No range management tool has been promoted to the public as much as fire. Indeed, not only have traditional range managers promoted fire, but also wildlife agencies and private conservation groups.
This promotion often exceeds the realm of objectivity, and enters into the concept of hype. As a result, many believe fire to be a panacea.
The reality is that fire is little more than a quick fix for past mismanagement. What fire will do is remove an overstory of dry mature forage, allowing lush, more nutritious forage to grow in its place.
But, think about this: If you have a stack of dry, mature hay, how do you utilize it? Do you light a match to it? Is that productive management?
There Is An Alternative There is another tool that is much less wasteful. It's a tool, however, that has unfairly received a lot of negative publicity. It is grazing.
Grazing is less wasteful than burning because, while dry mature grass may not be highly nutritious, with a pound or two of supplementation, it can support mature cows quite well.
By herself, a cow is not a sophisticated tool. It is the person managing the tool that must be sophisticated. Because, without a doubt, managed improperly, grazing can be destructive. And, without a doubt, lands have been damaged.
The key is knowing when -- and when not -- to graze. In the case of an area that would benefit from fire, the key is to concentrate the animals for a short period. Force them to eat the mature forage, then remove them before the lush regrowth appears.
This is the difference between proper and improper management -- knowing when to move the animals.
Left too long, the lush regrowth will be selectively eaten. This constitutes overgrazing. It results in death of the grass, and the subsequent appearance of what are known as invader plants. Throughout the West, the legacy of overgrazing can be seen in the form of invader plants.
Environmentalists know this, and therefore grazing has been given a bad name. The reality, however, is that grazing is similar to fire. If used improperly, it can be destructive. But in the hands of knowledgeable managers, it can enhance range condition. In fact, grazing has a major advantage over fire.
Fire is often said to release minerals to the soil that allow regrowth. That's a half-truth. The reality is that on most Western arid soils, minerals are not the first limiting factor controlling growth. Rather, it is moisture. Fire often depletes soil moisture. Grazing does not.
Benefits To Wildlife In addition, grazing on public lands benefits wildlife in a way fire cannot -- creation and maintenance of watering facilities. As discussed in my September 1997 column on 'The effects of overgrazing,' Western public lands today support a huge diversity of wildlife that did not exist before. The reason is the many wells that ranchers maintain in arid areas, that otherwise would not support wildlife.
Ostensibly, fire can be used to control brush. As we discussed in 'Fire as a management tool,' BEEF, May 1994), the reality is that the ability to control brush with fire is exceedingly limited. In order to get the fire hot enough to burn brush, in most cases you must have a dense 'underlying fuel source.'
In other words, you must have a heavy undergrowth of grass. If that much grass is present, brush is not that big of a problem. Truth be known, goats are in most instances better brush control agents than fire.
If fire has a place, it's when toxic plants are present. In that case, you can't use high intensity grazing. The presence of toxic plants, however, is usually due to poor grazing management. If that management is not changed, the toxic plants will return.
My take-home message to this column is the power of publicity. Wildlife managers have wanted to use fire, so they have promoted it. And the public has accepted it. Arguably, grazing is a better tool, but we have done nothing to inform the public as to its value. Rather, we have let our detractors tell the public about the negative aspects.