Guest Opinions

Proper grazing can achieve healthy outcomes in Idaho, West

Dennis Mackey
Dennis Mackey

The deteriorating health of Western sagebrush landscapes has sparked an unprecedented and proactive partnership to conserve the uniquely American habitat that supports the greater sage grouse and 350 other species, outdoor recreation, ranching and other traditional land uses. Recently, some public opinion has suggested that livestock grazing may be incompatible with conserving the sagebrush ecosystem, specifically sage grouse habitat.

State directors of your U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Great Basin area, are sharing perspectives gained collectively through decades of both scientific study and on-the-ground learning from those who live on the land.

There are current and legacy examples of livestock-grazing negatively affecting sagebrush ecosystems and sage grouse habitat. However, we are aware of many examples of ranchers grazing livestock in a manner that keeps the sagebrush ecosystem healthy for both wildlife and people.

This fact is important to recognize, learn from and share.

Livestock grazing may be the most widespread, long-term human influence on sagebrush ecosystems in the Great Basin since European settlement. But it is invasive plants, especially cheatgrass, which have changed how the sagebrush ecosystem responds to stress from wildfire and grazing. Another threat is the degradation of riparian areas, wet meadows and springheads. Avoiding overgrazing — however that may be defined — is key to supporting a healthy sagebrush ecosystem.

While we acknowledge that improperly managed livestock grazing can facilitate threats to upland and riparian areas, we have also seen that proper grazing can achieve healthy outcomes.

For years the service has collaborated with ranchers, and we are currently working cooperatively with federal and state resource agencies to reach out more, asking ranchers to teach us how their successful grazing management is promoting native plants, reducing cheatgrass, and ensuring healthy riparian areas and springs. This collaboration across federal, state and private land ownership is key to removing threats to sage grouse and sagebrush ecosystems.

The first step is to agree with ranchers on our goal — on what healthy landscapes look like.

We’re increasingly finding common goals. Ranchers have shown that monitoring, using adaptive management and being accountable for outcomes are essential to their success.

Fires will burn again in the Great Basin, just as they have for millennia before livestock occurred here. The main factor that has changed in the last 150 years is the presence of cheatgrass and other invasive plants. If we focus grazing and other land uses in a manner that promotes healthy native bunchgrasses and forbs, future fires will be less likely to result in expanding cheatgrass dominance.

We support the rancher’s role as stewards of these rangelands, and we want to help manage for the long-term sustainability of this ecosystem. Careful, proactive, collaborative management will be the key to maintaining proper livestock grazing while protecting this arid and relatively fragile sagebrush landscape.

We think it can be done. There are public and private grazing lands throughout the Great Basin that prove our case.

Dennis Mackey is U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service state supervisor and Paul Henson is the Oregon supervisor. Also contributing from the service were Larry Crist,Utah, and Ted Koch, Nevada.