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With palpable excitement in his eyes and voice, Fred King says, It was probably the best thing that ever happened to us as an agency. As wildlife area manager for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), King helps manage some 135,000 acres of habitat owned by his agency, including the 6,500-acre Wall Creek Wildlife Management Area south of Ennis, Mont.
And the best thing that ever happened, in Kings opinion? Amazingly, hes talking about his agencys realization that livestock grazing can make a positive difference in the value of landscapes for wildlife.
Wait a minutea wildlife area manager is extolling the positive benefits of livestock grazing? This contradicts the anti-rancher rhetoric we hear from many environmental groups. It flies in the face of Kings own agencys image with Montana ranchers. And youd never know about it by watching many of the agencys actions. Yet this is what King is anxious to tell methat in his view livestock can be good for wildlife and that wildlife managers should know it. Its the ultimate message King has in mind when he calls to suggest that Range should tell its readers the story of the Wall Creek Wildlife Management Area.
Montanas Fish, Wildlife & Parks department used sportsmens dollars to buy the Wall Creek Area in 1960. At the time, all it took was a now-nostalgic $57 per acre. Also at the time, one of the agencys missions in making the purchase was to get rid of cows, assuming that doing so would improve the areas value as winter range for elk.
Forty-two years ago, King explains, everyone thought livestock were necessarily obstructive to wildlife, especially to big game populations. But after 20 years of no cattle grazing, while elk populations had increased all over the state, including around Wall Creek, they werent using the area as expected and hoped. Instead, the elk often preferred forage on nearby Forest Service grazing allotments. Something was wrong with the presumption that the best thing for wildlife always means eliminating cattle.
Meanwhile, King says, his agency had begun to see a different truth documented on other landscapes. And the reason for this learning was the same as the mechanism by which Montana ranchers, over the same general time period, were learning how to improve range conditions and their own bottom line at the same time. It was the research, work and lifelong commitment of August Gus Hormay, the father of rest-rotation grazing systems.
In 1975, after 15 years of no livestock grazing on the Wall Creek Area, FWP purchased other land for habitatthe 55,000-acre Mt. Haggin Wildlife Management Area, near Anaconda. As with Wall Creek, part of the agencys agenda in buying Mt. Haggin was to eliminate livestock in favor of elk. But the Mt. Haggin purchase stipulated that an existing grazing contract would be allowed to play out for a final five years. King says the question the agency faced was how best to manage that continued grazing so as to minimize its assumed adverse effects on wildlife.
Enter Hormay, to whom FWP turned for advice. Hormay helped the agency develop a classic rest-rotation grazing plan for the area. Generally speaking, Hormays rest-rotation method calls for landscapes to be divided into three distinct pastures, only two of which are grazed in any given year. Livestock begin grazing in one pasture early in the growing season, when their actions promote broader plant growth and root development. Another pasture is grazed only very late in the growing season, after seed heads have developed on the forbs and grasses.
This grazing facilitates the process of planting natural seeds on the rangelands. The final pasture receives rest throughout the year with no cattle grazing at all. This period of total rest, after a year of late-season grazing that promotes better seeding, is essential to rest-rotations stimulating effects on long-term vegetative health. The Hormay method follows around in cycles, so that it takes three years for all the lands to receive each of the grazing treatments, with each area getting nearly two years of rest after a full season of livestock use.
Despite its skepticism, the wildlife agency went along with Hormays rest-rotation plan at Mt. Haggin. We caught lots of backlash from sportsmen, King remembers, and a lot of curiosity from wildlife agencies in other states.
Hormays prescription worked. It allowed fewer cows on Mt. Haggin than had been grazed in earlier years, but the rest-rotation grazing system proved that livestock can benefit wildlife populations and range conditions at the same time.
Joe Egan agrees with this pro-livestock assessment. In fact, if given a platform and a bullhorn, hed gladly shout it out with a long explanation until everyone in the West understands how important he knows this to be. Now retired from a lifelong career as a wildlife biologist for FWP, Egan was involved in the agencys process of learning firsthand the benefits of livestock grazing. As a result, hes made it his mission to proselytize on the Hormay rest-rotation system and has gone so far as to publish his own brochure on the subject since Hormays essential writings are now out of print.
Some wildlife people think Ive sold out to cowboys, but theyre wrong, Egan says emphatically. Theres no justification for anyone in wildlife or fisheries to oppose grazing under the rest-rotation system. He is convinced that too many wildlife managers and activists remain focused on how they remember the old days of continuous grazing and how the practice of year-round cattle grazing on all landscapes depleted range conditions. Its a mistake to get rid of the cows, he says. As a matter of fact, its better to put the cows back using rest-rotation. If you do that, everything the do-gooders want will be thereyoull heal the watersheds and eventually all the vegetation that should be there will return, because of the right timing for livestock grazing.
Egan explains that what many people forget when they adopt an all-or-nothing stance on livestock grazing is that range is never static. Its either improving or deteriorating. And once you lose even a quarter-inch of topsoil, it will take a long, long time to build back. Livestock grazing is a method of making maximum use of natural, soil-making machinery. He says that using livestock in rest-rotation grazing is really the only economic way to stop deterioration and to steadily improve rangelands throughout the West. Thats what cows are, thats the effect livestock actually have.
Fred King agrees that the Hormay method was proving itself at the Mt. Haggin Wildlife Area just as his agency was making management decisions for the Fleecer Mountain Wildlife Management Area near Divide, a few miles south of Butte, Mont. Because of Mt. Haggins success, he says, the agencys wildlife managers were receptive to the idea of managing Fleecer in concert with adjacent private and Forest Service rangelands, using the rest-rotation approach. And once again, the method proved that livestock grazing keeps plants desirable to wildlife when they would otherwise, without that grazing, become unpalatable over time. It turned out that having livestock in the area was good for elk populations.
