Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2012 12:00 PM
Mitch Lies/Capital Press
Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba and rancher Bob Skinner survey grazing ground near Jordan Valley that was burned by this summer's southeast Oregon wildfires. Fires laid waste to 1.2 million acres in Oregon, leaving ranchers who depend on federal grazing permits struggling to feed cattle.
Scientist says grazing can help native grasses beat out invasive species
By MITCH LIES
JORDAN VALLEY, Ore. -- Southeast Oregon ranchers who lost grazing ground to this summer's devastating wildfires are managing herds under the hope they'll be back on U.S. Bureau of Land Management grazing allotments next summer.
"We're buying $200 (a ton) hay, feeding our cows, hoping the BLM is going to let us back on," said Fred Wilkinson, a rancher from McDermitt, Ore.
BLM officials, however, at a meeting here Oct. 9, would not commit to opening allotments by next year.
And in areas where the agency has opted to seed native bunchgrasses -- about 10 percent of the burned ground of the Long Draw and the Miller-Homestead fires -- plans are to keep ranchers off until at least August 2014, BLM officials said.
"The best case scenario for a newly seeded area is two growing seasons," said Richard White, assistant field manager for the BLM's Jordan and Malheur Resource Areas.
Federal grazing policy was at the forefront of talks between ranchers, BLM officials and Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba at meetings in Burns and Jordan Valley.
Current policy, ranchers said, isn't working.
"Fires are getting bigger and bigger and bigger every single year, and they are going to keep getting bigger," Jordan Valley rancher Bob Skinner said.
"The process we have now is debilitating the habitat and the species," said Curtis Martin, president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association. "We're going to have to change something in terms of land management, because what we've done in the past isn't working."
In a meeting at the Oregon State University Agricultural Research Station in Burns, Tony Svejcar, a USDA scientist, said grazing helps reduce the fuel load that triggers large-scale wildfires, and can help native bunchgrasses establish ahead of cheatgrass and medusahead, which are non-native grasses that contribute to the fuel load.
Svejcar also said studies show that in some cases, keeping cows off burned allotments for more than a year provides no benefits to the re-establishment of a healthy ecosystem.
Also, Svejcar said, studies show that grazing down native bunchgrasses reduces the fuel load.
Armed with the science, ranchers told Coba and BLM officials that federal grazing policy needs to change to preserve sage grouse habitat and create a healthy ecosystem conducive to the proliferation of native species.
BLM officials, however, said they are constrained on what they can do based on existing federal policy.
Changing existing policy, officials said, requires a new application, which requires public hearings and opens the agency to lawsuits.
"That means it can be protested and appealed," said Pat Ryan, BLM field manager for the Jordan and Malheur Resource Areas.
"There are certain entities out there that would appeal that, and it would be stopped," he said.
Ranchers, meanwhile, are left wondering what they are going to do with their cattle next summer.
"We rely a lot on our property," Wilkinson said. "But we have to have the BLM for three or four months.
"It's going to put hardship on us," Wilkinson said. "The only thing we hope for is that BLM is going to let us back on."