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Page 1: Livestock Grazing in the Blue Mountains of Oregon
by: Christopher "Chris" Christie
October, 1999

Disclaimer: The locations of photographs in  this album have not been determined through survey. Due to the intermingled nature of land ownerships throughout much of the west, some photographs where the context or caption imply or otherwise indicate government ownership may actually be located on intermingled or adjoining private lands.

  • Page 1 (updated 12/23/99)

  • Page 1a (posted 12/23/99)

Generally the situation in the Blue Mountains of Oregon is probably not too different from the western National Forests most of you are familiar with, except that the Blues are near the center of the northwest's "Forest Health" crisis that is the result of historic logging, grazing and fire suppression practices.

Page 1 looks at portions of the watersheds of the John Day and Malheur rivers in the Malheur and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests of north-eastern Oregon. Some problems that were apparent after visits to the forest included a general hammering of riparian and road side areas, down and poorly constructed fencing, cattle in campgrounds, impacts to bull trout waters, and classic examples of browsing by cattle and other ungulates preventing aspen regeneration.

CODE BLUE FOR ASPEN IN THE BLUE MOUNTAINS

Pictures 1 & 2 [9/15/99] show how grazing has grossly affected Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) regeneration. One picture shows the trunks of a few remaining mature aspen in the upper left and several aspen suckers clinging to life in the foreground. They appear to be, and have taken the form of, small deformed shrubs due to chronic overbrowsing by livestock on this site (about 1/4 mile from a watering trough and seep that sits in the middle of the stand). Most of the leaves on the numerous suckers have been browsed off. The second picture is of severely browsed aspen suckers in a grazed and declining aspen stand on the Long Creek Ranger District. These suckers (by and behind 12" ruler), looking more like hedged bunch grass than aspen, are many years old. Besides affecting aspen regeneration, grazing on these sites and many others like them, has altered plant composition and diversity, degraded wildlife habitat structure, resulted in less forage available to wildlife, reduced soil cover with consequent increase in erosion, reduced cover for ground nesting birds and small mammals, and ultimately reduced available bird nesting cavities (among other things).

Aspen stands in the Blue Mountains tend to be small, somewhat isolated and many are associated with streams, springs or seeps. Some, like the stand in the pictures, have water developments such as water troughs in them. These attract congregations of cows and cause the further degradation of riparian water sources as well as aspen stands. The district staff informed me that the struggling stands that remain represent the last 5% of aspen stands in the Blue Mountains.

Norbert De Byle's states in his paper, "Animal Impacts" (in Aspen: Ecology and Management in the Western United States, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experimental Station, Fort Collins, CO. GTR RM-119, 1985) paraphrased an earlier conclusion reached by Ellison and Houston in 1958 that "...livestock grazing an aspen grassland mix apparently preferred open grasslands; but, if aspen groves are isolated and comprise only a small portion of the range, this relationship may be reversed." (p. 115) I believe this is the case in the Blue Mountains and this may help explain why the stands have undergone such a dramatic decline.

THREATENED SPECIES AND COWS ON A “WILD” RIVER

The third picture [9/15/99] is from a sign where Fopian creek enters the North Fork of the Malheur River. The North Fork has been designated a “wild” and scenic river even though cattle grazing continues to affect its wildness. At the river itself, signs instructing fishermen on the regulations in place to protect threatened Bull Trout had been removed in the period between early July and mid-September of 1999.

Bull trout are interesting fish similar to Dolly Varden. They have a variable life cycle but have more strict habitat requirements than other fish in the salmon family. They may live out their life cycle in a single tributary stream, migrate to a larger river or lake, or in the case of fish living near the coast, migrate to the ocean. The bull trout was listed as a threatened species on June 10, 1998 [See Federal register / Vol. 63, No. 111/ Wednesday, June 10, 1998, pp. 31647 - 31674]. Many streams in the Blue Mountains on the Malheur and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests contain or have contained bull trout and bull trout spawning habitat. The Federal Register announcement states that “Land and water management activities that degrade and continue to threaten bull trout and its habitat include dams, forest management practices, livestock grazing, agriculture and agriculture diversions, roads, and mining (p. 31657).” It also says that 50% of the 141 subpopulations identified in the Columbia River population segment are threatened by ongoing livestock grazing. They are present on some 20 or more allotments on the Malheur National Forest alone. Grazing has done considerable damage to the riparian areas, streams and bull trout spawning habitat in the Blue Mountains.

