If short-term results of this research are indicative of long-term success, the project may provide a role for ranchers and their livestock in reclaiming disturbed rangelands to productive states.
Grasses and other seeded species are establishing in greater numbers on research plots that held 100 head of cattle per acre for 24 hours on well pads at the Wamsutter, Jonah, and Pinedale Anticline gas fields.
The project grew from conversations between associate professor Jay Norton, researcher Calvin Strom and several Rawlins-area ranchers who had concerns about the effects of the Rocky Mountain Express pipeline running from northwest Colorado to Wheeling, West Virginia.
The pipeline corridor is 100 feet wide and traverses private and public ranchland in Wyoming.
There were many weed issues and some areas where nothing seemed to grow after reclamation efforts.
After reviewing a number of articles that said using cattle after seeding provided organic matter and seed-to-soil contact, which had improved reclamation success in Nevada and Arizona on mine spoils, we decided, why not try it on a pipeline corridor?
Most evidence in the articles was anecdotal observation and photographs — no peer-reviewed literature that demonstrated cattle had a lasting effect on the success of reclamation.
Conversations began in fall 2007.
A proposal for funding a scientific study using cattle was developed by Norton and Strom and sent to various pipeline and energy companies seeking funding.
None was forthcoming until the creation of the School of Energy Resources (SER) at the University of Wyoming.
The proposal was edited and sent to SER, and in April 2008 was funded contingent on securing matching funds.
The proposal was again circulated among the energy companies seeking matching funds.
Persistence paid off.
In fall 2008, Encana agreed to donate matching funds, which seemed to open the gates for more funding.
BP America and QEP Resources also provided funding.
Finally, the project was off and running, with one problem — the project had no graduate students (a requirement).
Recruitment was our next business; master’s student Cally Driessen was recruited for the cattle portion, and doctoral student Amber Mason for the non-cattle treatment.
Both began in 2009.
The study was conducted on 10 gas well pads: four in the Jonah (Encana), and three each in Pinedale Anticline (QEP Resources) and Wamsutter (BP America) gas fields.
Two one-tenth acre plots (cattle treatment and control) were laid out on each well pad.
Three 30-meter long transects were established on each plot.
Soil was collected at three points along each transect at depths of 0-5 centimeter, 5-20 cm and 20-30 cm each spring and fall for two years.
A total of 2,330 soil samples were collected, which were then bulked by depth and resulted in 775 samples analyzed in the laboratory.
The cattle portion of the project was the result of many conversations and exchanges of information on the purpose and design of the project and how many cattle were needed.
The stocking rate was determined by estimating the amount of soil organic matter lost through construction and reclamation activities and then calculating how much organic material, in the form of feces, urine, and excess feed, a single cow contributes in a day.
Neils and Barb Hansen of P&H Livestock, Rawlins, were the first to come on board.
From there, young entrepreneurs Ben Erramouspe and Josh Skorz wanted to participate (they were interested in forming an enterprise using livestock for reclamation in southwest Wyoming) on the Jonah.
The last piece of the puzzle was found when Charles Price volunteered Price Cattle Ranch LLC to participate on the Pinedale Anticline.
The Hansens provided 10 bulls, Erramouspe and Skorz provided 25 heifers, and Price provided 20 cows.
The livestock were confined on the plots and fed hay twice during the 24 hours they were on the plots.
The bulls were held 48 hours.
The objective was to achieve a stocking rate of 100 head per acre for 24 hours after the plots were seeded during the fall of 2009.
Soil samples were collected on the cattle treatment sites immediately after livestock were removed from the plots, which added another 90 samples for analysis.
The data demonstrate soil structure was definitely improved by inputs from the cattle, the additional organic matter, and other waste (excess hay).
The plant community on the livestock treatments contains more species and percent cover than the no-cow control after one growing season (which may be the result of seed-to-soil contact and increase in organic matter).
Further investigation will determine if the cattle treatment continues to influence the long-term recovery of these reclaimed sites.
Vegetation on these sites will be monitored through 2014.
Calvin Strom is the research associate assistant director for the Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center, and can be reached at (307) 766-5432, or at email@example.com.
Jay Norton is a associate professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, and can be contacted at (307) 766- 5082, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. ❖