The fires raging across western states this summer have
destroyed many thousands of acres of rangeland, leaving ranchers
with no grazing for their cattle. Some have also lost private
property and livestock; many are wondering what their options
are to try to stay in business. Even though government
assistance is emerging in various programs to help the ranchers,
more answers are needed. The catastrophic fires have also
stirred up a storm of political and environmental controversy as
some people try to dismiss them as a product of nature—global
warming, drought and high temperatures. Others lay the blame on
poor land management policies spurred by pressure from so-called
environmental groups that have pushed for less grazing on public
lands, and court-ordered reductions in numbers of cattle. Less
utilization of grass has meant more fuel buildup and perfect
conditions for major fires.
Solutions: Help for the Ranchers
The immediate problem for many ranchers is how to survive the
loss. Some of the fires in Nevada, Idaho, Utah and Montana have
left many ranchers facing a devastating crisis. For instance, in
southern Idaho the Murphy Complex fire burned almost 700,000
acres before it was finally contained on July 30. Josh Tewalt,
Executive Vice President of the Idaho Cattle Association says
it’s been tragic for many ranchers. “Our association is looking
at finding ranchers a place to go with their cattle so we can
keep them in business another year—so they won’t have to sell
“We’re working hard
with the governor’s office and the Idaho congressional
delegation, asking them to lean on our federal agencies and
encourage flexibility so producers can have some options,” says
Tewalt. Usually the BLM prohibits grazing for at least 2 years
on burned allotments, and ranchers must find alternative pasture
for their cattle. “We need to look for innovative ways for these
folks to keep operating in a responsible manner. This is always
challenging, because we’re dealing with agencies that haven’t
been making the decisions. Those decisions have been made in the
courts. Changes will take congressional action.” This may not be
soon enough for a lot of people in the short term, however.
“The ICA is looking
for private land options,” says Tewalt. Dairymen and farmers
have stepped forward to offer assistance. A farmer might have
cornstalks or grain stubble that could be used by a rancher
needing somewhere to go with cattle. “ICA was originally
approached by 2 dairymen and one of them said he had 1400 acres
of stubble that someone could use if they could string a hot
wire around it and haul water for cattle. So we put our heads
together and realized that if we could get 25 or 30 farmers in
various regions, this could be a big help; it could mean the
difference between someone staying in business or having to sell
“Right now we’re
working to coordinate efforts and try to identify people with
private ground who could help,” says Tewalt. The ICA is matching
up people with available land and people who need grazing, and
developing criteria regarding the responsibilities of the land
owner and the person running cattle on these places.
“Other options are
also opening. USDA recently announced that 14 counties in Idaho
were approved for emergency use of CRP ground. We’re also
looking at other types of assistance, but every stockman who was
burned out would rather find another place to run cows than just
get a check from the government,” says Tewalt.
Boyd Spratling, a
rancher near Deeth, Nevada (between Wells and Elko) is president
of the Nevada Cattlemen. He says there are some government
programs to give assistance to ranch families who have been
burned out. “When you hear a description of the programs, they
sound very encouraging, but like any bureaucratic program, the
devil’s in the details—to find out if you really qualify
(regarding number of acres of public and private grazing, etc.)
and you wonder if it’s worth trying to apply. Many people that
you’d assume could get help don’t qualify, just because of some
little detail or formula in the application.” Financial help
from some of these programs is appreciated, but it’s not the
answer to what these families are facing, says Spratling.
