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Wyoming, USDA Sign Forest Improvement Agreement, Which Focuses On Fire Protection

in News/wildlife
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Gov. Mark Gordon and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue signed a new agreement Tuesday between the U.S. Forest Service and the state to promote forest management and respond to ecological challenges.

Under the “Shared Stewardship Agreement,” Wyoming and the USDA will work together on forest and grassland restoration across both federal and state lands, with a focus on protecting at-risk communities and watersheds from wildfire.

“I am excited to sign this agreement today with Secretary Perdue. It marks an increased opportunity for us to combine expertise and resources, better our national forests and grasslands, and serve all of the citizens of Wyoming,” Gordon said in a news release. “The importance of our national forest system lands, to our communities, for water, for businesses like logging and agriculture, and just for general enjoyment cannot be understated. I applaud the efforts to date and am genuinely excited to see what we can do together in the future.”

The agreement calls for federal and state agencies to take part in joint planning, the pooling of resources and continued investment in existing partnerships and programs that support collaborative work.

“This agreement strengthens the already strong partnership between the Forest Service and the State of Wyoming,” Perdue said in a news release. “Through Shared Stewardship, Wyoming and the Forest Service will work together to identify landscape-scale priorities and build capacity to improve forest conditions.”

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Hemp industry, Ag Department await USDA response to state’s regulatory plan

in News/Agriculture/Business
CBD oil
2208

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Hemp could be a cash crop for Wyoming growers in coming years, but seeds can’t be sown until the U.S. Department of Agriculture signs off on the state’s regulatory program.

“We have not heard much back from the USDA,” said Stacia Berry, Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA) deputy director. “They anticipate having their rules out this fall.”

Hemp was legalized in 2018 after President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill, which allows ag producers to grow hemp as long as the plants contain no more than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

In February, the Wyoming Legislature approved legislation removing hemp products from regulation by the Wyoming Controlled Substances Act, giving rule-making authority to the WDA and requiring the department to submit a state plan for the regulation of hemp to the USDA.

The WDA plan was submitted to the USDA in April.

Regulating hemp

Hemp is marijuana with a THC level lower than 0.3 percent and is grown for three primary products: Cannabidoil (CBD), seeds and grains.   

“(THC) is a genetic trait that you select for,” Berry said. “One of the things that can be a little tricky is, like any crop, it can change a little under stress, like heat or water stress.”

The WDA’s analytical services lab in Laramie will be tasked with testing hemp crops before harvest to ensure the plants have not crossed the allowable THC threshold, she said.

“We will have inspectors that go to the different farms and do testing, collect samples, then return those samples to the lab,” Berry explained.

Additionally, she said her department will work closely with law enforcement agencies to ensure the regulatory guidelines are followed.

The discussion about how to appropriately regulate hemp began about five years ago.

“We have worked extensively with other states’ departments of agriculture,” Berry said. “Especially in regards to understanding their approach to regulation: What has worked for them, what hasn’t worked.” The WDA gained significant insight from the Colorado and Kentucky licensing and testing protocols.

“Those are two of your highest-producing hemp states,” Berry explained.  

Processing and education

Ag plays a major role in economic development throughout the Bighorn Basin, so Christine Bekes, executive director of the Powell Economic Partnership, has spent the last year cultivating relationships with potential partners in the hemp industry. 

“There’s 25,000 to 50,000 products that can be made with hemp,” Bekes said. “Right now, most of the processors are looking at the CBD oil extraction.”

The biggest challenge for growers in the coming years is finding partners on the processing side, she said. 

“Our growers can grow anything, but if we can’t get it to market, it doesn’t do us any good,” Berry said. “I would caution any grower not to grow hemp without a contract.”

Once the USDA approves the regulatory program, processors can cement plans for building facilities to accommodate the predicted influx of hemp in 2020. Until then, Bekes said it’s important to bring as many partners as possible to the discussion table.  

“The biggest component is education,” she explained. “If people are considering hemp as an opportunity, whether it’s growing, processing or end products, I would really emphasize education, awareness and communication.”

The Wyoming Hemp Association, www.wyhemp.org, could be an information source for interested parties in the future, along with the WDA and University of Wyoming.

