The May 30 Capital Press opinion article spoke of the trend in reducing the number of cattle on federal land, especially land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. The continued reduction of grazing allotments on public lands has been very characteristic of the last several decades. It is a typical reaction of land management agencies in responding to pressures related to multiple use issues and concerns about water quality.
The problem with this reaction is that reducing the number of grazing animals is not the way to improve ecosystem health. Animal numbers is not the key, time is the key to improving ecosystem health. By time, I mean the time that a plant is exposed to grazing and the time that a plant has to recover from grazing before being grazed again. Rest, or non-grazing time, is a management decision. A period of rest is useful in controlling the grazing of an area. But, total rest in an arid climate, which characterizes most of the western United States, is harmful.
Forage plants, such as grasses and forbs, need periodic grazing to stimulate new growth and regenerate the plant food reserves in the roots and crown of the plant. Total rest in an arid climate results in old, coarse plants, that add little organic matter to the soil and don’t support much soil organism activity. Hardened soil surfaces don’t absorb precipitation and allow water to run off, eroding the soil.
By reducing the number of grazing animals, we are taking away some of the tools that a grazing manager has in managing land. Grazing animals, when properly managed, can be a very powerful means of regenerating a depleted or low producing area. Planned grazing along with monitoring and adaptive management will produce the best results. Grazing management decisions should be made based on the responses and condition of the major species in the plant community. This is where regular monitoring is necessary. Monitoring reveals what is happening in the plant community and suggests when animals should be moved off an area and when another area is ready to be grazed.
This is an adaptive management approach and is not done according to the calendar. Decisions must be made continually and based on the information coming from the monitoring process. Often we find that an area is capable of supporting a higher number of animals, when planned grazing is implemented. Agency policies should allow for flexibility that fosters effective management. Too many governmental policies are “one size fits all,” which is not realistic or efficient.
The key to a healthy ecosystem and higher forage production is not determined by the number of animals present in an area, but how well the grazing is managed.
Doug Warnock, retired from Washington State University Extension, lives on a ranch in the Touchet River Valley where he writes about and teaches grazing management. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.