Some people will
apply for government help and some will not. “That’s a personal
choice. But we do need help in getting the infrastructure back
into place after a fire, during the period you can’t graze your
range and your income is decreased—so your allotment will be
functional when you are allowed to graze it again. Right now you
could turn a cow loose in Deeth, Nevada, and she could go clear
to Bruneau, Idaho because all the fences are gone. The cost of
getting these structures back in place is overwhelming,”
A million acres in
Elko County burned last year, and it looks like 3 times that
amount may burn this year. Some BLM districts in Nevada have
been trying to help permittees after the fires, with fences and
reseeding. In some allotments that were not totally burned, they
fenced off the unburned areas and allowed ranchers to go ahead
and use them, rather than taking a non-use for 2 years on the
whole allotment. People are realizing that if the entire area is
rested, lightning could hit the ungrazed portion and you could
lose the whole thing. In some of the closed allotments where
there was no grazing at all, fires burned up the rest.
Solutions: Change is Needed in Land Management
This year is proving to be one of the worst fire years ever.
“Last year fires burned 1.1 million acres in Nevada,” says
Spratling. “This year we are only halfway through the fire
season and if weather patterns don’t change we’ll exceed that,”
he says. As of late July, more than 700,000 acres had burned in
northern Nevada alone, from Winnemucca to the Utah border.
By early August
nearly a million acres had burned in Idaho. The Murphy fire was
the largest range fire in Idaho history. The historic fire of
1910 in northern Idaho was larger, but it was burning forest
rather than rangeland.
“We’ve got to look
at some of the long term management decisions that put us into
this situation,” says Tewalt. “Environmental activists continue
to bring lawsuits against grazing, feeling it’s a consumptive
use.” With reduced grazing levels there’s a buildup of fine
fuels (grass) just like the buildup of larger fuels in the
forests where logging has been prohibited.
Bert Brackett, a
rancher from Rogerson, Idaho, and State Representative for
District 23, says he lives in a desert and expects dry
conditions now and then, but the big problem this year was fuel
buildup due to reduced grazing. “Do we want more of the same, or
can we make changes to utilize more of the grass?” he asks.
The Murphy fire was
in the Jarbridge Resource Area (Twin Falls BLM district) where
Jon Marvel (Western Watersheds) was active in getting an
injunction in 2005 against any further grazing on 29 allotments.
“The result was a stipulated settlement agreement with Western
Watersheds, greatly reducing cattle use,” explains Brackett.
“This was in the name of protecting sage grouse. But what burned
this summer is the best remaining sage grouse habitat, and
habitat for other wildlife,” he says.
“Personally, I am
blaming Jon Marvel for the fire because of the court order. In
essence, he assumed management of this land; we’ve been under
his management for the last 3 years,” says Brackett. A court
ordered update to the Resource Management Plan was part of the
terms of the court settlement and is in progress, with a
deadline coming soon. “Some of the alternatives call for reduced
grazing, but I think this would look pretty foolish, in light of
the fire,” he says.
This fire in
southern Idaho destroyed most of the habitat, including winter
range for big game, adversely affecting wildlife, endangered
species, recreation opportunities, and impacted private as well
as public land. “Environmental groups, BLM, Fish and Game, etc.
have been big pushers to restrict grazing, so management
policies have been part of the reason for fuel buildup,” says
“This creates a
situation where our public lands are a tinder box, just waiting
to burn. We have to change that mindset—from looking at grazing
as a consumptive use to viewing it as a management tool,” says
Tewalt. Grazing not only helps prevent fires but can also be
used in the aftermath of fire. In a sagebrush eco-system where
habitat has been destroyed, grazing is a viable tool to help
prevent the influx of invasive species like cheat grass. “It’s a
valuable tool, but one that the courts have been increasingly
removing from the land manager’s arsenal,” he says.
“We’re not talking about grazing to eliminate fire. Fire is a
natural part of rangeland,” says Tewalt. But grazing can reduce
the incidence of catastrophic fires that burn
everything—including entire watersheds and all the wildlife
habitat. Fire is normal and healthy, but in the absence of small
fires there will be more catastrophic fires. Those big fires are
indicators that the ecosystem is not functioning properly.
“Our goal is to
find the balance, and proper utilization level. Normally it’s in
the 50 to 60 percent range. But in the Murphy Complex area,
because of the court decision we have a utilization level down
around 15 to 25 percent,” says Tewalt.
