WGFD uses grazing to manage lands, explore cheatgrass control
Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD)-managed lands across the state are cared for in a variety of ways, and WGFD Lander Region Habitat and Access Supervisor Brian Parker notes that Ocean Lake and Morgan Creek Wildlife Habitat Management Areas (WHMAs) are utilizing grazing as a management tool.
During the Jan. 29 Wyoming Game and Fish Commission (WGFC) meeting, Parker gave an overview of grazing at both locations.
WGFC has utilized livestock grazing at their Ocean Lake WHMA for nearly 30 years, and the lease is set to be renewed this year.
“Ocean Lake is approximately 15 miles northwest of Riverton,” Parker explained. “It is approximately 13,000 acres, and 2,600 of that is WGFC-owned. The rest is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec) and managed by the WGFC.”
Nearly 300 acres of the site are wetlands within a 10-pond wetland complex.
“Our primary management objective is for waterfowl hunting and production, as well as the pheasant program,” he continued. “We plant pheasants from the Sheridan Bird Farm.”
WGFD utilizes a 25-year agreement with BuRec to manage their land within the WHMA.
“We produce an awful lot of biomass in different forms, and we have a number of different programs to deal with that,” Parker said. “Over the last few years, we have worked closely with Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service and local volunteer fire departments to integrate a prescribed fire program around the wetland ponds to increase species diversity as well as provide habitat for waterfowl and shore birds using it.”
Almost 500 acres of the land is irrigated and farmed.
“For the last 30 years, we’ve used a winter grazing program to help us manage the meadows at Ocean Lake,” Parker said. “The irrigated areas serve as the core of our winter grazing program.”
WGFD’s grazing program strives to accomplish a balance between grass production used for nesting and hiding cover with increased palatability and removal of decadent grass that is already there.
“Grazing increases the quality and overall palatability, as well as introduces disturbance to increase nutrient cycling, which benefits the forage resources and insect populations,” he said.
The grazing land is segmented into five pastures, and one is grazed each year in January and February.
“This is a relatively conservative rotation, in our mind, that still leaves plenty of cover for use by the waterfowl and pheasants out there,” Parker commented.
The final component of the grazing program is to develop a positive relationship with neighboring landowners.
“This last component is not a biological concern, but it is certainly a relationship-building concern,” Parker added. “It is important to us and lends credibility to the WGFD.”
Grazing is leased on a five-year contract with the same producer, determined by competitive bid, with the option to renew for a second term. After 10 years, the lease must go out for bid again.
The WGFC voted unanimously to proceed with renewing the lease.
Grazing the Morgan Creek WHMA is a new program for the WGFC, and they voted unanimously to pursue the opportunity during the meeting.
Morgan Creek WHMA, which sits in the Seminoe Mountain Range 30 miles north of Sinclair, is approximately 4,000 acres owned by BuRec and managed by WGFD.
“When they were building Kortes Dam, the man camp was located in the Morgan Creek watershed, which provided drinking water to the crew,” Parker explained. “In previous Memorandums of Agreement (MOA) with BuRec on management of the land, grazing has not been an option because it served as the watershed that provided drinking water for the man-camp.”
However, the completion of the dam meant that a 2014 MOA integrated grazing as a viable management option that Parker hopes will provide benefits.
“Over the last few years, we’ve noticed a pretty substantial expansion of cheatgrass in the area,” Parker said. “There has been some limited success with herbicide application to combat cheatgrass, and we want to explore the use of grazing as a way to reduce cheatgrass densities.”
Parker also noted that the proposed strategy would involve a very targeted grazing approach to ensure riparian areas aren’t negatively impacted and to improve the rangeland.
“BuRec has approved a plan to experiment with a three-year grazing strategy to see if it will help cheatgrass,” he added. “If it turns out positive, we will move forward from there.”
To date, a collaborative effort between the Rawlins BLM, local ranchers and the WGFD Lander Regional Office has taken place to determine the most effective strategy.
“Our number one goal for grazing the Morgan Creek WHMA is to reduce cheatgrass density,” Parker commented. “We also have a pretty robust riparian and upland habitat component, and we want to maintain and potentially improve that habitat with grazing.”
Parker noted it is also important for WGFD to maintain adaptive management to address any concerns that may arise.
The proposed strategy is to utilize 150 to 200 first-calf heifers or young cows that can easily navigate the country.
“We feel younger livestock would be more inclined and able to really get the utilization we are looking for in the steep country,” Parker said. “We will likely be there for two to three weeks.”
He explained that grazing would occur in the spring when cheatgrass is emerging but other native plants have yet to grow.
Parker emphasized that high-intensity, short duration grazing will be utilized in the area.
In addition, active management will be required, with daily riding by livestock operators to ensure cattle are distributed onto the slopes and off rangelands.
“We haven’t used grazing with the strict intention of managing cheatgrass before,” Parker said in response to a question by WGFC President and rancher Charles Price. “This is somewhat experimental, but the idea is we will graze early in the season when cheatgrass is green but natives haven’t started to grow yet.”
He added, “We want to graze cheatgrass in such a way that the native vegetation isn’t harmed.”
Parker noted that, since WGFC passed the proposal, he hopes to initiative grazing in the upcoming spring season.
“This has been a real cooperative effort between Rawlins BLM, WGFD and some local ranchers who are expressing interest,” he said. “We’re trying to work together to be adaptive and manage the land.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.