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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.

Recovery

“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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

As invasive species and human interference wreak havoc on the natural state of the rangelands of the West, rangeland restoration efforts have taken a front seat for environmental agencies of the West. 

“When we approach a project, we want to start with the end in mind and understand our environment and opportunities,” says Colleen Faber, an environmental health and safety supervisor with Anadarko.

“The best defense is a good offense,” Faber comments. “If we proactively go in and treat landscapes before we disturb them, we are likely to get a better outcome.”

She stresses the importance of coming together between agencies and landowners and laying out the entire objective of the restoration project so everyone is on the same page.

Proactive approach

“We want to begin with the end in mind,” says Faber. “We need to understand our environment and view our challenges as opportunities.”

Part of being proactive is understanding the landscape we’re working with, according to Faber.

“Use field data to determine what is going to be successful,” says Faber. “We will fail if we plant a seed that needs 19 inches of precipitation in a seven-inch precipitation zone.”

Doug Miyamoto of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture agrees that being proactive is an important factor of success in restoration projects. 

“We could do everything right, but if the rains don’t come, we won’t be successful,” Miyamoto comments. “We want to be ready, though, so when the rains do come, the soils are in good condition.”

Invasive annuals 

One of the major issues facing many western states is the increase in invasive annual winter grasses, according to Derrick Sebastian, Bayer western area sales manager. 

“These grasses increase the thatch layer, which increases fire frequency and intensity and creates monocultures of pure invasive grasses,” according to Sebastian. “What’s scary about this is, monocultures can be a truly landscape scale transformation with these grasses.”

Sebastian stresses the importance of depleting the seed banks of these grasses to be truly successful in eradicating them. 

“We will not see the success we want on a large scale if we are unable to completely deplete the seed bank of these grasses,” says Sebastian. 

Sebastian has been working with the herbicide Esplanade®, which targets broadleaf weeds and grasses where warm season turfs are desired. Though the product is not currently labeled with a grazing tolerance, Sebastian’s team hopes to submit a full grazing package to the EPA by the end of the year.

“The unique thing about this product is that with a single treatment, we are finding anywhere from two to four years of control,” comments Sebastian. “If an invasive annual grass only lasts that long, we could potentially deplete the seedbank with a couple treatments.”

According to Sebastian, one of the major advantages of controlling invasives, such as cheatgrass, is the increased leader growth in the shrub community. 

“Shrubs such as rubber rabbit and bitterbrush serve as critical overwintering habitat for mule deer,” says Sebastian. “We will also see restoration in pollinator habitats.”

Macro scale

“Restoration happens with boots on the ground, one acre at a time, one square meter at a time, but to be successful we have to scale up,” says Garth Fuller, The Nature Conservancy’s eastern Oregon manager.

Fuller comments, as someone who has been working in restoration for over 20 years, there is more failure than success.  

“We have to pick the right places to work to have meaningful success,” says Fuller. “Over time, we must stitch together all these single projects into something at a landscape or even regional scale.” 

According to Fuller, it’s crucial to match the correct plants and seeds to the location to maximize the return on investment. 

“If we are targeting the right plants, the right seeds and the right locations, we are utilizing adaptive management,” says Fuller. “Adaptive management needs solid monitoring and frameworks so we can learn from our mistakes.” 

While Fuller applauds the high-tech restoration tools coming into the scene, he is a believer in old-fashion, low-tech strategies.  

One thing Fuller would like to see put into action is a space where researchers can discuss practices that didn’t work, so the industry is able to fail forward and be more productive as a whole.

The Western Governors Association recently sponsored a discussion panel regarding restoration of rangelands. The panel featured experts ranging from academia to industry professionals discussing best practices in which to restore rangelands to a healthy state.  

Callie Hanson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..