorsey  – Lloyd Dorsey has worked for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Sierra Club Wyoming, and Wyoming Wildlife Federation.

Louise Lasley – Louise Lasley, formerly of Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, lived in Jackson Hole for about 30 years before returning to New Mexico, where she serves on board of WWP and Wilderness Watch. She was listed as the secretary of Hayse’s Africa Rainforest and River Conservancy.

• Jon Marvel – WWP founder

Dr. Elizabeth Painter – a University of Montana doctoral researcher studying ungulate population dynamics in Idaho.

Dr. Tom Pringle – a molecular biologist from Eugene, Oregon, creator of website.

  • Todd Shuman – a California-based activist and vegan also involved with the Sierra Club.

It’s About Exclusion

WWP and its supporters have removal of livestock from public lands as the most important component of their rewilding vision for public lands in the West, but ranching isn’t the only use of our public lands that would be prohibited in their rewilded landscape.

Rewilding proposals vary, with one version creating “reserves” that encompass 22% of the western United States, but former WWP board member George Wuerthner proposes that Yellowstone National Park be expanded from its current 2.2 million acres to “20 million acres or more” by encompassing all the national forests in the region.

This Greater Yellowstone National Park would be managed by the National Park Service and “extractive uses like livestock grazing, logging, oil and gas, mining, and other activities compromising the landscape’s ecological function would be prohibited,” although certain areas could be opened “to permit limited but strictly controlled hunting as currently in Grand Teton National Park.”

WWP is one of numerous organizations attempting to use green credentials (such as biodiversity protection or environmental conservation) to justify claiming authority over access and use of natural resources across broad swaths of our public lands. But their efforts serve to push humans further away from nature and the landscapes that sustain us. 

Ranchers have turned toward practices that involve stewardship, sustainability, and collaborative conservation on both private and public grazing lands, and our work continues. But we see WWP’s green claims for what they are: they are all about exclusion.

This is the final installment of the four-part series.

Part One: Where Did the Ruby Pipeline Money Go?
Part Two: Private Deals to Retire Public Grazing Permits
Part Three: Western Watersheds Project Grew From A Grudge

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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Cat Urbigkit

Public Lands and Wildlife Columnist