Jim Heitholt, director of the UW Powell Research and Extension Center Agricultural Experiment Station, confirmed his staff would conduct basic studies about the the viability of hemp crops in the Bighorn Basin once the USDA approved the WDA plan. As the new year draws near, both Bekes and the WDA said they’ve seen increased interest in hemp from around the state, but so far, it’s been a waiting game.

“Right now, we’re all preparing for it to be in the ground in 2020,” Bekes said. “In the meantime, the Wyoming Hemp Association has reviewed the WDA plan and engaged in conversations with the WDA and law enforcement. Growers and processors continue to work in the background.”

USDA helps veterans turn from swords to plowshares

in News/military/Agriculture
USDA helps veterans turn from swords to plowshares
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Young people are losing interest in the agriculture industry, but the United States Department of Agriculture is hoping low-interest loans could attract a different demographic — veterans. The USDA’s loan program has been around in one form or another since the 1930s, said Rob Weppner, a USDA Farm Service Agency farm loan manager based in northeastern Wyoming.

“There’s always been a bit of preference toward veterans,” Weppner explained.

The department, however, is ramping up efforts to attract veterans, spending about $64.5 million in direct and guaranteed farm operating loans for veterans in 2018, a USDA news release stated.

Grant Stumbaugh, a USDA spokesperson for the Wyoming branch of the Farm Service Agency, said incentivizing veterans was about more than simply slowing labor force leakage.   

“Veterans have served our country and risked their lives,” Stumbaugh said. “The least we can do is give them every possibility to do what they want to do.”

The USDA offers veterans more than 40 loan, grant and technical assistance programs to support the purchase and development of land and facilities, purchase equipment and supplies, refinance job expansion and finance energy efficiency improvements.

“Nearly one-quarter of veterans, approximately 5 million, live in rural areas,” Bill Ashton, USDA Military Veteran Agricultural Liaison, said in a news release. “(The) USDA is committed to making our programs accessible to help veterans start or grow a career and maximize the potential talent of this population.” 

Low-interest loans

Starting out in the agriculture industry can be challenging and risky, Stumbaugh said.

“A lot of younger folks don’t really want to go out there and work that hard,” he explained. “And to be honest, sometimes the return isn’t that good — you’re not making a whole lot of money, plus there’s the risk of running into natural catastrophes.”

Add that to the rising cost of real estate and the future of ag workers in America starts to look gloomy, he added.

“(USDA loans and grants) give vets a leg up in the industry,” Stumbaugh said. “Plus they can use that money for operating expenses to give them some help to get started.”

Weppner said the loan programs provide people with a low-interest option for funding family-sized farm operations.

“The interest is based on the loan type,” he explained. “But, the (Farm Service Agency) rates tend to be lower than the commercial rates.”

While Weppner said he’s worked with veterans in the past, neither he nor Stumbaugh were aware of any Wyoming veterans currently enrolled in USDA loan programs.

Despite reports of downward labor force trends, the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services reported the industry has experienced a recent uptick in its agricultural workers category.

In 2008, Workforce Services recorded 2,558 people in the sector. In 2013, 2,798 people were employed in ag industries. And by 2018, the workforce grew to 3,016, said Aubrey Kofoed, a Workforce Services administrative assistant.

The growth, however, does not necessarily reflect the number of people taking jobs on ranches and farms in the state, because the department’s agriculture category also includes forestry, fishing and hunting jobs, Kofoed added.

Neither the USDA Farm Service Agency or Rural Development office had data immediately available on the number of ranchers and farmers in Wyoming.

Working the land

Programs like USDA loans are a key component to helping veterans reintegrate into the civilian workforce, a Department of Veterans Affairs spokesperson said.

“The VA focuses on attempting to get veterans jobs and the federal government is one of the largest employers in America,” said Sam House, the Cheyenne VA public affairs officer. “It’s great we have agencies that are willing to partner with us to achieve those goals.”

Every veteran’s experience differs, but for some, returning to the bright lights and constant noise of city life isn’t as attractive as an opportunity to become part of a rural community.

“There’s no greater feeling than being out on the farm and seeing land that needs to be worked and knowing you can do it yourself,” House said. “But it’s a dying industry, and I think veterans could help turn that around.”