“Some people get
more worried about a cow track in a certain region than
appreciating the benefit of what proper grazing utilization
would do to prevent a catastrophic fire that destroys ALL the
habitat, and endangered species as well. You don’t get that back
overnight. We’re talking about a fire cycle that’s gone from 25
years to every 5 years or less. There are a lot of areas that
burn and are ablaze again 2 years later,” says Tewalt.
“The Murphy fire is
out now, and though some people are saying it was a freak of
nature (drought and high temperatures), we think this fire was
10 years in the making, especially the last 3 years since the
court order,” says Brackett. He met with governor Otter and
Senators Larry Craig and Mike Crapo July 30 after they’d flown
over the burned area to survey the damage. “We continue to
debate with BLM and with Jon Marvel, regarding the value of
grazing to reduce fuel buildup. In 21 years, from 1984 to 2004,
fires burned an average of 39,000 acres per year in Idaho, but
in the past 3 years we’ve burned an average of 380,000
acres—about 10 times the earlier average. This year we’ve
already exceeded that, and the fire season is only half over,”
The last 8 years
have been dry, but drought is just part of the picture. In
earlier times, dry years did not produce such horrendous fires
because of adequate grazing. “If we look at the fire cycle since
1999, it tells us that whatever we’ve been doing for the past 30
years is probably wrong,” says Spratling. We need to re-evaluate
range policies and come to a more realistic way to determine how
long to keep cattle off a burned range. If your allotment has
burned twice in the last 5 or 6 years, this tells me there’s a
good chance that cheat grass will come back in, and you’d better
go out as early as you can in the spring and graze it as hard as
you can, right after that second burn. What we’ve lost, in
managing our ranges, is flexibility,” he says. Management
decisions need to be made on a case by case basis at a local
office instead of a central office where managers “go by the
book” on policies that may not apply to a given situation.
The end result of a
hands-off policy (no action by man to help reduce fuels) is
cheat grass because the range will keep burning. “The irony of
this, when there’s nothing but cheat grass out there, is that
the only thing that can benefit from it will be a cow. A few
antelope and chukkers may utilize cheat grass, but none of the
other species will be there,” says Spratling. It will be a
monoculture with no diversity.
How did we get
to this crisis?
Most of the people who live on the land feel that the efforts of
so-called environmentalists to eliminate logging and grazing,
and a misunderstanding of “nature” have brought us to this
point. We have created an unnatural situation by our
“protection” of resources. In a truly natural situation, forests
do not become overgrown to the point of massive fuel buildup
because periodic fires thin them. Grasslands in earlier times
did not have tremendous fuel loads because grazing animals
(bison, elk, etc.) grazed them.
Senator Larry Craig
presented comments about wildfire to the Senate on July 24,
pointing out that 100 years ago the Forest Service began
“preserving” forests by fighting all fires. But this was
counterbalanced by allowing forests to be utilized by the
logging industry, taking the fuel buildup off the land. This
balanced the “no fire” policy and kept catastrophic fires to a
minimum. In the past several decades, however, more and more
forests have been locked up as wilderness, and no logging
allowed. Even in “managed” forests, a dramatic decrease in
logging has occurred because of the Endangered Species Act, New
Forest Management Act, Clean Water Act, etc. Craig showed
figures revealing that the allowable cut of timber on public
lands has been reduced by more than 80 percent since the early
1990’s. Before this reduction, the Forest Service had a lot of
revenue from timber sales, and plenty of money to fight fires.
Today, there’s very little revenue from timber, and less money
to fight fires—and the agency policy is now becoming “let it
burn”. And our forests are doing just that, due to the buildup
of fuel in the absence of logging—and burning up wildlife and
habitat, watersheds and impacting water quality. We’ve been
throwing money at fire suppression in ever increasing amounts
for the last 5 or 6 years, to the tune of billions of dollars
annually, according to Craig, and it’s not working.
