Idaho BLM Grazing for Fire Management
The powers that be in the land management arena are finally coming around to the value of livestock grazing for altering historic fire regimes and fire hazards. Despite scientific studies and literature leading the way, grazing has long been on the backburner of ideas, but the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Idaho has teamed up with ranchers to head down a different road in fire prevention management. The plan is to prevent another catastrophic fire.
In the summer of 2015, the lightning-caused Soda Fire burned over 279,000 acres of prime grazing land in Oregon and Idaho. Just last fall, some ranchers were allowed to resume grazing on a some of the 40 grazing allotments. As part of BLM’s post-fire restoration plan, ranchers were not allowed to graze their animals on those allotments for at least two growing seasons following the blaze.
Ranchers’ arguments that the Soda Fire would not have been so large had more grazing been allowed following heavy spring rains that year, “graze it, don’t blaze it,” were met with skepticism.
A University of Idaho study, following the 2007 Murphy Complex fire, that burned more than 600,000 acres, discussed both sides of the argument.
“The team found that much of the Murphy Wildland Fire Complex burned under extreme fuel and weather conditions that likely overshadowed livestock grazing as a factor influencing fire extent and fuel consumption in many areas where these fires burned,” according to the team’s report, headed by Karen Launchbaugh, who is a professor of rangeland ecology and director of the Rangeland Center at the University of Idaho.
But the report also pointed out that some areas that were grazed down did not burn, but in fact acted “as fence line contrasts.”
The report recommended BLM begin projects to target grazing areas. BLM’s Boise district office is doing just that in the Owyhee Front, in the Soda Fire burn area, allowing for longer periods of grazing and more flexibility.
The three-to five-year Targeted Grazing Project experiment has permitees partnering with BLM to create fuel breaks for fire management, 200 feet on both sides of Owyhee Front roadways
“Everywhere the Soda Fire burned, we’re looking to put fuel breaks in to try and make, if we do have a fire, another fire in the Soda footprint to make that fire as small as possible,” Ben Sitz with the BLM, told reporters.
The project began last year, and BLM and grazing permitees successfully used temporary fencing, protein supplements, salt and water to keep the cattle focused on the projected areas.
“Targeted grazing is a fairly new concept. A lot of work has been done with sheep and goats to manage invasive plants. Now we’re seeing more use by cattle because cattle eat grass, and grass is the fuel we’re concerned about with wildfires,”said Launchbaugh.
In Oregon, permit holders are also seeing some changes in BLM management practices.
Travis Williams, who has BLM and Forrest Service allotments in Eastern Oregon, said early spring and fall grazing plans are being implemented in some areas, to help manage fuel loads. While the studies are available, Williams said most do not cover enough acreage to really show the scale.
“They don’t do [the studies] on a big enough scale to see an impact,” Williams said.
But Williams said permittees are starting to see some leeway in Oregon, and have been allowed to make some management decisions, although there is still a lot of room for improvement.
“They give us a little carrot, then pull it back,” he said.
Grazing on public lands has been supported since the early days of the agency. The earliest version of published policy of the Forest Service (USDA Forest Service 1905), stated:
“The Forest Service will allow the use of the forage crop of the reserves as fully as the proper care and protection of the forests and the water supply permits. In new forest reserves where the livestock industry is of special importance, full grazing privileges will be given at first, and if reduction in number is afterwards found necessary, stockmen will be given ample opportunity to adjust their business to the new conditions. Every effort will be made to assist the stock owners to a satisfactory distribution of stock on the range in order to secure greater harmony among citizens, to reduce the waste of forage by tramping in unnecessary movement of stock, and to obtain a more permanent, judicious, and profitable use of the range. The leading objects of the grazing regulations are:
• The protection and conservative use of all forest reserve land adapted for grazing.
• The best permanent good of the live-stock industry through proper care and improvement of the grazing lands.
• The protection of the settler and home builder against unfair competition in the use of the range.”
The Current Forest Service objectives for the range management program are:
1. To manage range vegetation to protect basic soil and water resources, provide for ecological diversity, improve or maintain environmental quality, and meet public needs for interrelated resource uses.
2. To integrate management of range vegetation with other resource programs to achieve multiple use objectives contained in Forest land and resource management plans.
3. To provide for livestock forage, wildlife food and habitat, outdoor recreation, and other resource values dependent on range vegetation.
4. To contribute to the economic and social well being of people by providing opportunities for economic diversity and by promoting stability for communities that depends on range resources for their livelihood.
5. To provide expertise on range ecology, botany, and management of grazing animals.
While the diversity of the public lands uses has long been recognized, the benefits of grazing for fire management is still in debate. Producers like Williams are hoping that this recognition is not far off, to avoid more catastrophic wild fires.