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Outcome-based grazing to mitigate wildfires on rangelands

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Currently in the western U.S. there are 34 large wildfires burning with a total of 445,920 acres included. Of those large fires, only three are contained and new fires are being reported each day. According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), over 1.5 million acres in the U.S. have burned this year to date.  

In a recent The Art of Range podcast, Host Tip Hudson, range and livestock specialist with Washington State University Extension, shares a presentation from the 2020 Society for Range Management annual meeting. The presentation was part of a symposium titled, Addressing Flexibility through Outcome Based Grazing Authorization, that also included presentations from Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rangeland management specialists in Oregon and Wyoming.  

Fires span boundaries 

According to Hudson, wildfires on rangelands have grown in terms of size, frequency and length of season.  

“Increasing human use of rangelands, vegetation state change, cheatgrass invasion, drought and climate change are to blame for wildfires on rangelands growing,” he explains.   

Hudson offers suggestions for solutions from managers and researchers including grazing systems, preemptive restoration and a fuel break provision. Livestock grazing has been shown to reduce fire fuel load and decrease fire potential and intensity. 

“Western U.S. rangelands are largely managed by the federal government for multiple uses,” Hudson shares. “Because wildfires frequently cross jurisdictional boundaries, it is likely to require involvement by multiple actors beyond the federal range management agencies.”   

Katherine Wollstein, PhD candidate working for the Policy Analysis Group at the University of Idaho, presents results showing how formal and informal barriers affect management decisions, including grazing plans, designed to reduce the risk of wildfires from three different BLM field offices.  

Outcome-based grazing 

Grazing permits on public lands were meant to regulate usage and discourage resource misuse. However in many cases, permits directing the time and intensity ranchers may graze livestock are renewed on a 10-year basis and often do not contain any information on how to respond to unusual rangeland conditions.  

“Typically some sort of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) needs to be done if a change is desired on a permit,” shares Wollstein. “It’s a long process. It’s almost impossible to get grazing on the ground that season.” 

“There’s difficulty in being flexible or responsive to unexpected annual variabilities – things like drought or productive years and also unexpected conditions like wildfire,” Wollstein explains of the top-down approach public rangeland management utilizes.  

In 2017, the BLM announced the Outcome-Based Grazing Authorization (OBGA) program to offer a more flexible and collaborative approach to grazing authorizations.  

“The goals of outcome-based grazing are to decrease the response time to real-time resource conditions and work collaboratively with the multitude of rangeland stakeholders to achieve desired ecological, social and economic conditions,” says Wollstein.  

“OBGAs are being piloted in six western states with the idea that the BLM and a permittee mutually identify and agree upon goals for reduced fire risk, invasive annuals, improved wildlife habitat and perennial abundance on allotments,” Wollstein explains.  

Barriers to collaboration 

OBGAs suggest more flexibility is built into permits as they come up for renewal. In Wollstein’s study, she explores the formal and informal barriers and practices guiding interactions between the BLM and its permittees.  

Wollstein explains formal barriers are things recognized as solid and enforceable rules such as grazing regulations, while informal barriers are less tangible, like beliefs about resource management.  

“Together they create perceptions of barriers to using outcome-based management to manage fire risk,” she says. 

“There is a misalignment between the BLM and permitees’ beliefs on how resources should be managed and how fire risk should be dealt with,” says Wollstein.  

“I asked permittees what they would like to be doing that they feel like they can’t. Permittees wanted to be able to graze within two years following wildfires,” Wollstein shares. “But, BLM follows a very formal process regarding post-fire rehab.”  

In this study, the BLM shares grazing would negatively impact the rehabilitation after the fire but permitees believe not grazing the allotment post-fire allows cheatgrass to invade and further increase risk of wildfire.  

“They’re looking at the same piece of ground, but reacting to it differently and their beliefs about the appropriate management activities are very different,” says Wollstein.  

“Things like shared experience, long-tenured staff and good relationships soften formal and informal barriers,” Wollstein says on going forward.  

On the ground 

PH Livestock outside of Rawlins is one of the ranches participating the in OBGA program. 

PH Ranch Owner and Manager Neils Hansen says in a question and answer session with Partners in the Sage, “The Outcome program allows us to move forward with some permit changes that were already planned, while exploring what more flexibility could be added to our permits.”  

Hansen continues, “We were able to show people what we were doing and why, which has allowed us to build a level of trust with the BLM.”  

“With the changes we see in our year-to-year weather, day-to-day markets and government policies, a business needs to be able to react and make whatever changes are needed to stay viable,” says Hansen. “We need to be able to react without going through a lengthy NEPA analysis or a public comment period so we can change our on or off dates or move away from an unexpected problem.”  

On rangeland wildfires, Hansen says, “Runaway fires are a perfect example of the kind of tragedy that can occur with improperly managed land. When we have active grazing and keep the fuels trimmed down, we don’t have huge fires like we are experiencing today.”  

Averi Reynolds is the editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to roundup@wylr.net. 

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