Watersheds Messenger     Fall 2001     Vol. VIII, No. 3     PDF ISSUE

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Notes from the Understory: Monitoring Idaho's Public Lands
By Nate Green


Having grown up in Idaho and having lived in Montana and Wyoming, I accepted cattle as part of the western landscape. I also overlooked the immense damage cattle have done to native plants and wildlife. I thought trampled banks, closely cropped grasses and whole fields of barren soil were normal, even natural.

After spending the past summer hiking along the streams that form the Big Lost and Little Lost rivers as a field monitor for Western Watersheds Project, I know better.

I've taken more than a thousand photographs documenting the abuse that these riparian areas have suffered from more than 100 years of grazing. The pictures reveal the gross negligence of ranchers and agencies entrusted to care for this land. They also illustrate the need to end ranching on public lands.

Here are just a few examples of what I found this summer:

Wet Creek (Pass Creek allotment)
Wet Creek is a tributary of the Little Lost River and habitat for the endangered bull trout. All three of the drainage's cattle exclosures - areas fenced to protect particularly vulnerable riparian areas from cattle - were grazed this summer. One of the fences was clipped and pulled down by humans. Another had been built in a manner that allowed cows to walk under it. Still another - a log fence recently built around a bull trout spawning ground was broken in two sections and never repaired. The permittees failed to obey a U.S. Forest Service mandate to build a new exclosure fence. Cows had also broken into a fenced campground.

Sawmill Creek (Mill allotment)
Upper Sawmill Creek, headwaters of the Little Lost River, was not supposed to be grazed until the end of September. When I visited the area on Aug. 8, cattle were already there. They were crowded into an area smaller than a football field and the land been grazed to nothing but bare soil. Cow pies were everywhere. The banks of the Little Lost along this section were trampled and muddy. Willow trees were worn to sticks from all the bovine traffic. Cattle had been in the area for more than two months, despite an alert from the Department of Environmental Quality that stream bank erosion must be reduced by an average of 61 percent and 80 percent on the Little Lost River and Sawmill Creek, respectively, to reduce sediment in areas suitable for bull trout spawning.

Deep Creek (Wildhorse allotment)
Cattle grazed this area of Bureau of Land Management land for most of the summer, despite the fact that it was only supposed to be used to trail cattle for a day or two at the end of the year. Much of Deep Creek's stream banks had been stripped of vegetation, and the channel had widened from trampling. The BLM ordered the permittees to remove their cattle from the area, but the ranchers simply moved the herds to the bottom of a nearby BLM section of Twin Bridges Creek, where they continued to violate grazing rules.

South Fork of Alder Creek (Alder Creek allotment)
The area is so heavily grazed and trampled that the soil is bare and compacted, unable to support vegetation. Beaver ponds have become hoof-pocked mud holes. Alder and aspen shoots are grazed of nearly all their leaves, evidence that the cattle had run out of grass and resorted to woody species.

The Swamps (Copper Basin allotment)
Cattle grazing and trampling have reduced the size of this marsh and other wetlands that constitute the East Fork of the Big Lost River. Over several decades of grazing activity, hooves have compressed the wetlands into hummocks and ruts more than a foot deep. With these ruts, bare soil is exposed to the sun. Evaporation has increased, the water table has dropped and much of the marsh has dried up, leaving only bare soil and dead grass.

Nate Green of Hailey, Idaho is a WWP field monitor.


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