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Fires in the far West adversely impact ranchers, rangeland ecosystems

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

In recent years, fire has become the biggest threat to natural resources in West, destroying wildlife habitat, timber resources and livestock forage, according to researchers. 

More and more acreage burns each year, with devastating fires impacting not only livestock producers but also urban areas, with homes and towns destroyed and loss of human lives. 

Fire has become one of the biggest concerns for many rural and urban areas alike, according to Robert Alverts, of Science and Management Consulting in Tigard, Ore. and part-time faculty at University of Nevada-Reno College of Agriculture.

Extensive burns

Alverts says for the past three decades, between five and 10 million acres of forests and rangelands have burned each year, most of which are in federal ownership. These federal land areas are plagued with excessive fuel loads of beetle-killed timber and non-native annual grasses, leading to extreme fires that cost millions of taxpayer dollars in suppression costs alone, not counting post-burn rehabilitation and restoration costs.

“Ranchers suffer short-term losses after fire, including loss of forage in the year of the burn, and federal lands policy is to wait at least two years after re-seeding burned areas before allowing turnout again,” he comments. “This directly affects the ranchers with losses in the burn area, plus the indirect losses of suppliers and related companies, who lose business during that time.”

Invasive species

He says the shift in land management by federal agencies, with an increase in fuel loads and the consequences of invasive annuals like cheat grass and medusahead has increased the risk for ranchers losing what has been productive grazing land. 

“We also know that the work we’ve been doing on projects using late-season grazing to reduce cheatgrass with cattle grazing can turn this around. The big problem is getting the federal land managers to allow this. There are many Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) allotments that won’t allow late season grazing. We need to re-evaluate and adjust the allotment management plans and use seasons,” says Alverts.

Grazing evaluation

“There’s a needed paradigm shift in the whole philosophy of grazing,” Averts asserts. “The agencies have to acknowledge and recognize the invasive annual plant communities over much of the western rangeland are now part of the permanent plant community, and we have to manage accordingly.”

He adds, “We need to account for the periodicity of the annual component. They may produce 2,000 pounds per acre one year and 150 pounds the next year.” 

Averts summarizes that permittees need more flexibility of use.

“It should be outcome-based grazing instead of the current rigid adherence to a particular date on the calendar or time period,” he comments, noting the “rule book” for grazing is generally created in Washington, D.C. rather than on the allotments themselves. 

Working with agencies

“Even on the ground out here, we have many agency people who are naïve about grazing,” he continues. 

As one example, Alverts points to a cheatgrass reduction project that has been in place since 2006. 

“BLM had a young woman in their Washington office who worked in Nevada on rehab and restoration work but got a promotion to the head office, still doing rehab and restoration,” Alverts says. “She asked me what kind of stubble height we left on our cheatgrass. I couldn’t believe she was that naïve. I told her we don’t want any stubble height because we are trying to get rid of cheatgrass.” 

He continues, “Unfortunately this kind of ignorance is typical of the current BLM management, even at the district level.”

Forward thinking

A few districts are forward thinking and have led the work on late season grazing, with demonstration areas. 

“These have been tremendous, showing what we are able to do, and turn things around,” he says. “Every BLM district seems to have its own autonomy, and some are believers and others are not. This makes it challenging for the permittees.”

Alverts continues, “We know there are huge short-term impacts on ranchers after a fire. They lose forage that year and during the rest period for re-seeded allotments. This is always at least two growing seasons – and sometimes three – regardless of what the plant community does.” 

“BLM is using the calendar and the clock instead of the eyeball to determine condition,” he says.


“We know that some of these plants are not well-rooted the first year or so and can be abused if grazed too soon, but that doesn’t mean we have to always adhere to a two-year abstinence from grazing, nor should we, after rehabilitating the area,” Alverts says. “It should be a case-by-case situation.”

During the two- to three-year timeframe that allotments are recovering, Alverts also cites ranchers must either buy hay or find alternative pastures, which is either difficult or impossible in regions that have experienced wildfire.

“On the other hand, we also know that after a burn, there can be a lot of nutrients in the soil, and if we get the right moisture and the right seed mix in there, we can have a tremendous biological response and improved productivity – unless the fire burned so hot it killed everything and sterilized the soil,” he says. “It’s a complex issue.” 

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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