WASHINGTON - With drought withering open grazing lands, Western ranchers are lobbying the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow their herds onto federally protected acres.

Ranchers had hoped to have their herds on the protected land by May 1, but have been caught in a holding pattern for the last three weeks, waiting for word from Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman.

Veneman had still not made a decision as of Friday, said Jim Brownlee, a USDA spokesman. Brownlee said he wasn't sure when a decision would be made.

Cattlemen cannot allow their herds to feed on lands in the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program - where private landowners are paid an average of $30-$35 an acre to allow wild grasses to grow over unused land - without approval from Veneman.

Opening the so-called CRP acres would be a rare measure by the secretary, and in Montana, where drought has been severe, it has been allowed only twice in the last four years, said Randy Johnson, executive director of the USDA's Farm Service Agency in that state.

"This is fairly unusual," Johnson said.

It was Johnson's office, in Bozeman, that made the appeal to Veneman to allow grazing and haying on CRP land in 44 Montana counties. Montana has 3.4 million acres in the conservation program.

Landowners who lease their rights to the USDA through the Conservation Reserve Program essentially agree to not allow grazing, haying or any kind of crop production on the land. The purpose behind the 15-year-old program is to protect erodable farmland by encouraging the growth of natural prairie grass.

The ranchers' cause has been taken up by Montana's congressional delegation, with Rep. Denny Rehberg, the state's at-large Republican who is himself a livestock owner, pressing the USDA to open the CRP lands.

Rehberg said he is disappointed with the agency's refusal to make a decision.

"I've been one cranky soul for the last couple weeks," Rehberg said. "Every day that goes by exacerbates both an emotional and financial problem. We need a decision. I don't think they understand how critical this is in the state of Montana."

Drought conditions are hurting ranchers in neighboring Wyoming as well, state officials there said.

About 1,200 ranchers in the Big Horn Basin of northern-central Wyoming are starting to sell some their cattle because of a water shortage, said Jim Schwartz, deputy director of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture.

However, Wyoming has not appealed to have CRP land opened because most of the land in that program is on the opposite end of the state from the critical drought area.

There is a limited window of opportunity for the ranchers in Montana. Land held in the conservation program cannot be opened to ranchers after July 15, the start of nesting season for birds such as pheasant and grouse.

Ranchers, meanwhile, must decide how to feed their herds. All the options outside of going onto the CRP lands are expensive. The ranchers can move their herds into neighboring states, buy hay or sell off their herds, potentially at a loss.

"If they're going to receive any relief, they need action now," Rehberg said.

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