Environment

Great Basin rangeland faces new challenges

In August, BLM Director Neil Kornze toured the Soda fire in Idaho’s Owyhee County.
In August, BLM Director Neil Kornze toured the Soda fire in Idaho’s Owyhee County. rbarker@idahostatesman.com

Fighting the effects of climate change in Great Basin rangeland is drawing together federal, state and private interests to deal with what scientists say is greater weather variability causing big swings in forage available for cattle and wildlife.

Biomass can triple some years or see declines just as great, experts say, and native vegetation in the region that has survived climate variations for tens of thousands of years now faces challenges from invasive species and wildfires.

In the politically red state of Idaho, though, arguments over global warming are generally avoided.

“Forget that, we need to mitigate and act,” said John Freemuth, a Boise State University professor and public lands expert. Of the many efforts underway, he’s leading one with a $500,000 grant from the U.S Bureau of Land Management to bring together federal, state and tribal entities to find ways to reduce the severity of rangeland wildfires.

The most significant change follows an order by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in January elevating the importance of rangeland wildfires when it comes to assigning resources. Ranchers have signed up to fight rangeland fires, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is experimenting with targeted grazing to reduce fuel and create firebreaks in some areas.

But some ranchers have had to pull cattle off grazing allotments when food ran out early due to lack of moisture. In southwest Idaho and southeast Oregon, a giant rangeland fire last summer will keep ranchers off grazing allotments for years.

“As we think about climate change, I think we do need to consider what does this mean for our ranching community and how are we going to adapt going forward,” said Janice Schneider, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for Land and Minerals Management. “A healthy economy and healthy ecosystem are inextricably linked.”

Certified animal nutritionist Marty Gill, whose family has ranched in Idaho since the 1880s, said he’s seen an increase in ranchers pulling cattle off rangeland earlier than normal because of lack of forage, resulting in lost income.

“When you go from green grass to brown grass, your protein and energy values severely decline,” he said. “In the last three or four years in particular, kind of in the Great Basin area, the snowpack has been very, very low.”

Precipitation in the Idaho portion of the Great Basin was slightly below normal last winter, said Troy Lindquist of the National Weather Service, and several warm spells also reduced snowpack. Temperature records kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the average temperature for 2011 to 2014 in the Great Basin states was 1 to 2 degrees warmer than the previous 100 years.

That’s problematic, said Matt Germino, a research ecologist with the United States Geological Survey who specializes in sagebrush steppe ecosystems. Precipitation falling as rain rather than snow means that perennial native plants have less water to store for summer use. And mid-winter warm spells melt snow sooner, with some areas in recent years seeing spring runoff in winter.

Another threat is cheatgrass, an invasive plant that can cause multiple wildfires in a decade, Germino said.

“I would say things look pretty good for cheatgrass,” Germino said. “Especially if the warmer winters are overlaid by more precipitation that occurs as rain and not snow.”

As part of Jewell’s order, the BLM has been experimenting with targeted grazing to remove some of the fuel, notably cheatgrass that can provide forage before drying out.

“I’m a huge proponent of using animals very strategically and very heavy in places,” said Karen Launchbaugh, director of the University of Idaho’s rangeland Center. “So far, that’s what I’m seeing ranchers and the BLM doing, at least in the Snake River plains. I’m kind of encouraged.”

However, she noted, “poor grazing management usually favors annual invasive grasses” such as cheatgrass.

Wyatt Prescott, executive director of the Idaho Cattle Association, said ranchers remove cattle in dry years but aren’t allowed to add more in wet years.

“What we have advocated for is that ranchers need the flexibility to adapt to what the system provides,” he said.

Cheatgrass uses moisture that might otherwise go deeper into the soil where it could be tapped by deep-rooted sagebrush in summer. Germino noted that many native plants rely on snow cover in winter to insulate them from much colder air temperatures that show up periodically.

“Most plants have no problem being right at freezing with the insulation provided by snow cover,” he said. “But fewer plants are able to tolerate the minimum air temperatures that often come in midwinter.”

Besides providing forage for cattle, about 350 wildlife species rely on the sagebrush steppe, including sage grouse.

State Forester David Groeschl recently told the Idaho Land Board, comprised of Gov. Butch Otter and four other statewide-elected officials, that the 30-year trend shows wildfire season lasting a month longer, with the 2015 season lasting two months longer. The state is on the hook for about $60 million in firefighting costs this year, mainly spent fighting fires in northern Idaho.

The Land Board voted to boost Idaho’s wildfire fighting budget by 10 percent, or $900,000, for efforts to put out small fires before they become large ones.

“We put a lot of fires out that were 2 to 5 acres this year,” said Otter, who as a young man fought wildfires in Idaho. As governor, he’s had to deal with multiple giant rangeland fires in the last decade, and said he welcomes Jewell’s order aimed at not only protecting rangeland but rehabilitating it after a fire.

That effort extends to southwest Idaho and southeast Oregon where federal agencies are spending $67 million over five years to rehabilitate the 436 square miles torched in the August rangeland wildfire. Much of that work aims to return native plants before cheatgrass and other invasive species move in.

“I think that everyone understands that at the end of the day, the invasive annual weed issue is the critical driver of the problem,” Schneider said.

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