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This page last updated February 08, 2009

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Page 3: Grazing in Utah's Great Basin
by: Christopher "Chris" Christie
February, 2000

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.

Picture 18. Cows Preparing Sagebrush Community and Sage Grouse Habitat For Destruction by Fire. Picture 18, on the eastern edge of the Great Basin, shows a fairly typical big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) community and sage grouse habitat. Very large areas in this vicinity burned in a lightning fire back in 1996, and this area may be gone as well. The straw colored material between the sagebrush in the picture is primarily cheatgrass. In Endangered Ecosystems of the United States: A Preliminary Assessment of Loss and Degradation , Noss, LaRoe, and Scott state that in the Southwest and Intermounain West, “99% of remaining sagebrush steppe has been affected by livestock and about 30% has been heavily grazed,.... (West 1994).”
Ungrazed sagebrush steppe is listed as a “critically endangered” ecosystem by this same report. Reduced populations of sagebrush community dependent sage grouse throughout the Great Basin is another example of habitat destruction caused by livestock grazing contributing to species decline and endangerment.

According to the State UDWR and the BLM, the area in the picture was habitat for a sage grouse population. By the early 1990’s, the grouse were all but extirpated from here and a nearby specially designated sage grouse management area north of Antelope Point. The area is shown on the BLM Warm Springs Resource Area recreation guide. Sage grouse chicks are reared on insects and succulent forbs which are scarce in grazed areas in the basin. Besides their mainstay of sagebrush, the birds rely on succulent vegetation and some free water. Meadows and riparian areas which serve this need have been seriously degraded by livestock grazing in the Great Basin and the birds are in serious decline. The American Lands Alliance and a coalition of conservation and scientific organizations recently filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Gunnison sage grouse, which is thought to be a distinct species, as endangered. A petition for listing of the Northern sage grouse is likely in the near future. (Click here for pictures of these two species)

Picture 19 and 20. Cheatgrass Invasions in the Eastern Great Basin. Picture 19 shows a valley filled with cheatgrass and tumble mustard near an early travel route in Toole County. Picture 20 is of cheatgrass that has taken over portions of the Stott-Rowley allotment mentioned earlier. Similar scenes are found elsewhere on BLM alloments of the Warm Springs and House Range Resource Areas of Millard and Juab Counties.
In pre-settlement sagebrush-bunchgrass communities, fire was relatively rare because there was little dry herbaceous material to carry it. By the 1880’s the results of overgrazing were apparent which has led some to observe that the sagebrush steppe had been destroyed in 40 years of domestic livestock grazing. The disturbed communities that resulted were superb environments for invasion by weedy species, many non-native or exotic, such as cheatgrass, aka downy brome or soft chess (Bromus tectorum), a native of the Central Asian steppes. It is thought to have entered the U.S. via contaminated wheat seed shipments or in straw packing. It had come to the Great Basin by the 1890’s and by 1930 was spread throughout. It invades any suitable disturbed area (and to some extent, even some relatively undisturbed areas) and livestock grazing has disturbed millions of acres in the west. It is highly competitive, takes the early moisture, is highly flammable, and inhibits the establishment and growth of natives, which results in what has been described as a closed community. Many of these areas in the west have also been described as cheatgrass deserts, that due to the high flammability of fire adapted cheatgrass, are actually very stable communities that exclude most species of the original native or “pre-settlement” community. The increased fire frequency alone makes it highly improbable that the sagebrush community, which requires a longer fire cycle, could easily re establish itself. The community is said to have crossed a threshold. To quote from The Western Range Revisited (Donahue, 1999) “The crossing of a threshold has immense significance for land management. As Kenneth D. Sanders puts it, ‘once a threshold is crossed to a more degraded state, improvement cannot be obtained on a practical time scale without a much greater intervention or management effort than simple grazing control.’” She adds though, “But this should not be taken by land managers as an invitation to simply ‘give up’”

The problem of cheatgrass invasion of the sagebrush steppe has been generally understood for about 70 years, but this understanding has not been translated into effective action to stop its increase of remove its major cause, i.e., domestic livestock. In Sand County Almanac (1949), A. Leopold noted: “It is impossible fully to protect cheat[grass] country from fire. As a consequence, the remnants of good browse plants, such as sagebrush and bitterbrush, are being burned back to higher altitudes where they are less useful as winter forage.... The habitable wintering belt is narrow [and is] ... now fast shrinking under the onslaught of cheat fires. .... There is as yet no sense of pride in the husbandry of wild plants and animals, no sense of shame in the proprietorship of a sick landscape. We tilt windmills in behalf of conservation in convention halls and editorial offices but on the back forty we disclaim even owning a lance.”