For more information about USDA loans, contact your local USDA Field Service Agency and ask to speak to a loan officer. Visit www.fsa.usda.gov for a list of offices in Wyoming.

Why a Federal Agency Kills Millions of Animals

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing/wildlife/Agriculture
USDA Wildlife Services
1570

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Within the last week Wyoming Wildlife Advocates has been busily posting on social media about USDA Wildlife Services, including this statement: “Wildlife Services kills millions of animals in the U.S. each year for no purpose.”

That is a lie – a deliberate falsehood.

With WWA spreading fabrications about this federal agency and its activities, it should have come as no surprise to see that a WWA supporter responded to one such post with “Kill those who allow this senseless slaughter of innocent animals.” When questioned whether the poster was advocating the murder of humans, the poster replied, “let me just say I am for preserving wolves over humans.”

WWA left the post advocating murder of human beings in place without comment, but when someone posted in support of wolf hunting, WWA had repeated responses about why wolves shouldn’t be killed. WWA’s lack of response to the murder advocate is a rather revealing tell, as they say in poker.

Groups like WWA love to hate USDA Wildlife Services, the federal agency specializing in wildlife damage management. They call Wildlife Services a “rogue agency” and cite the millions of animals killed by agency personnel each year in order to generate outrage.

Let’s take a look at what Wildlife Services actually did last year:

  • Worked at 843 airports to reduce aviation strikes with wildlife, and trained nearly 5,000 airport personnel in wildlife identification and control methods.
  • Collected more than 46,000 samples from wild animals to test for 37 different wildlife diseases and conditions in wild mammals, birds, and reptiles. One-third of these were for surveillance of avian influenza, and another third were for rabies testing.
  • Killed 2.6 million animals – half of which were invasive species. Eighty percent of the animals lethally removed (killed) were either European starlings or blackbirds removed under a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service depredation order because of damage to food crops, other commodities, property, and livestock. The agency used nonlethal methods to move another 41 million starlings and blackbirds from areas where they were causing damage.
  • Protected 185 threatened or endangered wildlife and plant species from the impacts of disease, invasive species, and predators, including removing more than 55,000 non-native Northern pike minnow in the Pacific Northwest to protect federally threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.
  • Of the 42.9 million animals encountered in damage management activities, 94 percent were dispersed unharmed.
  • Removed more than 73,000 feral swine, a 12-percent increase in removal of this invasive and destructive species.
  • Coyotes were the native mammal most often killed, with 68,000 killed in 48 states (for comparison, hunters and trappers in 39 states took 440,000 coyotes in 2014-2015).
  • At the request of other agencies, killed a total of 357 wolves in five states in response to repeated livestock depredations, or to protect localized wildlife populations.

Half of Wildlife Services’ funding last year was spent to reduce or prevent wildlife hazards to human health and safety, while 25 percent of funding was spent protecting agriculture, and the remaining quarter went toward property and natural resources protection, including threatened and endangered species. The agency provided technical assistance to more than a quarter-million customers nationwide in 2018.

Wildlife Services does not attempt to eradicate any native wild animal population. The agency is charged with managing problems caused by wildlife, and does so in cooperation with other federal, state, and local agencies. To pretend that Wildlife Services is out to kill millions of wild animals with no purpose is as illogical as pretending that human/wildlife conflicts don’t exist. It’s simply not true.

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.

What’s next for hemp in Wyoming?

in News/Agriculture
Wyoming approves hemp production sale of CBD oil
1071

 By Becky Orr, Cowboy State Daily

When Gov. Mark Gordon signed HB 171 into law Wednesday, he made it legal to for farmers to grow industrial hemp and sell hemp-based products like CBD oil in Wyoming.

But it likely will be a while before farmers will harvest the first hemp crop from the Cowboy State’s soil, given all that’s required to start the regulatory process.

Derek Grant, public information officer for the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, said Friday that he would not speculate on when the program would begin. It might be this fall, but perhaps later, he said. “We’re going to move as quickly as we can,” Grant said.  “We’re moving with a sense of urgency with a good dose of caution.”

