Sage Grouse Habitat and Spring Grazing
Recently an article was published in the local Twin Falls, Idaho newspaper regarding work being done to study the effects of “spring grazing” on public lands. The question being asked is simple enough: does the grazing impact the functional nature of sage grouse habitat? The scientific approach to getting at an answer is valid and one worth pursuing. That said, a little common sense on the matter would go a long way in saving taxpayer dollars with regard to the effort and the research that will go into this project.
The findings in several existing reports show that one of the leading factors in habitat loss is directly attributable to the encroachment of invasive species and the subsequent fire cycles they promote. In particular Cheat Grass (Bromus tectorum) is a special case largely responsible for driving the fire cycles in the Great Basin regions of the western United States (Balch et al. 2013).
This being generally accepted, the reality of the situation from there is remarkably ignored. It is not politically acceptable to state the root cause of the degradation that allows for the invasive species to invade in the first place. Therefore it must be stated, yes it’s true, grazing (especially early spring grazing through the bolt stage of plant growth) has a very real impact on the landscape.
This is not new and has been well documented for decades by both pro grazing advocates as well as those bent on the removal of public land grazing entirely (Yensen 1981, Roberts 1994, Vallentine and Stevens 1994). In fact, much has been discussed on the topic over time. But like so many things it is threatening to an economic model as well as a lifestyle choice that Americans hold very near and dear to their hearts. It should be noted just as boldly that grazing of public lands with appropriate timing and rotational grazing incorporated into the process IS A GOOD THING for the landscape (Loeser et al 2007).
It is unfortunate, however, that timing is not always considered, in part due to the business needs of the rancher grazing the land. Any business trying to remain viable needs to consider several things, one obvious need is to compensate for inflation over time. Ranchers have become increasingly savvy with how to keep up in this regard, but consider the nature of the business and the passing of the land to heirs.
For arguments sake, let’s take 3% increase in inflation and costs annually over a centennial ranch. That’s a 300% increase in what the rancher and/or his family would need to ask of the land to maintain the business model (and that comfortably excludes the subsidies provided by tax payers). In real terms that’s 300% more beef or a combination of gains in efficiency, stocking rates, and available resources.
The need for higher stocking rates on public lands has increased over time and for much of that history the science of “improving management of the resource” has facilitated the growth ranchers need to be sustainable. It is my opinion that this is no longer the case. The land has given what it can, in many cases more than it can. Maintaining the current stocking rates with the subsidies and inputs through good science have tapped the resource to its best and fullest end. The resource can no longer sustain what it is being asked to do with a rate of return that allows/affords the lifestyles being asked from it. Ranching truly is a labor of love.
That said (and back to point) ranchers predominantly utilize public land grazing from spring through fall, pulling off over winter months to maintain their herds closer to home for calving and wintering. This leads one to the common sense idea that livestock need to utilize range land in the spring as the reserves of feed through winter have been completely utilized.
This does not allow for much give and take in the use of public grazing lands in the spring. Rotational grazing systems can be a great help with this but due to history, coupled with antiquated laws that dictate season of use, the practice is often not even an option. Many ranchers would like access to different grazing land to support the concept of rotational grazing.
The irony comes in when folks trying to “help” the landscape (labeled environmentalists) prevent this move under the auspices of “no use is better use”. Counterintuitive to the overall look at things, everyone involved often finds themselves shooting their preverbal foot. A broader understanding of the needs from every aspect is necessary. I know its cliché, but education is the answer in this case. Unfortunately, today’s society leads to more fighting and infighting amongst those that might otherwise find a good solution.
Not to overstate the obvious but a hand holding, group hug moment around the communal fire is not necessary. Rather, I propose using a little common sense. Fewer cows = less overall use, better seasonal use of the livestock in play, accountability for large scale concepts with regard to restoration success on public land, and a better education forum provided by those in charge so everyone is educated more and emotional less about the economics and the environmental stresses.
Oh and, a large dose of honesty within each camps misgivings might also be a significant gain in overall progress.
1. more honesty from everyone
2. less emotion
3. better accounting
4. an empirical view of the realities on the ground (avoiding the anecdotal observations as fact)
5. accountability for those in charge of success and failure as it pertains to public land management
6. the same rules for all users of public lands (no special treatment based on tenure)
As a side note, on the #5 topic ask yourself this: when was the last time you heard the BLM take responsibility for dollars spent on a failed restoration project? They do not effectively outline what success might look like on their account. If a land lease is engaged from a surface user other than a rancher, for example Oil and Gas development or wind development, the BLM has had no issues creating extremely strict policy for restoration success and the monitoring they expect to substantiate that success.
The differences in how they hold some accountable and completely ignore others is not just disparate but down right ghastly. The BLM self admittedly cannot manage its holdings effectively and as a result they have relied heavily on the ethos of those using the land to be good stewards. One could argue this is why industry is treated more harshly than the ranching community. I would argue that money is now, and always has been, the driver. I think everyone would benefit if the law makers were held accountable to their own standards.
If the BLM fails to produce a quality product then logically they, just like everyone else, need to be held accountable. While it may not be the current BLM employees’ fault that people and history have accumulated to facilitate the degradation of the land as it currently sits, it is their responsibility to “manage” it now. The same rules need to apply to everyone, not just the ones the public feels good about holding to the line.
In closing, save the dollars on this one and just look at the literature that has already been produced and implement the science in an honest way.
Conservation Seeding & Restoration Inc CEO, Restoration Ecologist
Balch, J. K., B.A. Bradley, C.M. D’Antonio and J. Gómez-Dans. 2013. Introduced annual grass increases regional fire activity across the arid western USA (1980-2009). Global Change Biology 19: 173-183.
Loeser, M.R.R., T.D. Sisk and T.E. Crews. 2007. Impact of grazing intensity during drought in an Arizona grassland. Conservation Biology 21: 87-97.
Roberts, T. C., Jr. 1994. Resource impacts of cheatgrass and wildfires on public lands and livestock grazing. By: General Technical Report – Intermountain Research Station, USDA Forest Service; (INT-313), 167-169
Vallentine, J.F., Stevens, A.R. 1994. Use of livestock to control cheatgrass [Bromus tectorum] – a review. General Technical Report – Intermountain Research Station, USDA Forest Service; (INT-313) pp. 202-206.
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