Watersheds Messenger     Fall 2000     Vol. VII, No. 3      PDF ISSUE


Our Public Lands Dressed in Brown
By Brian R. Turner

Overgrazing is much too weak a term. Most of the public lands in the West are what you might call "cowbumt." Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of these ugly, clumsy, stupid, bawling, stinking, fly­covered, shit-smeared, disease-spreading brutes. They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows and forests.
- Edward Abbey

After close scrutiny of many of our public lands watersheds in Lemhi and Custer Counties, Idaho in the year 2000, it would seem as if rangeland health issues were very minute on the agenda for the managing agencies. While my focus was primarily in the Morgan Creek and Pahsimeroi River drainages, trip after trip led me to once lush and healthy riparian zones now torn apart from sometimes over 100 years of cattle wallowing. I was struck even more visiting these allotments after the cows had been turned loose this summer. In the high desert of South Central Idaho, the dense bright green willows and alders, bright flowers, and tall aspens surrounding streams amidst mountains of dry, shrubby sagebrush is gold for our public lands ranchers to fatten their profit-yielding livestock. Nearly every livestock allotment I surveyed reeked from mounds of feces around each bend, fresh banks fallen in the stream from excessive trampling, and streams shallow and wide from the death of native vegetation. The priceless community of life that depends on these public riparian zones will continue to be fragmented from the myriad negative affects of excessive cattle wallowing if the course of management is not radically altered, and a very small percentage of the American public is aware of it.

Yet, surprisingly, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have channeled millions of dollars into the scientific study and haphazard management of streamside riparian zones. An increasing number of scientists worldwide for the past 20 years have come to understand the undeniable importance of every aspect of healthy riparian areas for upholding entire ecosystems. The Forest Service in The Land Resource Management Plan for the Challis National Forest remarks: "there will be an intensive effort to inventory, monitor, and evaluate physical and biological conditions within these vegetative communities." Unfortunately the intensity they speak of is virtually impossible given the extent and history of damage to the land in the Challis region's arid climate. The BLM in its Riparian-Wetland Initiative for the 1990's also confronts rangeland issues with a similar intensity remarking that "75% or more will be in proper functioning condition by 1997," and that they will "acquire and expand key areas to provide for their maximum public benefit, protection, enhancement, and efficient management.

I will argue that despite these strikingly powerful claims in the BLM and Forest Service's management rhetoric, their goals are virtually impossible given the current monitoring strategies I have observed in central Idaho. It is absurd to think that such allotments can take this same treatment for another 100 years and still maintain adequate habitat for our wildlife. Riparian areas constitute less than one percent of the United States vegetative cover, yet their function to dissipate the water energy flow, provide shade for fish, and forage for animals makes their health key for the survival of our remaining native species. Annual grazing damage to them is not exclusively a result of mismanagement, but one of sheer neglect for the only effective solution for maintaining true "proper functioning condition" in riparian areas is the removal of cattle from our arid public lands.

Several years ago, a conference speaker asked a group of professional range conservationists in the BLM two  questions. The speaker first asked: "How many of you consider that you are in the business of managing the vegetative resources of the public lands?" Two or three tentatively put up their hands while most of the others looked rather puzzled.  The second question was: "How many of you consider that you are in the business of facilitating livestock production from the public lands?" to which everyone immediately raised their hands. "This is the problem ," the speaker dryly noted.

One of the greatest contradictions behind both the BLM and the Forest Service's management policies for riparian habitat is that they both acknowledge the extreme importance of the areas in writing, yet have two separate monitoring procedures. While the Forest Service uses small, exclosed utilization cages near riparian vegetation to measure the decrease in stubble height over the course of cattle use, the BLM requires a specific standard of four inches. Shearing standards for the BLM are set at specifically 20% in the Challis district while the Forest Service's Land Resource Management Plan (Forest Plan) makes no mention of a regulation for the permittees. While the Forest Service has utilized varying guidelines for its survey, it faces the issues with the same priority as the BLM, that grazing must continue because it supports the local economy. Any agency official who acts otherwise is subject to a dismissal as recommended by Idaho's conservative senators. The most dangerous comment in the Forest Plan, repeated often, is that the agency should "limit streambank shearing and trampling to acceptable levels." What level is acceptable is subject to individual determination.

In a June 22nd meeting with BLM officials Renee Snyder and Mike Courtney in Salmon, Idaho, a conflict came up regarding their 20% shearing standard on Ellis Creek. It was obvious in our visits to the area that consistently for more than a mile and a half up the stream this standard was heavily exceeded, perhaps closer to 70%. This standard is essential because heavy livestock use will compact the soil, preventing native vegetation from growing and quickly eroding the banks. It is also a measure of total utilization; if banks are excessively sheared off and livestock use is excessive, it follows that all other aspects of the ecosystem, like available forage for wildlife, will be limited. Yet, the BLM staff member Courtney calmly mentioned that the banks were not excessively trampled and that he figured so based on the methods he had been taught in this district, not what is now required in other parts of the state. Upon presentation of photographs displaying disgustingly eroded banks and very little vegetation he merely shrugged. So now, despite the sometimes 20 foot cliffs created from a century of excessive use, and obvious extreme abuse this early summer, Ellis Creek will continue to be grazed. Most likely this is a result of a lack of public interest in the rural area and the biased presentation of environmental standards from BLM officials in the Challis district.