Approval of HB171 comes after changes occurred in the 2018 USDA farm bill to remove hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. The latest farm bill considers the plant as a regulated agriculture crop.

Hemp is a plant that can be used to make paper, clothing, textiles, food, shoes, building materials and thousands of other products.  The plant is part of the cannabis family but contains only trace amounts of THC – a psychoactive chemical – compared to marijuana.

HB 171 requires farmers to apply to the Agriculture Department for a license to grow hemp. The department is working to develop the required forms. It’s also completing a plan detailing the operation of regulatory program. The plan must be sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture within 30 days after the bill’s signing.

The law provides $315,000 to the state Agriculture Department to buy equipment that will test the concentration of THC in hemp to make sure it stays below 0.3 percent.  A higher THC content means the hemp will be categorized as marijuana. The bill also provides $120,000 to hire and train people to get the program going.

Rep. Bucky Loucks, R-Casper, sponsored the bill, which won strong approval in both the Senate and House this legislative session. Supporters say it will help Wyoming’s farmers develop a cash crop and diversify the state’s economy.

“I think anytime we can have more opportunity to diversify and find more products in Wyoming is a good thing,” Grant said. “We just want to make sure we do it right.” 

He urges farmers to check the department’s web page for more information.

Ron Rabou and his family operate an organic wheat farm near Albin in Laramie County. Rabou, a long-time supporter of growing industrial hemp,  said he is excited about the new law. 

“The big positive here is that we have a bill now that will provide massive opportunities for Wyoming ag producers,” he said.

But he cautions that farmers must make sure there are markets to buy the crop. Farmers who produce hemp must become experts regarding market demands, he said. 

“This is not going to be where all of a sudden, we can start growing hemp and it will make immediate profitability,” he said.  “In my opinion, it will take years for those markets to develop.”

“I think it’s great to be excited. But just because this bill got passed, doesn’t  mean (there will be) an immediate effect on the ag economy,” Rabou continued. “Be careful about jumping in with both feet at this point. Unless you have a market where you can sell your crop, having all the product in the world will not make a difference.”

For more information on the Wyoming Department of Agriculture’s hemp program, visit the department’s website at: https://wyoagric.state.wy.us/

For more information on Rabou Farms, visit its website at: http://www.raboufarms.com/

Unable to eliminate brucellosis, officials focus on containment

in News/Agriculture
Bull and cow elk in a meadow, ALT=Unable to eliminate brucellosis, officials focus on containment in elk and cattle
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Snubbing out a disease that causes cattle, elk and bison to abort their calves may not be feasible, but Wyoming is working to ensure it remains contained.

Brucella Abortus, a bacteria and one of the causative agents of brucellosis, was discovered in two northwestern Wyoming cattle herds in October. The latest in a line of several outbreaks of the disease since 2003, the affected herds were quarantined. But Wyoming State Veterinarian Dr. Jim Logan said the quarantine won’t prevent other herds in northwestern Wyoming from potentially contracting the disease from its primary vector — wildlife.

“In animals, (Brucellosis) is transmitted orally,” Logan explained. “If an (infected) aborted fetus or placenta or fluids get on the ground during the time the bacteria is active, cattle, bison and elk are pretty curious and will lick at stuff like that.”

Brucellosis is at its most dangerous February through June, when the affected species are calving, but he said the bacteria could be active for months if environmental conditions are right.

Humans who are exposed to direct contact with Brucella Abortus are also at risk, said Hank Edwards, supervisor for wildlife health at the Wyoming Game and Fish Laboratory.

“It goes to humans, but it doesn’t cause abortions,” Edwards explained. “It does cause undulant fever, which is not usually fatal, but that means it’s a fever that rises and falls, rises and falls. It is a nasty, nasty disease.”

Both Edwards and Logan said meat from infected animals is edible. “This is not a food safety issue as long as the food is properly prepared,” Logan said. “To my knowledge, brucellosis has never been transmitted in that way.”

It is most commonly transmitted to humans from unpasteurized milk, he added. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 100 people are infected in the U.S. with the disease annually.

Infected wildlife

Introduced to the Greater Yellowstone Area around the mid-1800s, Brucella Abortus spread unchecked through local fauna until the 1950s, Edwards said.

