15-05-22 Richfield Fire 5 Roland Lane.jpg

Firefighters do clean-up work after a fire burned through sagebrush lands near Richfield last summer.

   By ignoring the effect that livestock grazing has on the spread of cheatgrass, a rangeland fire-management plan released by the U.S. Department of the Interior on Tuesday will not adequately protect sage grouse habitat, Hailey-based conservation organization Western Watersheds Project contends.

    In January, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell signed an order emphasizing that rangeland fire management is a critical priority for restoring the health of the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem and, in particular, sage grouse habitat. The order directed the creation of a Rangeland Fire Task Force to deliver a “science-based, comprehensive strategy” to reduce the threat of large-scale rangeland fire.

    The new plan was announced by Jewell at a press conference in Boise on Tuesday. It includes improved fire prevention, enhanced fire suppression and an increased emphasis on rangeland restoration. It includes increased collaboration among federal, state, tribal and local officials.

    The plan notes that in 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified the invasion of non-native annual grasses and the loss of habitat from the resulting increased frequency and intensity of wildfire in the Great Basin as the primary threat to sage grouse there. During just three fire seasons from 2012 to 2014, nationally nearly 17 million acres burned, of which nearly 3.8 million were greater sage-grouse habitat in the Western states.

    The plan states that increasing livestock grazing at the proper seasons and locations can help reduce fine fuels, and suggests that the department provide technical support and incentives for ranchers to work with federal and state partners to implement targeted fuel treatments. However, nowhere does the plan suggest that livestock grazing be reduced.

    “Science shows that ungrazed lands are more resilient to devastating large-scale fires,” said Ken Cole, Western Watersheds Project’s National Environmental Policy Act coordinator. “The land management agencies can sink all of the hundreds of millions of dollars into this strategy, but none of it will have any effect until land managers address the destruction caused by the sacred cows.”

    Cole said the Department of Interior should pay ranchers to retire grazing permits.

    A study published in the August 2013 issue of the Journal of Applied Ecology found that grazing exacerbates cheatgrass dominance by increasing the gaps between native plants and harming soil crusts, thereby providing opportunities for exotic species to invade.

    “If the goal is to conserve and restore resistance of these systems, managers should consider maintaining or restoring: high bunchgrass cover and structure characterized by spatially dispersed bunchgrasses and small gaps between them; a diverse assemblage of bunchgrass species to maximize competitive interactions with cheatgrass in time and space; and biological soil crusts to limit cheatgrass establishment,” the study’s three authors stated in an abstract. “Passive restoration by reducing cumulative cattle grazing may be one of the most effective means of achieving these three goals.”

Email the writer: gmoore@mtexpress.com

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