Forests need to be
thinned and grasslands need to be grazed, yet in the name of
protecting the environment we are not doing this. “We have
decided to simply preserve and allow it to be natural, but the
fires burning in the West are not natural,” said Craig. “They
are hotter, more intense, and more destructive than fires seen
in our forests within the last century.” The forests Lewis and
Clark came through 200 years ago might have had 100 trees per
acre, but many of these same areas now have 400 trees and
because of heat and drought some are dead and dying and have
created an unprecedented fuel load, he says. “Public policy has
tied the hands of our land managers and as a result millions of
acres are now burning annually.”
If we are worried
about climate change and carbon being put into the atmosphere,
he points out that fires on public lands this year will put much
more carbon into the atmosphere than any one year of automobile
driving. “Yet somehow there are people willing to ignore this,
thinking it’s nature and uncontrollable. I would argue that’s
not true, because 20 years ago we did not have these kinds of
fires, even though we had droughts and peaks of dryness and
heat,” says Craig.
The same is true
for range fires. “We have federal agency managers in our area
who understand fully what the problems are, but they are hobbled
by policies set forth by the agency, influenced by so-called
environmental groups that don’t want reasonable management,”
says Spratling. “They talk about doing things for sage grouse
habitat, bitterbrush, etc. but reveal their true colors when you
find out they don’t really care about the resource—they’d rather
let it burn—and their only agenda is to get livestock off the
land,” he says.
how to work the judicial system and are experts at it. They
never get involved in any efforts to make things work. They wait
until a decision is made, protest it, and then end up in court,”
explains Spratling. These are stalling and blocking tactics;
it’s all about power and control, and trying to cripple good
Sam Mori, who
ranches 60 miles north of Elko, Nevada, says his area has had a
number of catastrophic fires in the last 4 years. “There’s a
pattern developing, coinciding with stricter grazing
regulations, starting when regulations for grazing riparian
areas became more strict,” he says. Cattle were often fenced out
of riparian areas or only allowed to graze an allotment for a
short time so they would not impact riparian areas.
“Now when there’s a
lightning strike, there’s enough fuel for fire to go a long
ways. Our brush community in Nevada is also getting old and
decadent, with big sagebrush stands. This is where fires get so
hot and hard to handle, and carrier fuels (grass) take it on to
the next patch of brush. If there’s any wind at all, you can’t
stop it.” Controlled sagebrush burns in a cool season would be
good preventative maintenance, along with more realistic levels
of grazing to reduce the fine fuels that carry the fire from
brush patch to brush patch. “Grazing is a very cheap fire
prevention tool,” says Mori.
problems will continue until land management policies change,
but it will have to change from the top down; the local
districts don’t have enough flexibility. Even when beneficial
legislation is passed by Congress, and funds allocated to
agencies to administer it, “we’re not very impressed with what
happens to it,” he says. The agencies are often more concerned
about their own agendas and control, and also worried about
lawsuits. “Everyone is sue-happy or sue-scared. It’s a shame we
don’t have the money that’s spend on litigation to make some
positive changes out on the ground,” says Mori.
Need for Policy
The controversy continues over use of grazing in land
management, but Brackett feels that reducing fuel buildup is
common sense. “We have numerous photos after the Murphy fire,
showing where grazing was effective in slowing it down. But BLM
policy is total reliance on suppression rather than prevention.
All they do is buy more tankers and cats, and hire more people
to fight fire. It’s not working.” Unless we can stop the
catastrophic fires, the taxpayers will just be spending more and
more for agency firefighting equipment and crews; it’s a vicious
Spratling, in Nevada, has been working for many years to try to
get public land management policies changed—to try to prevent
fires rather than spend millions of dollars fighting them.
