Utah Department of Agriculture and Food

Hope on the Range

   

Hope on the Range
By: Troy Forest, Utah Grazing Improvement Program
Regional Coordinator

This article first appeared in Utah Cattleman - Seedstock Edition

Conflict over western rangelands and its management is nothing new. It has been happening in the Western United States since the first explorers and settlers showed up two centuries ago.  Settlers wanted to tame the land and turn it into farms and pastures similar to most of Europe where most of the settlers hailed from.

Preservationists have always wanted to leave land as is and untouched by the hand or influence of man.  Reality by necessity must be somewhere between these two extremes. Although land management is wide and deep in scope, the area of management I have dealt with in my career and want to concentrate on is grazing and how it relates to rangeland management and in particular public rangeland management.

In most Western States the United States Government is the majority property owner, the bulk of these lands are managed by two federal agencies, The Unites States Forest Service (USFS), and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  These two agencies have been mandated to manage grazing since the early 1900’s for the USFS and since the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934 for the BLM and the Grazing Service that preceded it.

When these agencies began management rangelands in the West were generally in poor condition, much of this was due to a “tragedy of the commons” forage was available on a first come first served basis and the name of the game was to get it all before the next guy could.  This in many instances lead to range degradation and the fix by the agencies was to allocate forage to landowners.  This was done through the creation of allotments.  At the time of creation of these allotments Range Management had not even been born as a profession.  Most employees of the federal agencies that managed grazing were locals who had been involved in livestock production before beginning their government service. 

In the 100 or so years we have learned much about range management and how to manage grazing and maintain ecological services, diversity and other values the public has come to expect from public rangelands.  However range managers in the agencies are often hamstrung by the bureaucracy they are part of and this makes implementing what is known extraordinarily difficult.  We have many managers who know what to do and how to do it, but have their hands tied by the system we have developed.

This has led to the vicious cycle that we seem to be in with federal agencies.  The only easy and politically expedient solution to grazing problems has been to reduce livestock numbers.

 

In Utah this has meant a four-fold reduction in animal unit months (aum’s) on federal land since 1960(see attached graphs).  However this often does not solve problems, especially if the problems on an allotment are livestock distribution problems.  In addition to not solving the ecological issues, that the reduction hopes to solve, reductions also create economic hardship for the rancher who holds the permit. 

We have a technical committee made up of the best range professionals in the State of Utah and asked them to come up with technical guidance for good grazing. One of the overarching ideas that their recommendations are based on is “most rangelands are not overstocked, but they are often undermanaged.”

Keep in mind that these are range professionals include BLM and FS personnel. In my travels on allotments throughout Utah and the west I have observed this to be the case over and over.  In other words much of our range management is based on the definition of insanity I once heard “doing the same thing over the same way and expecting a different result”. 

Cutting numbers makes ranching more economically difficult to sustain and doesn’t give us the ecological results we are looking for. This leads me to a quote from Range Management – Stoddard, Smith & Box “proper (grazing management) schemes offer the range manager one of the most important tools in obtaining sustained productivity from rangelands. They must be properly designed and artfully applied to obtain the desired results.”…”Moreover, and possibly more importantly, the rancher who adopts a grazing system is a more alert and observing manager”. 

So the question becomes how do we implement proper grazing management schemes?  Second how do we implement these systems on federal lands? I am not saying that none of this has been done.  In places and on various allotments rest-rotation and deferred rotation management systems have been successfully implemented and range conditions have improved significantly.  However we have only gone part of the way and we can do better. In Utah we have the Grazing Improvement Program that has been developed to do this.

In Utah we have an excellent example of what good grazing management can do for the land.  Deseret Land & Livestock a 205,000 acre privately owned ranch in Utah.  Included in the ranch is about 15,000 acres of BLM land that is managed just like the rest of the privately held ranch.  Thirty years ago they adopted a holistic management plan using time controlled grazing that has demonstrated how enhanced grazing strategies create sustainable social, ecological and ecological wealth from the land. This change in management has healed stream corridors, improved ground cover, water infiltration and has provided a wildlife program that is recognized for its success worldwide. Elk, Deer, Moose, Pronghorn, Sage Grouse and other species have flourished.

Deseret has also been named as a globally important bird area by the Audubon society, and over 280 species of birds have been documented on the ranch.

Before and after photos at Deseret Ranch.  Results of time-controlled grazing.

These additional ecological services were provided while at the same time doubling the number of livestock using the property, which enabled Deseret to go from an economic loss to economic prosperity. That’s right Deseret is stocked at double the number of animal days per acre as the adjacent publicly owned land.  How can this be?  As alluded to before, it is because of superior active, adaptive management of the grazing.  So this begs the question, how can we move this model to public lands?(see attached photos to show some of the changes at Deseret)

The State of Utah through the Grazing Improvement Program is working with the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Private landowners/Permittees, and School Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) to try and implement the same type of management that has been so successful at Deseret on 150,000 acres of publicly managed land about 10 miles to the north of Deseret.  This Three Creeks project is currently undergoing NEPA analysis and if things go well will begin to be fully implemented in 2016.  The plan would combine the management of 5 FS and 5 BLM allotments into one management unit.  This gives the scale necessary to pay for the additional infrastructure needed to implement and adaptive grazing strategy using time-controlled grazing. 

The State of Utah wants to demonstrate that this type of superior management is critical for the sustainable management of public lands.  This model provides what the public needs and deserves, first enhanced ecological services from the land, including better water quality, better wildlife production, stabilized soils, enhanced fisheries, enhanced recreation opportunities and economic returns from the public lands. 

Because of improvements in land health livestock producers will gain certainty as to being able to continue to use public lands to run livestock with the opportunity to see livestock numbers increase. Livestock producers will continue to provide a valuable source of food and fiber to the nation and the hope to be able to pass the ranch on to a new generation. We need to be on the lookout for opportunities where the land and its users win. This is the hope for Western Rangelands, ecological sustainability and economic vitality.

Troy Forrest
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