SALMON, Idaho — Seth McFarland has put his college degree to work for his father, neighboring ranchers and even the federal government, providing them concrete data about how grazing practices affect their rangeland over the long term.
After graduating from the University of Idaho in 2010 in rangeland ecology, McFarland helped his father, Tom, implement a practice called rangeland monitoring throughout their Lemhi County grazing allotments.
Seth quantifies the health of rangeland vegetation by choosing a line through a selected plant community and dropping markers every 4 feet, recording data about any plant life where the markers lie. The data reveals trends when collected over time. He also photographs rangeland periodically from the same points for a visual record – a method he noted any rancher can utilize.
A scientific approach to monitoring can guide management decisions among ranchers. The McFarlands believe it’s also vital for ranchers to have good long-term data in case opponents of grazing challenge renewals of their leases.
“The monitoring is so important to protect those public lands, to have data to go to court to prove we’re good stewards of the land,” said Tom, who grazes 260 cow-calf pairs. “We’re currently in a permit renewal process on two different ranges. This data collection prevents (grazing opponents) from misrepresenting the actual facts.”
Seth said ranchers have always kept close tabs on the health of their ranges, but objective monitoring takes “the I think out of the equation.”
This summer, Seth monitored 109,000 acres of the Salmon-Challis National Forest, working on the first year of a three-year project jointly funded by the U.S. Forest Service and the nonprofit Salmon Valley Stewardship.
Faith Ryan, range and invasive program lead with the Salmon-Challis National Forest, said the agency is obligated to monitor its rangeland to ensure it’s complying with environmental laws, but has fallen behind in its duties. Some of the land Seth assessed had never been monitored before.
“We’re going to be entering into conversations with the Salmon Valley Stewardship to see how we can grow that (monitoring),” Ryan said.
Shannon Williams, UI Extension educator for Lemhi County, recruited Seth to aid in a rangeland photo monitoring workshop last winter. She distributes a list of eight experts, including Seth, that ranchers in her county can hire to conduct monitoring, which she said is a relatively new concept in Lemhi County.
“We need to be able to say, ‘Yes, we’re taking care of the land. Here’s what this hillside looked like five to 10 years ago, and here’s what it looks like today,” Williams said.
Merrill Beyeler, of Leadore, is one of nine ranchers covering 1.5 million acres of federal land participating in the Central Idaho Rangeland Network. Shortly after the producers formed the network three years ago, they hired Seth to monitor their land.
“As we look into the future, I think that’s going to be more and more critical to monitor and know exactly what’s going on in the landscape,” Beyeler said. “We’ve been monitoring for a long time, but not in a way that creates some level of security and you can bring that information forward and present it in a convincing way.”