DEGRADED STREAMS AND BULL TROUT

The fourth picture [9/15/99] is of a fenceline at a meadow and riparian area on Fopian Creek, a tributary of the North Fork of the Malheur River. The picture shows the removal of grass cover and forbs as well as the removal of streamside vegetation that is typical of degraded riparian areas. The area on the right side of the fence is an exclosure that is thought to have been in place for 7 or 8 years. It was a joint watershed and fish protection project that keeps cows away from the coldwater producing springs inside that are associated with bull trout spawning. The stream in the exclosure now displays many of the habitat requirements necessary for the survival of bull trout.

While not as severely degraded as many riparian areas in western sagebrush/grass communities, the level of grazing displayed on the left side of the fence has adverse effects on the watershed, wildlife habitat and fisheries. Healthy Bull Trout populations appear to depend on channel stability, clean loose gravels (fine sediments of less than 6.35 millimeters), complex cover consisting of pools, in-channel wood, boulders and undercut banks, high stream channel complexity, and water temperatures of 15 degrees C or less (Demographic and Habitat requirements for conservation of Bull Trout, Rieman & McIntyre, Intermountain Research Station, GTR INT-302 and Federal Register listing) At this spot on Fopian Creek, cattle grazing has degraded habitat for Bull Trout and other species by reducing vegetative cover, increasing fine sediment flow into the system (which can affect reproductive success), reducing channel stability and complexity (Bank trampling and stream widening had occurred for example) and increased temperature due to loss of shading from streamside alder and willow.

POOR CONTROL AND MANAGEMENT OF CATTLE

Picture 5 shows cows inside a campground and protected bull trout riparian perimeter fence. [9/15/99]

Poor management and control of cattle is a perpetual problem where ever public lands grazing exists. The fifth picture is of cows inside the Little Crane campground perimeter fence and priority bull trout stream area. They moved in and out of Little Crane Creek and the campground area because the fence had been poorly maintained and/or shabbily constructed. Surveys were being done at the time in an attempt to establish bull trout numbers by counting spawning nests called “redds.” A report to the Forest service resulted in the fence being repaired in less than a week which is a relatively good response time for down fence.

EXPENSIVE AND QUESTIONABLY SUCCESSFUL MITIGATION FOR GRAZING DAMAGE

Picture 6 is of a grazed and ungrazed ponderosa pine/grass meadow community at an electric fence line along E. Camp Creek on the Ironside allotment, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. [9/26/99]

The grass on the left side of this expensive (2 hot wires, 1 ground wire) electric fence has been reduced to dust. Stubble height was at 1/2 to 1 & 1/2/ inches. 14 miles of this fence was put in to protect the riparian area as a result of an environmental assessment done while creating a new allotment plan. According to the forest Service the cows were allowed to stay on this pasture 2-3 weeks longer than normal. It looks like this kind of mitigation, in the absence of an appropriate reduction in cattle numbers, may be responsible for moving more intense damage to the uplands, while adding a good deal to the cost of the program.

BUSINESS AS USUAL - STICKS AND DUST

In the pasture just upstream from the pasture with the electric fence on E. Camp Creek is a scene I call “sticks and dust.” You might find it on any arid grazed forest in the west where grazing management is not a priority. To help the viewer understand what has happened, I have included a picture, number 7, of a normal stream-side currant bush (Ribes sp.) on the Little Malheur River that was taken on the same day as this next series from the Ironside allotment (Pics. 8 - 11 [9/26/99]).

Picture 8 (Sticks and dust 1) is the general scene along E. Camp Creek. Stubble heights on the left are about an inch and a half to two inches and the lighter areas are bare dirt consisting of a light ashy dust. Along the stream are a few badly battered and defoliated shrubs, most are currant plants of the type found in picture 7. The more shaded areas on the right are not much better.

Picture 9 (Sticks and dust 2) is an unidentified defoliated shrub next to the stream, with bare ground in front and poor conditions evident across the stream in the background.

Picture 10 (Sticks and dust 3) shows defoliated currant bushes in the foreground, the trampled bank across the creek and hoof pockets and bare ground on far side of E. Camp Creek.

Picture 11 (Sticks and dust 4) shows the largely obliterated streamside meadow. The sticks in this case are largely defoliated common mullein (Verbascum thaspus), which is not a traditional forage plant in anybody’s book. This riparian pasture is clearly severely overgrazed and represents damage to public ecosystems and resources.

PRIVATE GRAZING LAND - THE PUBLIC AGENCY’S SAVING GRACE

Somewhere between the no-trespassing signs and the cattle guards, private grazing and timber lands in some parts of Oregon may be posted with signs proudly proclaiming that the land is protected by the “Oregon Farmer-Stockman.” Local folk-tales passed on by certain special interests would have the general populace believe that private property rights are sacred and that private property owners display the value of that sacredness through superior stewardship of the land. They also say that they take better care of the land because it makes good business sense and provides them with a longterm stability and livelihood. We should all wish it were so, and in some cases maybe it is. But all too often, while the grazing and timber interests berate the public land management agencies for poor management and cantankerously unreasonable regulations, some of their own lands have become dangerously toxic to some of the members and to the overall functioning of the earth's ecosystems.