The absence of a universal grazing standard, it can be argued, is due to the unique nature of each allotment. Because of this the Challis Resource Management Plan (RMP) specifies quite often that regulations can be changed based on case-specific studies. On the development of adequate bank shearing standards, it states, "these standards ... may be altered on a case-by-case basis when a watershed or site-specific assessment conducted by an ID team indicates alternative conditions are more appropriate." It seems that if both agencies wanted to be efficient at managing grazing practices, they would collaborate their scientific as well as monitoring efforts. Because of this hypocrisy in each agency's separate quest to "discourage excessive livestock use in riparian areas," the next two sections will address my observations on Forest Service and BLM lands separately.

The Morgan Creek Drainage - Forest Service

The Challis Forest Plan remarks under one section entitled "Need to Establish": "Determine current livestock grazing capacities." It seems remarkable that the same document which emphasizes that "the greatest need for increased habitat improvement is in the riparian areas..." also vows to 'provide for [an] increase in livestock grazing to maintain [the] local ranching economy" while acknowledging an inadequate assessment to begin with. Unfortunately the Challis district of the Forest Service, upon my observation, is frightened to admit that a reduction in livestock use is the only solution to their goals of improvement.

Because the management of the various tributaries draining into Morgan Creek is limited to one or two sites per watershed, mostly due to lack of staff and funding, my goal was to provide an objective survey proving extensive damage to each area. Using a Garmen 2.01 Global Positioning System (GPS), a camera and a notebook, I surveyed each riparian area in increments of usually a tenth of a mile. At each waypoint I documented cattle damage both historically and before this year's grazing. I found most often that streamsides were not only damaged in certain "hot spots," but consistently throughout each allotment.

According to the RMP, the Morgan Creek drainage is occupied by both anadromous and resident fish as well as infested with noxious weeds. While livestock degradation in riparian zones is harmful to nearly all aspects of the biodiverse community of life surrounding the area, these two factors are most influential for the agency's priority in monitoring. Bull Trout (Salvelinus confluentus) were observed in Lick Creek and West Fork Morgan Creek.

Three crucial observations regarding the destruction of wildlife habitat in the Morgan Creek drainage struck me as most threatening, First, the presence of beaver dams which are essential in some areas to dissipate the stream energy flow, was waning. Particularly on Block Creek fresh beaver activity was lacking while there were several previously occupied ponds evident. Upon closer investigation, the new aspen shoots sent out from older fallen trees had been chewed and stripped by cattle. I actually didn't find this surprising given the layout of Block Creek. Cattle would be foolish not to wallow in the riparian areas as they provide the only shade and refreshment for miles in each direction. Upon our visit we saw mule deer, two species of ducks, and dozens of bird species all along the streamside.

Sawmill Creek was the only Forest Service controlled riparian area visited both before and after livestock grazing. While this creek is situated in a higher elevation and is not large enough to harbor a beaver population, the recruitment of new aspen was a problem here as well. In my post-grazing survey of the area I noticed several young trees that have been completely stripped of their bark and leaves and will most likely not survive the winter. The destruction of a healthy, natural aspen population contradicts the Forest Service's goal in their management plan to "place priority on improving essential wildlife and fish habitats" which includes mention of the species. It is doubtful that they even take this into consideration when reviewing allotment capacity and damage.

Another serious problem in several of the tributaries to Morgan Creek was an unstable bedload and the presence of excessive sediment. This result of exorbitant livestock trampling is dangerous for the survival of the Bull Trout which is unique to this area. Bull Trout egg sites are particularly sensitive to stability in the bedload. When small sediment increases and the bedload begins to shift with the flowing water, the eggs are easily swept downstream and lost. Because of this I used a plexiglass surface to photograph and prove the unacceptable sediment in virtually all of the Morgan Creek drainages. The Forest Plan vows to "emphasize habitat for Threatened and Endangered Species," as well as "prohibit or mitigate activities that will, or have a potential to, increase sediment in spawning gravels 2% over existing levels. In addition, it's hard to believe that the agency will achieve its goal of managing the anadromous fish habitat "to attain 90% of habitat capability" given the conditions 13 years after the declaration was made.

Lastly, the stipulation in the Forest Plan that "range improvements will be maintained annually by permittees to standards adequate for public safety ... and control and proper distribution of livestock. Maintenance will be completed before livestock are allowed on the allotment" was not enforced and could not be given current monitoring strategies. On both Sawmill and West Morgan Creeks I found fences completely down before livestock use. This rule is in place because the Forest Service does not have the manpower to survey every mile of fence and the ranchers in this area have accordingly taken advantage of that. Downed fences are particularly dangerous in this area because the dry climate provides for a limited amount of riparian vegetation. Any forage cattle consume outside of their allotment is crucial for the survival of wildlife and biodiversity within the region. While fences are oftentimes cut by hunters or other recreational users, this law within the Forest Plan provides no excuse for the ranchers not to maintain their public lands allotments. Because the ranchers within the Morgan Creek drainage are taking advantage of the limited management capacity of the Forest Service it is necessary that immediate action be taken to curtail this. I recommend a serious reduction in the permittees allowed livestock capacity for such irresponsibility.

Summer 2000 Intern Brian R. Turner is a student at Grimed College in Iowa.

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