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Responding to public concerns about protecting and improving Strawberry Valley wildlife habitat, Uinta National Forest Supervisor Don Nebeker has suspended livestock grazing in the valley - at least for now.

Nebeker's decision comes after several months of study and public comment on six management proposals for the Strawberry Valley Management Area, which comprises 56,775 acres of land transferred to the Uinta National Forest by the Bureau of Reclamation. The proposals are part of an environmental impact statement prepared for the area.

The selected management alternative - "watershed-fisheries-watershed-wildlife emphasis" - rules out continued cattle or sheep grazing, while emphasizing recreation and habitat improvement for fish and wildlife. Other alternatives ranged from no change in past practices to an emphasis on livestock grazing.

"My decision is based on the analysis documented in the final environmental impact statement, current resource conditions, current public interest, the management direction established in the Uinta National Forest and Resource Management Plan and recommendations of the Strawberry Ad Hoc Executive Board," Nebeker said in his "record of decision."

"Of the alternatives considered, I find the selected alternative provides for the highest standard of resource management," he said. Nebeker said the chosen alternative responds to user demands, public and management concerns and is the most economically efficient.

"It was chosen because it provided the greatest protection to the $3 million investment for rehabilitation of the area and the $2 million investment to reduce non-game fish populations," he said.

"It is the most responsive to concerns by the general public to protect and improve the area. It has the lowest present net cost and the highest benefit-cost ratio of all the alternatives."

According to the environmental impact statement, management under the chosen alternative will include "fish and wildlife habitat improvement through stream-bank stabilization, revegetation of riparian areas, improvements in water quality, rehabilitation of upland areas, noxious weed control . . . and development of specific habitat parameters for wildlife use."

Forest spokeswoman Loyal Clark said 95 percent of those commenting on the proposed management alternatives supported the selected alternative.

"This is nothing unexpected," she said. "This is what the public and sportsmen want. We don't anticipate any problems."

An administrative appeal process will be conducted later this summer once the record of decision is signed and published.

Norm Huntsman, branch chief for range, wildlife and watershed, said Nebeker's decision likely won't sit well with members of the Strawberry Water Users Association, who wanted grazing to continue in the valley.

Nevertheless, he said, the percentage of those who want continued grazing was small compared to those opposed to grazing.

Once Strawberry Valley watershed, streams and fisheries have improved under the management plan and meet certain ecosystem guidelines, "Then we will revisit the grazing question," Huntsman said. "If there is future grazing, the Strawberry Water Users will have the first right of refusal."

But if grazing eventually is allowed again, he said, it will be away from recreation areas and limited to fewer animals to prevent overgrazing from recurring.