Managed grazing helps forests, experts say
With California wildfires becoming more frequent and intense, ranchers and other natural resources experts say public policy on livestock grazing as a potential tool to manage fuel and vegetation needs to be reevaluated to allow more flexibility.
Despite mounting research that shows well-managed grazing could help reduce wildfire risk and severity, livestock stocking rates on public lands have dropped substantially through the years—and continue their downward trend today.
"At this point, I think it's fair to question whether or not we need to continue to decline those numbers or if we've declined them too far," said Ken Tate, University of California professor and Cooperative Extension rangeland watershed specialist. "In our opinion, the current science doesn't support it—certainly not a continued decline."
Justin Oldfield, vice president of government relations for the California Cattlemen's Association, said forests used to be managed more efficiently and effectively 50 years ago, but regulatory constraints or threats of litigation have changed how management decisions are made—and in many cases, have halted them altogether.
"Inaction has caused inaction, which has led to increased fuel loads on the forest," he said. "This ultimately leads to more wildfires and definitely more devastating and hotter-burning wildfires."
At one time, public rangelands and forestlands across the West had been grazed more heavily in order to make use of all of the forage on the landscape, Tate said, acknowledging that was not without environmental impact.
"I won't try to tell you that grazing has been perfect for the last hundred years," said Laura Snell, UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor in Modoc County. "But a huge change took place in that time period."
Prior to the 1980s, production of food, fiber, fuel and water was the primary focus on public lands, Tate said, and that affected streams, wetlands and other riparian areas. But by the 1990s, with concerns about riparian habitat and endangered species, grazing policies began to change and conservation became more of a focus, in order to allow public lands to be used for a variety of purposes. These changes resulted in significant reductions of livestock on public lands.
Since 1980, the number of animal unit months—which refers to the amount of forage a thousand-pound cow and her calf will eat in one month—on U.S. Forest Service lands dropped by 50 percent, UC researchers found. From 2000 to 2013, total AUMs declined 27 percent on national forestlands and 23 percent on U.S Bureau of Land Management lands in California. Of the more than 700 grazing allotments on Forest Service land in the state, only about 500 are actively grazed, Tate pointed out.
At the same time, the number of grazing herds of deer, antelope and other wild animals also has diminished in forestlands, allowing overgrowth of vegetation and increasing fire risk, Snell said.
She noted that research and conservation efforts have "really revitalized" grazing practices, pointing out that overgrazing is now viewed as unhealthy for both animals and the landscape. Not only have stocking rates declined on forestlands, but ranchers now practice rotational grazing, so that they're not leaving large numbers of cattle in one area for the entire grazing season. Grazing animals also provide nutrients back to the soil with the waste they deposit, she added.
"Protecting the resource space is beneficial for agriculture," said Leslie Roche, UCCE specialist in rangeland management. "We know that in these landscapes, livestock prefer the more diverse meadows, and we know that meadows with a diverse forage base have greater quality. So that's a win for both agriculture and for diversity."
As a rancher and a UCCE livestock advisor in Siskiyou County, Carissa Koopmann Rivers said grazing not only helps to reduce fuel loads but also allows more diverse plants to establish by cleaning up dominant species that tend to shade and choke out new seed banks, preventing them from germinating. Having a mosaic layout of forages is nutritionally beneficial for wildlife and livestock, she noted.
By employing management practices such as cross-fencing and developing water facilities for livestock, Koopmann Rivers said ranchers can control their livestock and distribute them more efficiently across the land so that they're not overgrazing in one area.
"The ranching community has come a long way," she said. "There's been a lot of intensive grazing in the past and we've learned from that. Folks that have ecological concerns about livestock grazing on California landscapes have to look at it like this: It's not the animals; it's the management of the animals. Once managed correctly, they're a very great tool."
Roche is currently leading a study examining the effects of post-wildfire grazing, which BLM has restricted to no sooner than two years after a fire, even though limited research exists on what's an appropriate length of time livestock should stay off recently burned areas, she noted. The concern with the two-year rule, she said, is that invasive weeds such as cheatgrass could move in and overtake the landscape, creating a fire hazard.
"If you've taken one of the tools—grazing—off the table, then you've hampered your ability to control that invasion," she said.
In this contemporary era of grazing management, Tate said he is "fairly confident" that livestock numbers could come back up on public lands for vegetation management while still safeguarding riparian areas and other habitat. But he emphasized good management also takes time and labor, and in the end, those management goals—whether for vegetation or conservation—must work for the rancher.
"It's got to be profitable. You can't do it for free and you certainly can't do it for a loss," he said.
Land management agencies, however, continue to be hamstrung by fierce opposition to grazing by some groups, he noted, and that limits their ability to adapt and to use grazing as a tool. This inflexibility in policy continues to drive down AUMs. But ranchers and others agree that with the state facing a drier future, more needs to be done to ensure better prevention of forest fires.
With enough flexibility in policy, Tate said livestock could be used on public lands that have high fuels during a drought or during a period of high wildfire risk, while at the same time alleviating pressure on private rangelands and on some of the need to feed hay.
"If we learned anything from the Valley Fire or the Napa Fire or the Butte Fire—where the fires are now not out in the wilderness and abstract and just annoyingly smoky but burning up towns—it's that we seriously have got to look at using all the available tools to manage our vegetation in a drying, fire-prone system," he said.
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
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