Range responding in grazing demonstration
By John O’Connell
MOUNTAIN HOME, Idaho — Four local ranchers have begun noticing rangeland health improvements as they commence the third year of a demonstration to show how brief but intensive grazing can reduce fire risk.
Participants Steve Damele, Ted Hoffman, John McGrew and Bob Howard hired Wilder-based Intermountain Rangeland Consultants to aid in field monitoring and data compilation, hoping their outcomes will be considered in future federal grazing policy.
Their ranches lie within an area of southwest Idaho where cheatgrass and Medusa head weed dominate and contribute to severe wildfires. Experimental acres are mostly on private and state ground, but the ranchers have a memorandum of understanding to share information with the Bureau of Land Management.
“We don’t have a lot of data back yet, but (improvements) are pretty visible on the ground,” said McGrew, who has 900 acres in the project. “On our piece, there are a lot of new plants.”
Dave Franzen, owner of the consulting company, explained the project utilizes control and experimental pastures. Control cattle graze as normal, remaining in a pasture for three months at a density of 10 acres per animal unit month. In the experimental group, cattle rotate from pastures about every 25 days from mid-March through May 25, grazing at a density of 2 acres per AUM. Electric fencing is often used for temporary pastures, with supplemental water brought in. Franzen said cattle also graze briefly during winter to “clean up” fields.
Franzen noted BLM has planned a project to seed fire-resistant vegetation as fire breaks along roadways in the area. If the ranchers’ grazing experiment proves successful, Franzen said the practice complement BLM’s efforts, reducing fuel loads on rangeland between fire breaks.
Franzen said the ecological benefits are especially pronounced on Damele’s pastures, where the rancher had experimented with brief but intensive grazing prior to the project.
Damele, who has 5,640 acres involved in the demonstration, explained the idea is to “hammer those annual invasives” and allow perennials, such as Sandburg bluegrass, to come back.
Damele said there are already examples throughout the ranches of perennials gaining a foothold in areas that were previously solid mats of Medusa head and native plants getting a foothold within cheatgrass.
“We may make some mistakes along the way and move and adjust,” Damele said. “I think it’s going in an upward trend at this point.”
Lance Okeson, assistant fire management officer over fuels for the BLM’s Boise District, applauds the ranchers for their efforts and believes they’re investigating a solid concept. He vows, “If they come up with some good stuff, we’ll listen.”