Ranchers repeatedly said that the Soda Fire would not have been so large had they been allowed to have their cattle graze more of the grasses that had grown thick with spring rains.
“We’ll never stop all wildfires, but if we can utilize that grass before it becomes fuel, then we can stop those fires before they get catastrophic,” said Wyatt Prescott, executive director of the Idaho Cattle Association. “That’s why we say graze it, don’t blaze it.”
Now ranchers will have to wait years to return their herds to the public land, and sage grouse might have to wait decades before the sagebrush ecosystem is recovered.
But ranchers consistently overstate the potential to stop wildfires with more grazing, Bureau of Land Management leaders insist. They and firefighters said that extreme winds and other weather factors overwhelmed the fuel conditions on the 279,000-acre Soda Fire.
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So what does science say?
Studies conducted by the University of Idaho and others support the BLM’s argument, most notably studies done after the 2007 Murphy Complex that burned more than 600,000 acres. The multiagency study team, headed by Karen Launchbaugh, of the University of Idaho, said the extreme conditions on that fire, similar to the Soda Fire, overwhelmed all else.
“The team found that much of the Murphy Wildland Fire Complex burned under extreme fuel and weather conditions that likely overshadowed livestock grazing as a factor influencing fire extent and fuel consumption in many areas where these fires burned,” the team’s report said.
But the report acknowledged the level of fuels consumed in some areas was “observed as fence-line contrasts,” where the fire stopped where heavy grazing had taken place.
“Each time we call these fires the perfect storm, but the only thing we can influence is the fuel load,” said Rogerson Republican Sen. Bert Brackett, a cattle rancher.
So grazing can be a tool to reduce fuels, and the report recommended the BLM begin projects that use targeted grazing along roads and fire breaks.
“This is about roads, fuel breaks, rocky outcroppings,” said Tim Murphy, BLM Idaho director. “How can we broaden that?”
That’s not enough, Prescott said. He and ranchers want the BLM to allow them to put more cows out when, like this year, spring rains produce a large crop of grasses. He compares it to how they are forced to reduce the number of cattle when the range suffers through drought.
“We’ve been working on this for decades,” Prescott said.
Lanchbaugh said in another paper that grazing to reduce fuel loads can reduce fire ignitions and spread, but it should be done in the spring and only is effective when there aren’t extreme conditions.
More grazing, more issues
Heavy grazing doesn’t only remove grasses but also leafy plants that are important food for sage grouse. These plants, called forbs, also feed insects that are important spring feed for sage grouse, said Roger Rosentreter, a retired BLM biologist.
Rosentreter, who has a doctorate and has more than 100 peer-reviewed publications, said heavy grazing also breaks up the microbiotic crust, a thin layer that keeps moisture in but keeps out seeds, which historically helped act as a fire break and kept cheatgrass and other invasive species from taking hold.
“If you have heavy grazing to reduce fuels that compacts the soil and decreases perennial plants, you are going to have soil erosion and we’re going to have a dust bowl,” Rosentreter said.
The BLM doesn’t automatically oppose increased grazing during a wet spring, which is authorized with a temporary, nonrenewable permit, said Jeff Foss, assistant Idaho director for resources.
But to do that, the agency would have to update the rancher’s grazing plan.
“The problem is, Prescott said, is the BLM can’t renew a grazing plan, “ without being tied up in the courtroom.”
The grazing plan guides how and when the rancher will use the public range and ensures it protects wildlife, the plant community and water quality. This is a public process with environmental review that has routinely brought lawsuits, most by the Western Watersheds Project.
The group has dedicated itself to ending grazing on federal lands. In a recent guest opinion in the (Twin Falls) Times-News, Travis Bruner, the group’s executive director, said livestock grazing is a root cause of the large fires.
“The presence of livestock only increases the long-term probability of more intense and more frequent wildfire,” he said.
Despite Watershed’s success in the courtroom, their victories have not yet reduced the number of cattle on the range since ranchers have a long and extensive appeals process available.
But they make updating the plans a long and costly process. A federal law passed earlier this year allows ranchers to graze under existing rules until a new plan is approved, which prevents them from having to make improvements.
But it also prevents them from seeking a flexible spring grazing permit. Prescott said ranchers support additional money to update these permits sooner.
The targeted grazing projects would be done separate of these permits, Foss said. Stewardship contracts would pay ranchers to graze in specific areas and provide the fencing and water transportation that would be necessary to make it work.
Bruner says “passive restoration” is necessary to improve the quality of the range and to reduce fire danger over time. But federal law does not allow the BLM to permanently end grazing except in a few specific areas including parts of Owyhee County under the Owyhee Initiative passed in 2009 and in the 700,000 acres in the East Fork of the Salmon River under the recent Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill.
Rosentreter said increasing grazing in the spring in areas that are largely non-native grasses like crested wheatgrass, can make sense, but he’s skeptical that, applied broadly, it will reduce fire without negative effects.
“The bottom line is, do we want our sagebrush rangelands to turn to desert or do we want healthy rangeland that can handle moderate grazing and wildlife?” he said.