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Beefed up grazing practices show potential to better control wildfires

Holly Jessen
for The Fence Post
A before photo taken in Idaho before targeted grazing completed as part of a research study. The standing brown vegetation is cheatgrass grown the previous year.
Photo courtesy USDA ARS

Although grazing is already harnessed to help control the spread of wildfires to some extent, there’s ongoing research showing that prescriptive or targeted grazing could be used more extensively to limit the spread of wildfires as well as help control invasive plants like cheatgrass.

“It’s something that ranchers and others have been talking about for some time,” said Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.

Cattle grazing on cheatgrass created a nearly half mile wide and 21 mile long firebreak that helped limit an August range fire near Beowawe, Nev., to only 54 acres, said Pat Clark, Agricultural Research Service rangeland scientist based at the Northwest Watershed Research Center in Boise, Idaho. The same grazed fuel break helped control the 2018 Boulder Creek fire to 1,029 acres plus protected an area of sage-grouse habitat located downwind of the fire. “We selected the site because it was very fire prone,” Clark said. “It was right along the (Interstate) 80 corridor so a cigarette thrown out the window would start a fire.”

Firebreaks created by targeted cattle grazing give firefighters time to arrive on scene and control the blaze before it gets out of control and burns for an extended period of time. “Normally you wouldn’t be able to hold a cheatgrass fire but they were able to hold it there,” Clark said, adding that cheatgrass, an invasive plant, dries out in the middle of summer and burns like gasoline.

The firebreak is part of a targeted grazing evaluation project managed by ARS in partnership with the USDA and Department of the Interior agencies. Other support comes from state and local authorities and cattle ranchers. The project tracks the amount of fuel reduced by targeted grazing, whether the fuel reductions can be maintained up to the start of wildfire season and what impact it has on things like changing plant composition.

Currently, the broad-scale, multi-state and multi-year research is being conducted in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon, Clark said. However, the goal is to expand. “We are looking for additional project sites in Wyoming, in Utah, and in southeastern Washington,” he said, adding that he’d like to hear from interested ranchers and public land agencies with available land a kilometer or half mile long, ideally in three separate pastures.

The most difficult part of this kind of targeted grazing is getting cattle on land where it’s needed at the right time. For one thing, ranchers aren’t typically awarded permits for grazing on public land in the spring, so it would require changes by public agencies. Plus, cattle will eat cheatgrass in the spring, before it matures and turns purple, but the window of time for that changes yearly depending on temperatures and soil moisture. “If the weather changes and it gets hot, cheatgrass will respond pretty quickly,” Clark said, adding that all parties need to be flexible to make it work.

Depending on the area, different strategies are used to keep cattle grazing in the half mile wide strip of land. In Nevada the firebreak area is along a road, protecting human life and property, and it’s fenced in, he said. At the study locations in Idaho, there’s no fence so ranchers have been using active herding as well as placing water and salt in strategic areas. Grazing hasn’t yet started at the site in Oregon but when it does water troughs will be laid along a pipeline in addition to active herding. “It’s definitely an expensive proposition to put in a fence,” he said. “So actually the herding and the water is probably going to have the best option for general application beyond this research.”

Ranchers’ motivation in getting involved with targeted grazing projects goes beyond just getting access to early spring grazing, Clark said. Firebreaks created by targeted grazing can help protect rangeland from wildfires, after which that land often can’t be grazed for two years. “The biggest thing is they are also interested in protecting the landscape and particularly the forage,” he said.

CURRENT PRACTICES

According to information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, prescribed grazing is defined as domestic livestock grazing during specific seasons and at specific intensities. The goal is to manage vegetation. “While traditional grazing practices are often blamed for promoting plant invasions, prescriptive grazing can be used to control invasive plant populations and enhance desirable vegetation conditions,” the agency said on a webpage covering managing invasive plants.

The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association strongly believes that, if properly managed, prescriptive grazing on public lands results in multiple benefits, and monitoring data backs that up, Fankhauser said. Some individuals or activist groups disagree with the practice, calling it unfair that grazing on public land is less expensive than on private land. “Are we going to respond to the science or are we going to respond to the public perception?” he asked, adding that, with education, that perception can often be changed.

For example, while some see only manure on the landscape, the reality is manure helps bring in beneficial insects, such as the dung beetle, which can help enhance soil quality. Prescribed grazing, like targeted grazing, also reduces the fuel load, making it a fire mitigation tool. Plus, grazed land tends to recover faster, as fires on grazed land don’t burn as hot. Other benefits include invasive weed control and better wildlife habitat. “All of that comes free to the taxpayer,” he said.

Some agencies are showing more interest into outcome based grazing. “They are starting to say, ‘We want to reach this outcome, how do we get there and how do we use grazing as a tool?” he said.

It may be time to “break the mold,” providing ranchers the opportunity to get cattle out on public land earlier, before cheatgrass goes to seed, Fankhauser said.

A study conducted in California also showed cattle grazing reduced fire load and fire hazard. Although the amount of fuel consumed varied, an average of 596 pounds was removed per acre in grazed California rangelands, Devii Rao wrote in the preliminary results published Aug. 31 on a University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources website. Rao, San Benito County California director and area livestock and natural resources adviser, told The Fence Post a more complete manuscript has been submitted for peer review.

Cattle numbers in California are at about 57 percent of peak numbers in the 1980s, which means less cattle graze on public land in California, she wrote in the preliminary results posted online. In the meantime, wildfires are expected to increase with time. “Strategic implementation of cattle grazing, including potentially fee-for-service agreements, on key private and public lands can meet multiple natural resource objectives, while also lowering fire hazard through reducing fine fuels, reducing fuel continuity, and slowing or stopping shrub encroachment into grasslands,” Rao wrote. ❖

— Jessen is a freelance writer living in Minnesota with her nurse husband and daughter. They recently settled down after more than three years living a travel lifestyle, thanks to her husband’s travel nurse job. She can be reached at hollyjessenmedia@gmail.com.


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