All of which helps explain why, in 1982, after 22 years of no livestock, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks brought cattle back to the Wall Creek Wildlife Management Area. Two years later, the agency began using a full-fledged rest-rotation system at Wall Creek, complementing its range management plan with that of surrounding private and Forest Service lands. The result: further increases in elk populations and better use of the area by those elk. The agency found that without the pressure only livestock grazing could offer, the elk wouldnt eat the plant life on lands that once had been used for crop growing; but cows made those plants tastier and more attractive to the elk, and thus increased the landscapes productivity.
Today, the Wall Creek Area supports between 2,000 and 2,500 elk, compared to 250 when the agency purchased the lands. Much of this population growth resulted from changes in hunting restrictions and other factors, but bringing cows back furthered the trend, says Kurt Alt, the wildlife biologist who oversees the wildlife aspects of the agencys management of Wall Creek and several other wildlife management areas.
Alt generally agrees with Fred Kings assessment of livestock grazing, though he chooses words with care and is less exuberant about cows. I do know that when you use livestock and livestock grazing properly, you can enhance that range productivity for wildlife, Alt explains. From my perspective, a well-managed landscape for wildlife allows livestock, too.
But, he says, the categorizing that cows are the bane of the existence of wildlife, or that when done right are the savior, both of those views are out of line with how I view things. Cows are a fact of life on these lands, and so are wildlife. How you fit them together is the challenge.
Alt notes that a lot of these lands evolved with large ungulatesmeaning bison and livestock, if managed well, can mimic that. The real issue is how theyre managed. On landscapes that are in a highly productive growing state, the plant community is perpetuating itself and enhancing its growth, and you can see the livestock play an important part of that. If you take those livestock away you might not get the same productivity, but that doesnt mean its in a worse ecologic state. I just get tired of the rhetoric, and I boil it down into a practical view: what we have are people and wildlife and livestock.
The Learning Process Continues
Retired wildlife biologist Joe Egan says that 40 years of Gus Hormays continuous research at sites all over the West proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that maintaining and improving the health of rangeland tends to require livestock grazing under the rest-rotation method. It therefore torments Egan to see that, in his opinion, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management often fail to apply Hormays findings to their own land management decisions, especially since these agencies were the ones that funded Hormays research.
As for the Montana wildlife agency that he used to serve, Egan is frustrated by the fact that most of these fisheries biologists right now dont want anything to do with cows, even though we can show them places where stream banks are actually repaired by livestock.
Egan reflects on his own process of coming to appreciate the value of cattle grazing. I guess the fish people are still like I was at first. Theres still not a strong commitment by people in the fish and game department on how important habitat is, because for the most part its not a land administering agency. Theres a lot more glory tied up in marking elk and tagging grizzlies and being up in the high country with the goats and all of that. Wildlife are dependent on and theyre a product of habitat, pure and simple, but theres no glory in telling people youre out there measuring plants.
Yet there seems to be reason for optimism, for expecting that in the coming years more and more wildlife professionalsand the sportsmen and activists who tend to respect themmay, like Egan, become vocal advocates of proper livestock grazing. Today FWP conducts 95 different rest-rotation grazing projects on 552,958 acres. This includes conservation easement programs and many of the agencys wildlife management areas, usually purchased with sportsmens dollars for the purpose of maintaining healthy winter habitat for big game populations.
To range coordinator Mike Frisina, who oversees the wildlife agencys livestock grazing programs, the results already are clear. If you really look at it objectively, he says, you can say that certain grazing strategies can be good for wildlife. Whats more, Frisinas perspective tells him that ongoing debates about public land grazing, propelled by environmental groups that think livestock grazing is necessarily harmful, are shortsighted and miss the real point.
In our state, even if you took all cows off public land, thats only one-third of the land, most in the western part of the state, with most of the areas wildlife using private land for winter range. Elk and antelope populations, for example, are really tied to private land, Frisina notes.
You have to accept the fact that Montana is second only to Texas for the amount of land in farms and ranches. Two-thirds of the state is privately owned, and two-thirds of that private land is managed as farms and ranches. So the playing field for producing wildlife is really closely tied to private land, and for us to become actively involved in programs like livestock grazing, weve found a way to integrate what we need to get out of the land with what the rancher needs, so that we can both benefit. Thats more useful than people arguing about whether grazing is or isnt good for wildlife.
Frisinas experience leads him to emphasize the value of using rest-rotation grazing approaches that consider private and public lands together, managed as larger, integrated landscapes, especially with our big game species, he says. For the most part they are dependent on private lands for their winter forage. If you took cows off public land, that would put more pressure on private land. And a lot of these smaller ranches need public land to operate. If they have to sell off perhaps to subdivision or to new users not open to any public uses, its bad for wildlife.
He concludes that, Aside from how grazing can help with the management of soils, vegetation, and water, when these lands are kept as ranches you maintain a critical element that we never used to worry about open spaces. In the old days, we used to hear We want more elk, but about 10 to 15 years ago it changed to How are we going to maintain this open space so that wildlife can persist?
Allowing the right kind of livestock grazing seems to offer a clear means of realizing everyones objectives, of maintaining range health and an abundance of fish and wildlife, and maintaining rural lifestyles and economies at the same time. The Montana wildlife agencys own experiences at Mt. Haggin, Fleecer and the Wall Creek Wildlife Management Areas demonstrate that it works.
Tom Daubert is a communications consultant based in Helena, Mont. Check his enviro blog at
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