The two major rancher associations in western North Dakota's federal grasslands are deciding whether to sign new 10-year agreements with the U.S. government to govern the administration of grazing permits.

The technical agreements between the Forest Service and the Medora and McKenzie County grazing associations would replace accords that expired Monday for grazing on much of the 1 million-acre Little Missouri National Grasslands - the largest grazing area in the country governed by the Forest Service.

The new agreements do not, however, answer the question of how much grazing will be reduced under a new management plan implemented earlier this decade for the Dakota Prairie Grasslands, a Forest Service division that oversees the Little Missouri and three other national grasslands in North Dakota and South Dakota totaling just under 1.3 million acres. Grazing reductions are being determined through a separate process expected to continue for another seven years.

"We're working through (grazing areas) a block at a time and making adjustments as we go," said Mark Goeden, resources staff officer for the Dakota Prairie Grasslands.

The rancher associations administer grazing on the federal grasslands on behalf of the Forest Service, collecting fees, issuing permits and ensuring management plans for grazing allotments - areas where grazing is permitted - are followed.

"They're pretty complex documents," Goeden said. "We went through them pretty much line by line."

The new agreements were developed after 10 months of negotiations. Keith Winter, president of the McKenzie County Grazing Association, said Tuesday that his group still disagrees with the Forest Service on "several" issues, though he would not immediately say what they are.

Clint Schneider, president of the Medora Grazing Association, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.

Goeden said t he two groups have been given another week to look over the agreements. He said grazing would not come to an abrupt halt if the groups ultimately decided not to sign them, but some sort of interim agreement likely would be devised until the differences could be resolved.

The Forest Service said in a statement that grazing association disagreements could be handled by Agriculture Department administrative reviews.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said he plans to meet Thursday with the head of the Forest Service.

Goeden said the new agreements incorporate language contained in the new management plan, which is aimed at balancing the grasslands' multiple uses - grazing, wildlife habitat, recreation and energy development. The updated plan was signed by the regional forester in 2002, with the grazing portion put on hold.
The Forest Service had estimated the management plan would cut grazing by 9 percent, while ranchers said the amount might be as high as 69 per cent. The Forest Service formed a team of eight independent scientists that spent two years studying the issue. The team concluded the Forest Service's projections were more accurate but were based on too many assumptions.

Given the continued uncertainty, the Forest Service in 2006 set up a project in which federal officials and grazing associations will devise management plans for the estimated 600 ranchers who use the grasslands to graze cattle. The Forest Service said at the time that the project "moves the argument away from the hypothetical and esoteric, to practical field application."

"We're doing evaluations and proposing changes in groups of allotments," Goeden said Tuesday. "Taking a block at a time ... just a matter of what makes sense geographically. It's going to take us probably 10 years to get through all the allotments."

Winter said it is too early for him to comment on how the process is going. "This is all pretty technical stuff," he said.

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