Grazing battle

Refuge manager fears destruction of Browns Park habitat

BROWNS PARK -- Driving out of Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge, Jerry Rodriguez worried Tuesday that the refuge would soon resemble the grassless Bureau of Land Mangement tråacts nearby.

"This is biological desert," Rodriguåez said. "No wildlife comes here, except some elk and deer, and they just pass through."

The grass is gone, eaten by cows from Vermillion Ranch, Rodriguez said. Sagebrush remains, but there is no forage for deer or elk or nesting coverage for birds. The Dickinson family, which owns Vermillion Ranch, leases the land from the BLM.

The Dickinsons also lease Hoy Draw, one of two State Land Board parcels traditionally leased by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and treated as part of the wildlife refuge. The Dickinson family has a 90-day lease on Hoy Draw. Cattle grazing on another BLM lease south of the refuge cross the draw to get access to the Green River.

Rodriguez said he's concerned the grazing cattle will damage the refuge land as they have the BLM land, making it impossible for his staff to provide habitat for migratory birds and forage for wintering deer and elk.

That's the purpose of the refuge, he said.

But T. Wright Dickinson refutes Rodriguez's claims,

saying he believes there is -- and always has been -- an appropriate place for cattle grazing on the refuge.

Four years ago, the Fish & Wildlife Service was negotiating to consolidate the refuge through the purchase of state land.

Now they're fending off attempts to graze cattle on the refuge.

Dickinson said his family practices responsible grazing and that his cattle won't interfere with the refuge's mission. His thoughts are echoed by Moffat County commissioners and the county's Natural Resources Director Jeff Comstock, who maintain that grazing could enhance the refuge. Cattle would mow the weeds that grow throughout the refuge, allowing fresh grasses to grow and eliminating fire hazards, Commissioner Darryl Steele said.

The State Land Board has proposed studying the appropriateness of grazing on state trust lands, the refuge and surrounding BLM land. A six-member committee -- including representatives of the State Land Board, the BLM, Moffat County, Fish and Wildlife, and the Nature Conservancy, plus Dickinson -- plans to select a research firm to conduct the study by May 4, according to the proposal. The final draft of the study is due by the end of October.

Other federal wildlife refuges do allow grazing, and for them, it does work as a management tool, Rodriguez said. And Browns Park Refuge's management plan already takes grazing into account, but it's grazing from big game. It's a losing battle, he said.

"There will be cattle grazing here next year," he said.

In 1999, the State Land Board signed a contract to sell all of its holdings within Colorado refuges to the Fish and Wildlife Service -- the Department of the Interior agency that oversees the refuge -- for $446,000. That included two holdings within Alamosa Wildlife Refuge and the two parcels within Browns Park Refuge.

The Fish and Wildlife Service offered to pay $253,000 just for the Browns Park parcels. The agency had been paying about $3,000 to lease the land. The majority of the proceeds from lease payments for state land goes into a trust fund for public schools. If the parcels continue to be leased for $3,000, it will take the State Land Board 84 years to earn as much money as Fish and Wildlife offered for the two square miles of land.

The deal seemed good at the time, said Britt Weygandt, State Land Board director, although it should be noted that Weygandt didn't work for the State Land Board at the time. She said the money could have been placed in a trust fund and the interest would go towards schools.

But in hindsight, Weygandt said it was in the State Land Board's best interest that the deal didn't go through, because the land is continuing to appreciate. It can be sold for even more in the future, she said.

While the deal was being negotiated, the legislature passed Amendment 16, requiring a period of public comment for federal actions within Colorado. In Alamosa, the public was generally positive and supportive of the sale, she said. But in Moffat County, the board of commissioners as well as the Moffat County Tourism Association objected to the deal.

On behalf of the Moffat County commissioners, Comstock wrote the State Land Board a letter objecting to the sale of the land. The timing of the sale was bad, he wrote. Expansions of Dinosaur National Monument and the refuge were being proposed, as well as a wilderness designation for Vermillion Basin.

"The combination of the above issues complicate and jeopardize the custom and culture of Moffat County," Comstock wrote.

He went on to write that 5,910.64 mineral acres existed within the boundaries of the refuge and expressed concern that if Fish and Wildlife obtained more land containing state-owned mineral acres, energy exploration could be hindered.

Lastly, he said, the sale did not fit into the county's land-use policy. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act guarantees counties a significant role in land use planning on public land.

After taking these comments into account, the State Land Board canceled the sale, Weygandt said.

Three years after the sale fell through, Fish and Wildlife is still working to buy the land, while county commissioners and Dickinson push for a study to determine the appropriateness of cattle grazing on the state land as well as refuge land.

Dickinson holds leases on landlocked BLM land south of the refuge. To give Dickinson's cattle access to the Green River, Rodriguez constructed three water gaps across the refuge. Two are about three-quarters of a mile long and 100 yards wide, while the third is narrow and built in a flood drainage.

Dickinson said the third drainage was inadequate to meet his needs. He said the bank leading to the water was too steep and the section of river was too deep. He claimed his cattle could die trying to get to the water.

Rodriguez objected, saying that he didn't have to build any water gaps, but he did so as a neighborly gesture. He pointed to cow tracks leading down the bank to the river as an example of the cows' ability to access water from the water gap.

The State Land Board sided with Dickinson and said the water gap was unusable. The board granted Vermillion Ranch a temporary lease on Hoy Draw for the price of $500.

Colorado has fence-out laws. That means it's Fish and Wildlife's responsibility to put a fence around Hoy Draw to keep Dickinson's cattle off the refuge.

Rodriguez said he drove to Hoy Draw the morning after Dickinson put his cattle on it. Not a single cow was left on the square mile of land, he said.

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