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Ranchers, enviros spar over grazing’s impact on Soda fire

Ranchers and a major environmental group differ greatly over grazing's impact on the 279,000-acre Soda fire that scorched Idaho's Owyhee County and parts of Eastern Oregon this year.
Sean Ellis

Capital Press

Published on October 14, 2015 11:39AM


BOISE — Idaho ranchers claim that better grazing management would have reduced the size and severity of the Soda fire that scorched 279,000 acres of land in Owyhee County and part of Eastern Oregon in August.

Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project, however, claims that livestock grazing contributed to the severity of the Soda fire and other wildfires that burned millions of acres of land across the West this year.

Ranchers affected by the Soda fire, which impacted 41 Bureau of Land Management grazing allotments, reacted incredulously to WWP’s claim.

“I don’t know how they can even say anything like that and I don’t know how anyone can be stupid enough to believe it,” said Marsing area rancher Ed Wilsey, who lost 70 head of cattle in the fire and all of his summer and spring range.

Wilsey said several of his neighbors also lost all their summer and spring range and some larger cattle operations have had to travel as far as Wyoming to find suitable pasture.

“It burned so hot it burned (the range) down to nothing. There are no fences. It’s just dirt now,” said sheep rancher Kim Mackenzie.

The fire took a terrible toll on ranchers and others in the area and cattlemen bristle at the claim that grazing contributed to the size of the fire, Wilsey said.

If anything, he said, limitations on grazing resulting from lawsuits by groups like WWP contributed to the severity of the fire by causing fuel loads to increase.

He said there are numerous examples where the fire stopped burning when it came to land that had been grazed recently and he sent the Capital Press photos of some of these examples.

“Grazing isn’t going to stop fires 100 percent but it sure as heck can cut down on the fuel load,” Wilsey said.

In an editorial that appeared in the Times-News, WWP Executive Director Travis Bruner said livestock grazing in southwestern Idaho and across the West “contributed significantly to intensity, severity and enormity of fires this summer. Despite the livestock industry’s claims to the contrary, the Idaho fires are burning hotter and faster because of the impacts of cows and sheep on our arid Western lands.”

Bruner said livestock removed the “native grasses that burn at a lower intensity than fire-prone invasive species that dominate many areas of Owyhee County.”

“Combined with drought, high winds and low humidity, the impacts of livestock grazing are a root cause of the West’s intense wildfires,” Bruner stated.

Idaho Cattle Association executive vice president Wyatt Prescott said wildfires require three things: Heat (lightning), fuel and oxygen (wind).

“You can’t control the ignition and you can’t control the wind but what you can control is the fuel,” he said. “Our response to that editorial is simple: It’s basic fire knowledge.”

Jessica Gardetto, a spokeswoman for Idaho BLM, said “the jury is still out” on grazing’s overall impact on wildfire behavior but some studies have shown that grazing can diminish fire danger where certain fuels, such as invasive cheatgrass, dominate.

“It just has to be used the right way,” she said.



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