Overgrazing and drought have led to habitat kill-off.
Habitat Restoration is in Crisis Today
When you drive westward in the United States land opens into a large stretching expanse. The cramped spaces of metropolitan areas start to fade into larger plots of land, and eventually into large allotments of millions of government-owned acres that are managed by a federal government entity: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This is just one of many government entities that are stakeholders here in the West, but especially in Wyoming, it is a huge component of how we utilize public lands today. There is a responsibility tied to the large allotments that the public, non-profit agencies, and government entities have to aggressively pursue in habitat management and restoration to keep these places wild and useable for all.
Specifically, the McCullough Peaks Herd Management (HMA) area is recently under scrutiny in Park County, Wyoming. This allotment is approximately 125,000 acres of government land that houses a well-known wild horse herd. The allotment is open for UTV travelers, hunters, wildlife, and permit grazing for cattle. It is the exact example of confrontational multi-use land that locals squabble about here daily. Whether you support the economic aspect of it being a grazer’s domain versus a wild horse sanctuary is beside the point to the one common problem that is now escalating to a crisis; the habitat is in desperate need of restoration since previous conservation efforts have not met the need.
Image courtesy of www.blm.gov.
In driving the 70-mile stretch of highway on the southernmost boundary of the McCullough Peaks HMA, you can see where bare ground is now visible in many areas. This is not ideal for the area in many regards. With a drought in its third-year cycle for an already low precipitation area across northern Wyoming, the lack of vegetation causes soil erosion from our high winds. According to Boyd’s study, the invasion of post-fire and overgrazing helps to foster the invasive grasses and plants that kill off native vegetation. This is a serious issue moving forward in how the ground will reclaim itself, if it can, in years to come for the wildlife and wild horses that depend on it daily.
Finally, the Wyoming big sagebrush step is becoming threatened by its third enemy: over-grazing. Historically, Wyoming ranges were first grazed heavily by sheep and then followed by cattle. This land was a large and accommodating movement at first. With the human footprint growing in the west these large grazing allotments are shrinking and constricting economic usage along with wildlife movement.
Stepping out of the vehicle on the Whistle Creek access road, reaching down I can feel the dry crusted dirt as I mull it around in my hand, run through my fingers, and realize that without ground cover, water, and active human conservation this large allotment is in danger of becoming a wasteland resulting in a graveyard to so much in the natural ecosystem that depends on it for survival.
In just 51 years from the pivotal acceptance of Public law: 92-195, the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, this key herd management area is under threat of housing another hated tradition of helicopter gathers if we are not careful on how we maintain and utilize the space publicly in sharing with these federally protected animals that have called the McCullough Peaks home for over 100 years.
Long-time habitant and Cody, Wyoming resident, Debbi Stambaugh remembers when she would go riding on horseback with friends after class across the HMA and never have an issue finding a teaming watering hole and one of the many small remudas of wild horses grazing and roaming freely across the landscape. In a short time span, we have gone to herds circling and kicking up dust in 2022 here in Park County because of the over-grazed areas in the south pasture. She said it is sad to see that habitat is going to waste with poor management.
Can anything really be done?
One must first look at the changes over 50 years and the way the allotment has changed in how it is publicly used.
Let’s look at the factors of usage:
-2 active cattle grazing permits
-a wild horse herd of about 170 head
-public hunting and UTV access on established roads
-wildlife wintering grounds, especially for the antelope migration
-key sage grouse habitat for nesting
There are multiple stressors on the natural resources. These stressors all have a viable interest and right to publicly accessible ground by law.
Now let’s look at the human footprint and controllable factors
we must reduce stress on the HMA habitat.
-cattle grazing regulation
-public access to hunting & UTV travel
-weed abatement & natural species reseeding
-fertility control for the wild horse population (PZP)
In contrast to the wildlife and wild horses, we can control four factors of usage on the HMA to an extent. Recently in 2021, there was an initiative group born out of the local Cody BLM Field Office. This BLM working group consists of the permittees that hold the grazing permits, a local non-profit advocacy group Friends of a Legacy (FOAL), and BLM field management employees that hold a vetted interest or work-related responsibility inside the McCullough Peaks HMA. This group is actively working together unlike other working groups in the past.
I went on a field day with representatives of each group and was pleasantly surprised by how cooperative people were with each other that possess such varying viewpoints on how to manage public ground. If you ruminate on the situation, you have the capitalist and bottom-line men, the people who want nature undisturbed, and the people that have to navigate the bureaucratic red-tape for the government to keep everyone happy who are all involved within feet of each other. The calm discussion, idea presentation, and options for better management were shared back and forth with no contest against someone’s character for the stake they represent held against them!
Is conservation achievable to reverse the adverse effects to the HMA range?! I believe that a roadmap has been set that makes it most definitely an attainable goal. Water projects are already underway that will facilitate a tentative working relationship in deliverables for all invested in the matter. However, can this alliance survive years of tradition and verbal historical perspectives of each other mulled around at the local bar on a Friday night? One can only hope.
Boyd, C.S., Davies, K.W. Spatial Variability in Cost and Success of Revegetation in a Wyoming Big Sagebrush Community. Environmental Management 50, 441–450 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00267-012-9894-6
Stambaugh, Debbi. 2022.01.22. Personal Interview in home about HMA & the Wild Horses of the McCullough Peaks.
Zierlein, Kim. January 2022. Photos and audio provided from personal field review.
written by Kim Zierlein | 2/14/2022
(Above from Left to Right) Brad Tribby, Greg Flitner, Marshal Dominick, John McGee, Adam Stephens, and Tricia Hatle discuss reservoir renovation priorities on January 4, 2022, at one of the 28 marked reservoirs within the McCullough Peaks Herd Management Area.
A quick video of the view from the highway of the southern pasture that is a part of the entire McCullough Peaks HMA allotment.
(Above) Whistle Creek reservoir is one of the most northern remote reservoirs within the HMA that is in desperate need of restoration for wildlife and cattle to utilize water where the pasture has not been over grazed to date. Photo by Kim Zierlein, 1/4/2022.
(Above) Working map of reservoir location in the McCullough Peaks Herd Management Area and planning priority reservoir restoration work needing to be completed in the next 10 years.
Map courtesy for the Cody BLM Field office.