Reducing or eliminating grazing, or keeping livestock off burned
ranges for 3 to 9 years to protect bitterbrush (as is done on
some allotments) merely adds to fuel buildup and more fires. He
says keeping cattle off this long is a farce because they don’t
have that much impact on bitterbrush, especially in present-day
grazing regimes where pastures are used for shorter periods of
should have a place in decision making. We can’t make all the
management decisions based on bitterbrush recovery or sagebrush
habitat or riparian habitat. If management looks only at certain
isolated aspects, it won’t work,” says Spratling. “If people
want to save sage grouse, mule deer wintering ground or
whatever, they should look at these big fires. They may have a
pet issue, but in a fire like this, the entire area is black and
all habitat is burned up. Think of the amount of sediment and
runoff that will occur in riparian areas. And if it burns again,
there’s even less likelihood the sagebrush will come back after
a second or third burn,” he says.
“We ask those groups if they’ve accomplished what they wanted.
We don’t disagree with their goals. We disagree with their
methods and need to re-evaluate them,” says Spratling. Everybody
loses in a fire like this—the rancher, the public, the
sportsman—because we’ve lost the resource.
He feels there are ways to manage the land better. Grazing can
help reduce fine fuels, and cool season burns can reduce
excessive buildup of pinion juniper or big sagebrush in brushy
draws. Selective logging can reduce fuels in forested areas. “We
don’t want to eliminate brush; we just need to break it up so we
won’t have such catastrophic fires in the future,” says
Spratling. Much of the extensive acreage that burned in 2000,
for instance, included areas that had not been logged or grazed
for many years, and when it burned, everything burned.
“The burn in south
Lake Tahoe this year was a wake-up call for many people, burning
their homes. They had no idea what our issues are regarding fuel
buildup and fire potential, but now they understand. They were
under some strict agency regulations in that basin regarding
whether or not they could rake up pine needles and they were not
allowed to take out dead trees because everything had to be left
in place to halt sediment runoff. But just think about the
amount of sediment that will go into Lake Tahoe now!”
John Falen, who
ranches near Winnemucca, Nevada, says that when logging was
halted in certain areas, the underbrush was no longer
controlled—creating a tinderbox effect. Another result of
continued burning has been tremendous expansion of cheat grass.
“The biggest problem with cheat grass is its combustibility; it
matures early and dries out, and burns readily,” says Falen.
“BLM policy is to rest an allotment for 2 years after a fire,
but this is not a law and there’s no science to back it up. By
not using the range we’re managing in favor of cheat grass, and
more fires. The worse thing we do is rest those allotments; we
need to reduce fire fuel and call it fuel rather than grass, and
not keep letting it all burn up,” says Falen. Fires will go
lightly over the areas that are properly utilized, but generally
burn everything in areas with heavy fuel loads.
“We also need to
allow private industry to go into some areas and log, to help
the agencies in fuel management,” says Falen. It seems more
logical to utilize the resources by logging and grazing, rather
than burn and waste the timber and grass. It seems illogical to
spend so much money fighting fires instead of letting these
natural resources generate money for local economies.
“You can spend 20 times as much money trying to fight a fire as
what it would cost to prevent it,” says Falen. Some of the best
prevention strategies include using the resources, creating a
beneficial product (lumber, beef) and income for local
communities. This country is suffering a shortage of building
materials and higher costs of building homes, while at the same
time we allow millions of dollars worth of timber to burn up.
This doesn’t make sense.
Mori says that
repeated fires alter the plant community and it will never be
the same. “Fire can enhance habitat, but if it keeps happening
again and again it’s devastating. We have areas here now that
are just cheat grass. This year was a test of some new plants
the BLM put in, that they thought would be more fire resistant,
but that didn’t work. They tried forage kochia, crested wheat
(later maturing, to stay green longer) and bitterbrush for deer.
But when that fire blew up this year, it took everything; there
was nothing left. This type of planned recovery may not be
working either,” he says. More of the fuel needs to be reduced
by appropriate grazing, earlier in the season.
A Few Specifics.......