Whatever changes in attitude may have occurred (with the emphasis on may) in the last fifty years have not been enough. And for the public land agencies, the sense of pride and sense of shame referred to, appear to remain stunted at best. There is now an effort underway to restore some degraded range at a cost that is thought to be more (in non-ecological real estate economic terms) than its market value.

As expensive as restoration may be in non-ecological economic terms, without such an attempt, the long term future of these Great Basin arid and semi-arid ecosystems is bleak, with very high ecological costs for native biodiversity. The non-restoration scenario will likely include increased regional and local native species extirpation with associated losses in biological and genetic diversity and continued loss of operational Great Basin ecosystems as they are converted to non-native annual grasslands.

Picture 21. Sage Grouse Area Fire “Rehab”. This picture shows the results, including subsequent “Fire Rehab,” of a large lightning fire that swept through the sagebrush community in the previous picture, back in 1996. The fine, light colored grass on the left is cheatgrass and the coarse grass on the right, looking a lot like a wheat field or pasture, is non-native crested wheatgrass. The former is what replaces a cheatgrass infested sagebrush community after a fire without any intervention, and the latter is supposed to be an improvement, the seed having been ploughed in after the fire as part of what passes for “fire rehab” at the BLM.

The problems with the use of crested wheatgrass are several. One is that the area in the picture was sage grouse habitat, and as Donahue has noted, “Sage grouse, a sagebrush obligate, are especially hard hit by crested wheat seedings.” Related to that is that the grass is a non-native that like cheatgrass forms rather stable communities, and last, but not least, it makes the area look like what the BLM probably intended it to be in the first place: a domesticated cow pasture. The BLM said they did drop some sagebrush seed onto a nearby area after the fire, but my own investigation revealed no seedlings in 1999. As far as the use of native grasses, the BLM says that they are too expensive and that there are not enough seeds to meet any potential demand. Of course, if they do not ask for or require them, then there will be no demand for seed growers to respond to.

On the positive side, crested wheatgrass communities are said to be easier to manipulate back toward a native community than cheatgrass communities are, and as the picture indicates, under the right conditions, it tends to out compete cheatgrass after a fire. (The key here is the “right conditions.”) This is an ongoing story and more information may become available as the restoration initiative develops.

Picture 22. Get Lost! Don’t forget your map when you go out on the Great Basin. Partly as a consequence of large budgets for grazing management, little money is spent on basics such as the necessary signs that help people figure out where the heck they are when they venture out on to the over-roaded Great Basin. On the Warm Springs Resource area in Millard County, there are no signs at many of the intersections one may encounter, and a good many of the signs that do exist may be missed or be of little help because they are down or poorly maintained. They have been fully aware of the poor condition of these signs for years but do nothing about it. This is just another indicator of the real priorities of the BLM, which haven’t changed much since the days when they were called the Grazing Service.

Contact the BLM and tell them how you feel about grazing management on the Great Basin. Ranchers read these pages and they are hoping you don’t. They much prefer the status quo - and they obviously already have the BLM’s ear.
Contact:
Sally Wisely
State Director
Bureau of Land Management
Utah State Office

E-Mail: Sally_Wisely@blm.gov

PO Box 45155
Salt Lake City, Utah 84145-0155
(801) 539-4010/fax (801) 539-4013

Fillmore Field Office
F. Rex Rowley, Field Manager
Patricia Fosse, Assistant Field Manager
35 East 500 North, Fillmore, Utah 84631
(435) 743-3100 Fax (435) 743-3135

(Continued on Page 3d)