Government Policy Hampers Wildfire Recovery

Last year’s combination of drought and wildfire will have a long-lasting impact on western ranchers.

Heather Smith Thomas

February 25, 2013

7 Min Read
Government Policy Hampers Wildfire Recovery

While the dry conditions and wildfires of summer 2012 are now in the memory books for western ranchers, the devastating aftermath continues, especially in regions where ranchers depend on public lands grazing. Many ranges burned, forcing cattle removal, either to private pastures traditionally saved for winter grazing and/or into summer hayfields. That left many ranchers with no alternative but to reduce cattle numbers or purchase expensive winter feed.

That was last year. The net effect for 2013 public lands graziers is that options are bleak. After all, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service policy is to rest burned ranges for two years before allowing them to be grazed again.

Few western states untouched

Sam Mori, a rancher near Tuscarora, NV, says conditions last summer were the driest he’d seen in 55 years.

“The lack of water controlled what we did, more than the feed situation. We managed until Aug. 6, when a fire broke out in our allotment. It didn’t affect us as much for that grazing season as it will for the next two years, as BLM will now make us rest it,” Mori says. “We hope we can grit our teeth and make it through.”

Aside from the forage lost, hundreds of miles of fence were burned, which is costly to replace and will make it difficult to manage cattle.

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Fires in southeastern Oregon burned more than 1 million acres, leaving thousands of cattle with no place to go this spring. Fred Wilkinson runs cattle in southern Oregon where the Holloway Fire burned 500,000 acres.

“Back in 1982-83, BLM restricted grazing in the Trout Creek Mountains. We could only graze for short periods. After a few years, BLM wanted more restrictions. Vegetation and brush became so thick you couldn’t ride down the canyon. I told them that someday they’d have a big fire and burn it all,” he says.

“The fire started more than 30 miles from us, burned to within 10 miles of our ranch and claimed more than half our grazing allotment. Some ranchers didn’t have any grazing left. Current federal policy says we can’t graze for two years, meaning it will come back thick, and may burn again,” he explains.

Wilkinson says the fire burned for 11 days. “In 70 years, I’d never seen anything like it, and all these big fires resulted from not grazing enough. Years ago, we had a lot of small fires but we could put them out within 24 hours. Before the restrictions of the 1980s, the management was such that if fire did get going, it would run into grazed areas and quit burning, or was easy to put out,” he says.

But Wilkinson says there was so much fuel available this time around that the fires couldn’t be extinguished. “They spent millions of dollars (and reduced grazing) trying to protect cutthroat trout; suddenly, they had nothing but dead trout floating on top of the water.”

The donated hay and money some ranchers received was a help, but the future is the big question mark. More flexibility in grazing management is the first step in helping prevent these kinds of fires, he adds.

Frustration with agencies

Many Nevada ranchers report frustration in trying to work with federal agencies. J.J. Goicoechea, a rancher and DVM near Eureka, NV, says cattle numbers on BLM land have been reduced in his area, and the cuts continue.

“Last spring, the Battle Mountain BLM came out with a drought environmental assessment (EA) promising more flexibility to permittees to haul water to cattle if stock water dried up, but that flexibility didn’t happen. They just started removing permittees’ cattle,” he says. “They said they had to save remaining forage for wild horses.”

Goicoechea says he received a letter Aug. 20 preventing him from hauling water to cattle if the allotment was designated by BLM as primary sage grouse habitat. “This took nearly everyone off their ranges. Ranchers brought thousands of cattle home to their meadows, and didn’t have any fall/winter pasture,” he says.

“Many ranges burned early. We lost a lot of acreage in White Pine County in June and early July. Then in August, we lost a lot in Elko, Eureka and Humboldt counties. Then the BLM said they’d have a two-year grazing closure after these fires. Yet many of these areas had cheat grass, and were not sage grouse habitat. They will burn again if they aren’t grazed,” Goicoechea says.

Adding insult to injury, BLM began hauling water to wild horses – at taxpayer expense. “The Battle Mountain district was also contracting helicopters to move wild horses to areas with forage remaining, which means into ranchers’ winter cattle allotments. BLM says the EA gave them the authority to do it,” Goicoechea says. “All these things are working against producers, along with $200/ton hay.”

The grazing controversy

Ranchers who have grazed rangelands for decades say proper grazing reduces the potential fuel load for a wildfire. But anti-grazing interests continue to push for a reduction or elimination of livestock on public lands. In fact, anti-grazing groups are cheering a recent study entitled “Climate Change Increases Stress, Need for Restoration on Grazed Public Lands.”

Published recently in the Journal of Environmental Management, the report claims that climate change justifies a drastic reduction or elimination of livestock grazing in the interest of range health. The study’s authors say cattle compact soils, impact riparian areas, cause erosion and degrade habitat. The study contains no new research; it simply cites earlier data and claims a fresh perspective by factoring in climate change.

Other range scientists are skeptical about the study results, pointing to use of old data and the failure to acknowledge differences between today’s grazing methods and those of the early 20th century. The Public Lands Council (PLC) says the paper’s conclusions are based on speculation, not facts.

Meanwhile, ranchers and range scientists are trying to educate the public about the importance of grazing – especially in dry years – to reduce wildfire risk. Wildfires damage watersheds, soil, wildlife habitat and rangeland ecology (and threaten private property), much more than livestock ever could, they say.

The Idaho Cattle Association hosted a discussion on grazing and wildfire trends during its annual convention last November. Many panel members cited cheat grass as a primary factor in fires in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. This invasive exotic annual is the chief fuel for range fires, especially in areas where grazing has been reduced or eliminated.

Some points made by speakers included:

  • Karen Launchbaugh, University of Idaho, says early spring grazing reduces cheat grass, thus removing fuel for wildfires.

  • Barry Perryman, University of Nevada-Reno, refuted the idea that cattle won’t eat dry cheat grass; in fact, cattle can maintain weight and body condition on cheat grass. Plus, fall grazing helps maintain the health of native perennials, which burn less readily than cheat grass.

  • Range consultant Greg Simonds says a study of grazing’s effect on fire was conducted at Squaw Valley Ranch in Nevada. It showed grazed range is much less volatile when exposed to fire conditions.

Speakers also pointed out that many problems western ranchers face today stem from interpretations of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the constraints exerted by National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on government agencies’ ability to properly manage federal lands. Sage grouse are a prime issue. Fire is the biggest threat to them, not livestock, yet government policy will restrict or eliminate grazing in sage grouse areas if the bird is listed as endangered. This will lead to more wildfires.

PLC hopes Congress will streamline NEPA and ESA procedures and reintroduce the Catastrophic Fire Protection Act, which proposes better coordination between state/local firefighters and federal policymaking forces.

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