Spratling has lost cattle and grazing land to fire several times
in the past few years. He says there are multiple impacts on the
rancher. “You always go through the fear and apprehension that
goes along with the fire itself. When will they get it out? How
much of my range will burn? How many cows will I lose? Will the
fire come onto my private land and burn up my home?”
Most of his range
burned in 2001, and burned again this year. “About 33,000 acres
of our allotment burned in this recent fire; it went across from
west to east, then back across it that evening. It essentially
made 4 trips across our range, every time the wind changed. But
we were lucky; we made a stand between our range and our private
ground and were able to stop it there—even though we were more
willing to have our private land burn than lose our allotment,
just because we could be in charge of the rehab and post fire
management on our land, as opposed to having someone else do
it.” Ranchers are not happy with the way government agencies
manage after a fire.
“We lost 22 cows in
this fire but will have to shoot 4 or 5 more, due to severe burn
injuries (losing their feet or udders, sloughing off large areas
of skin or developing severe infections from deep burns),” says
Spratling. But cattle losses are just the start of the problem.
Then you have to worry about what you’ll do for pasture.
The BLM won’t let a
permittee use the allotment for 2 years (sometimes longer) after
a burn. “When this much country burns, there’s no other pasture
available. So how do you plan? Do you sell cattle or haul them a
long distance for pasture? Every decision you make in the
livestock industry has 10 year implications, and you don’t know
if your plan today will be a good one or not,” he says.
You’ll have lower
income for the next 2 years because you’ll have to do something
else with your cows and that costs money. “At the same time, you
have to spend money to get your allotment back in shape to use
it again. I know one ranch that’s looking at a cost of $80,000
for fencing. Some people are putting in all metal posts, even
the braces, so it won’t burn in the future,” says Spratling.
This is a sad commentary on the situation, realizing that after
you rebuild it, it will burn again.
long-term effects on ranching. It’s not just the loss you
sustain today, but also the next several years with the cost of
building back. We just barely got our cattle numbers back to
where they were before the 2001 fire, and now we’ll have to cut
back again,” he explains.
Sam Mori says
ranchers in his area who lost grazing are wondering what their
options will be, since hay costs are so high. He’s sorting out
his older cows to sell. The fire that came toward his ranch
burned 4000 acres of private range that he’s always used when he
brought cows home from his public range permit. “If we can get
through this fall and next fall, maybe we can start using it
again. Right now there are no fences. We’ve rebuilt about 11
miles so far (after last year’s fire) and the Forest Service
said they’ll rebuild their boundary fence on the back side of
our property. The thing that scares me is not knowing when they
might get it done, since they are having trouble with funding
and approval. If that project is delayed, we can’t even use our
private land because that’s the boundary fence. We can’t afford
to build it ourselves,” says Mori.
“The Snow Canyon
fire burned right to our ranch. The day the fire went up the
canyon there was nothing the firefighters could do. We had about
300 head of cattle up there and some haystacks. My brother and I
tried to get up there, but the firefighters wouldn’t let us. In
4 hours, the whole canyon was gone. I was thankful they didn’t
let us go there,” says Mori.
“The day it was
controlled, I was the first person they let go up there, and I
rode horseback to check out the damage and see how many cattle
we’d lost. I went up a canyon and 5 coyotes barked at me and
wouldn’t leave. My horse got nervous because they were so close.
Finally I was within 20 yards of one and he moved off, barking.
I realized their feet were burned off and that’s why they didn’t
want to move. I thought coyotes would be the last animals
left—that they would survive a fire. The fact they were
adversely affected was an eye-opener and it was a sickening
sight. These animals were suffering so much they couldn’t move.
From a wildlife standpoint this fire had affected everything,
all species—they were either dead or injured. This is too much
loss,” he says.
Note: Ranchers needing assistance after a fire should contact
their county officials, state department of agriculture, FSA or
their state cattlemen’s association to find out what programs
might be available.