In 1954, congressional funding was allocated for a cooperative state-federal brucellosis eradication program, USDA documents state. At the time, Brucellosis was rampant across the country with about 124,000 affected cattle herds identified through testing across the U.S. in 1956. By 1992, only about 700 herds were affected and in recent years, affected herds nationwide are frequently in the single digits, the USDA reported.

All 50 states are now listed by the USDA as brucellosis-free, but Edwards said Wyoming is home to one of a few remaining Designated Surveillance Areas (DSA) for the disease.

The DSA in Wyoming consists of Park, Sublette and Teton counties in their entirety and parts of Fremont, Lincoln and Hot Springs counties.

Game and Fish Department personnel regularly test the elk and bison populations — the disease can infect other wildlife, but is primarily transmitted by elk, bison and cattle — in the DSA. Edwards said approximately 30 percent to 40 percent of elk and about 60 percent of bison in the area have been exposed to Brucella Abortus.

“This is an incredibly complex disease,” he said. “We now have that disease in our wildlife population and that spills back into our cattle population.”

In some cases, the disease spreads through wildlife herds at state-run feedgrounds, then the infected species move to feed lines on private property where it can spread to livestock.

“We’ve always figured that to control brucellosis, we could eliminate those feedgrounds,” Edwards said. “But, in another case, we found brucellosis in elk herd near Cody, which did not have access to feedgrounds. So, closing feedgrounds is not going to solve the issue.”

While vaccines exist for cattle and bison, one has not been successfully developed for elk. Even if one did exist, Edwards said administering it to the entire elk population of northwestern Wyoming would be extremely challenging. 

“All a vaccine does is limit the severity of the disease,” Edwards said. “It does not stop it from spreading.”

Livestock interaction

After decades of aggressively targeting the brucellosis in the U.S., the federal and state campaigns were successful and the disease disappeared from Wyoming’s log book for nearly 20 years.

One livestock case was recorded in 1988, then Brucellosis in cattle disappeared until 2003, Logan said. Since, about 12 cases have been recorded, occurring in ones and twos every couple of years, he recalled.

“If we get a positive result from a lab test … we immediately quarantine the herd from which the animal came,” Logan said. “That herd will be under quarantine until it has undergone three consecutive negative herd-wide tests.”

In the DSA, livestock producers are required to test their animals regularly. If an animal tests positive, producers are responsible for the quarantine. A positive test in the fall might not significantly affect their livelihood, because the herd would likely be on the home range during the winter months anyway, Logan said. But he explained a positive test in the summer could require the producer to keep the cows at home during prime range season, burning through valuable feed stores needed for the following winter.

There are several theories about the recent proliferation of Brucella Abortus, but Logan said he didn’t believe it could be attributed to a single reason. 

“I think there are lots of factors that come to play in this,” he said. “Some of it is urbanization, some of it is the elk population increase and an increase in large predators. If you look back in history, a lot of this has a lot to do with the reintroduction of wolves (in Wyoming).”

Wolves were reintroduced to the Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996, and a few years later, ranchers started detecting brucellosis in their livestock again.

“What I have been told from various producers is wolves are moving elk where elk had not been before,” Logan said. “As a result, there is more likelihood of interaction with elk and cattle.”

Some ranchers believe using a different vaccine — the original vaccine — would eliminate Wyoming’s livestock brucellosis problem altogether.

In 1997, state veterinarians nationwide banned the old vaccine, Strain 19, because it left a residual trace or “titer” in some animals, creating a false positive for brucellosis in later tests. The vaccine was replaced with RB51, which Logan said is just as effective.

“It creates immunity a little different than the old one,” he said. “But it does not create the titer.” 

For now, constant testing and quarantines could be the best way to manage brucellosis in Wyoming, but Edwards said a solution might be needed soon.

“Brucellosis was introduced into the Greater Yellowstone Area around the Civil War, and for the most part, it stayed there — that’s something we can handle,” he explained. “But in the last six years, we’ve discovered it in the Big Horn Mountains. Here’s the scary part, because we have a disease we can’t really control, if it was to become established in a population like the Big Horn Mountains, there’s not a lot we can do to stop it outside of flying in a helicopter and culling all the elk.”

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