Picture 12 [9/26/99] is of a sign that stares out over a bleak and godforsaken, privately owned section of Squaw Creek that is in a state of utter ecological collapse (See Pic. 13).

Picture 13 [9/15/99] displays that lifeless and blown out privately owned section which sits along Forest primary route 16 just outside the Malheur National Forest and Grant County line. The wide and shallow channel has been stripped bare of riparian vegetation, banks are badly eroded, and the channel has become unstable. The streamflow is likely reduced and is subject to high solar radiation and increased temperatures. Western juniper is beginning to invade the site and the grass is gazed down to the dirt. No bull trout habitat here. Public lands adjacent to this property on Squaw Creek show riparian vegetation with stabilized to improving conditions.

Picture 14 [9/26/99] is up on the Middle Fork of the John Day River, a few miles west of Bates, where Vinegar Creek enters the John Day. The foreground, on this side of the road that runs horizontally through the picture, is managed by the Malheur National Forest. Across that road lies private grazing land along the John Day that has been grazed for perhaps a hundred years or more. Note that except for one lone willow, the private lands are devoid of the willows and other riparian shrubs that would indicate a healthy riparian area for this site. A few heavily browsed live willows among dead willow skeletons can still be found nearby in the flood plain.

Picture 15[9/26/99] is a closer view of Vinegar Creek on the private property side of the road. It is essentially a milder version of the disaster on Squaw Creek (picture 13) with similar but less severe problems.

Picture 16 [9/26/99] is looking up Vinegar Creek onto the Malheur National Forest's side of the road where riparian shrubs and other vegetation are evident. Fish passage structures are being placed in strategic areas in both the Middle Fork of the John Day and in its tributaries like Vinegar Creek. But fixing a fouled nest is expensive and success is not a foregone conclusion. Activities that threaten salmon and steelhead will have to change or cease to help ensure their recovery. A few less people on the sphere, in the country, down the street and up a creek might help too.

WHAT NOW?

After visiting these sites and calling the Prairie City Ranger District of the Malheur National Forest about these concerns, they ultimately invited me to meet with them to discuss the issues raised. They made it clear that they are aware of the problems with aspen stands on their district and have been attempting to find more resources to devote to aspen restoration. They also have a staff person who has mapped most of the remaining aspen stands on the district and they are involved in some cooperative efforts with groups like Blue Mountain Elk and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. For my part I have donated some fence and volunteered to help when I have free time.

They are also working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and grazing permittees in an attempt to protect bull trout by constructing exclosures on some of the stream sections important to the survival of the bull trout.

There is a question as to whether helping bull trout might work against restoring aspen because where both of these resources need to be saved, there isn't a lot of room for the same number of cows, and the pressure on aspen increases. The old “we can find the right grazing system for this situation” shell game has already raised its often attractive head and it is always tempting. But grazing systems without careful and honest monitoring with active management don't have much chance of succeeding and the Forest Service doesn't have much money for, or shown a lot of interest in, such things.

I have sent the Forest Service a letter that asks them to make aspen restoration a well funded priority with a written policy that requires the removal of water developments and cattle from the aspen stands that remain, especially those with springs or seeps, and any that are in creek-side riparian areas. It also asks for exclosures to be placed around declining aspen stands, or at least around large areas that would include the battered suckers, seeps, springs and natural water sources in the declining stands. In order to enhance their value as bull trout fisheries, wildlife habitat and watersheds, I requested that the district and forest expand the number of exclosures, restore willows where appropriate and/or where they were historically present, and move toward a near total exclusion of cattle from riparian areas.

And finally, considering the declining forest service budget and given the trouble, expense and general lack of motivation for expanding & maintaining exclosures, and otherwise protecting flora and fauna from chronic grazing damage, the letter suggests that perhaps the Malheur National Forest should consider phasing out grazing all together.

I will keep monitoring and learning more about the Blue Mountains and I will try to work with the Forest Service to help restore Blue Mountain ecosystems. If you have the inclination and the time, you might want to call the Prairie City Ranger District at (541) 820-3311 or you can send a Fax to (541) 820-3838. The Malheur National Forest Supervisor's office number is (541) 575-3000 and Fax is 575-3001. The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Supervisor's office number is (541) 278-3716. The Unity Ranger Station (in charge of E. Camp Creek) is (541) 446-3351.

Future pages of this photo album will show grazing situations in Utah, Nevada and other regions of the American West.

(continued on Page 1a)