Friday, June 20, 2008

U.S. Forest Service cuts grazing on National Grasslands

...This year, Forest Service district ranger Ron Jablonski, who manages the Medora district in southwestern North Dakota, decided the drought had significantly affected grass growth in the district. He decided grazing needed to be cut 30 percent across the board in National Grasslands in Slope and Billings counties.

Jerry Lambourn, a cow-calf operator 18 miles north of Rhame, said he was “surprised” when the Little Missouri Grazing Association received a fax telling them about the 30 percent cuts.

His federal grassland pastures are in a region that received good moisture from the spring snowstorm in South Dakota.

In fact, his pastures had received “just short of 5 inches” and were green when he attended the annual meeting at the grazing association.

The fax arrived at the meeting during a break when no one was in the office. The ranchers returned and found the fax. “I was surprised because we have had a lot of moisture this spring,” Lambourn said.

That region of the southwest has been out of the extreme drought category and is currently rated in the abnormally dry category by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Pope said ranchers have always taken steps to manage the drought conditions and have been able to work with the U.S. Forest Service in the past.

He said there were 109 permittees (ranchers) in the association and 7,000 animal units. “Livestock producers were upset by the cuts because they weren't individualized

Pope thought the timing of the fax was unusual because U.S. Forest Service personnel were coming in person that afternoon to give a talk at the meeting anyway.

“The Forest Service did not come out and check the allotments with us before they decided on this 30 percent across-the-board cut,” Pope said. “With 5 inches of rain, it's not needed.”

Shakey Jacobson, a rancher northwest of Amidon who also has pastures in the federal grasslands, said the cool-season grasses were late this spring.

“We're getting good rain now,” Jacobson said. “The wheatgrass is coming up nicely.”

Jacobson, who was the past president of the association, felt the 30 percent across-the-board cut was unjustified. While some pastures in the grazing association were poor, especially on the eastern edge, others were in good condition.

Pastures in parts of the Little Missouri had gotten 4 to 5 inches, and even the drier regions in the northeastern part of the association were finally getting rain. Some regions in the far south had received more than 6 inches this spring.

“Some of the permittees are stocking lighter already, depending on the conditions of the pastures. Others are using other pastures, or taking cows to auction barns,” Pope said. “I just feel our permittees can manage the resources without having to be told they need a mandatory cut.”

Jablonski said the reason for the across-the-board cut was because livestock producers in the association had not all responded back about what they planned to do to deal with the drought this year.

“With little response, I felt compelled to make a decision and that's what I did (make a 30 percent across-the-board cut),” Jablonski said. “If we don't get more moisture, there will be additional cuts.”

He said some of the ways the U.S. Forest determines grazing cutbacks is by using various drought monitors, local forecast, hearing from producers who put in fences about how deep the subsoil moisture goes, monitoring sales at the auction barns, and trying to “keep an eye on the ground conditions.”

“We've just gone through the worst six-month drought in North Dakota,” Jablonski said. “The grass just isn't growing, and it's my responsibility to maintain those grassland resources.”

He said the Forest Service was concerned because there was little fall moisture, no winter snow and only light spring rains this year.

Jack Dahl, range specialist at the U.S. Forest Service, said he was concerned about livestock producers “starting out in a hole.” Most of the grass species have not had adequate production yet. If the grass gets behind this year, it will be even worse next year, he said.

Pope said the federal grasslands has a built-in drought management tool for producers. The tools are there that say what needs to be done in a drought situation.

If the U.S. Forest Service felt there was a drought situation, he said it would have been more appropriate to give more notice to the ranchers. That way they could “find other grass or reduce herds for sales and wouldn't be at the mercy of the markets,” he said.

Pope said the grazing association is in its 69th year, and has not encountered problems with the U.S. Forest Service before. In 2003, the association took a voluntary 25 percent cut and in 1998, it took a 20 percent cut.

Randy Gaebe, a conservationist with the Little Missouri Grazing Association, said the association went out and checked soil conditions in the allotments to see how far down the subsoil moisture was. That ranged from 4 feet to 13 inches in areas checked the week of June 9.

“We have had above average rainfall throughout most of the association,” he said.

Types of grasses that are typical in the Little Missouri are western wheatgrass, crested wheatgrass, prairie junegrass, needle and thread, threadleaf sedge, and big and little blue stem, Gaebe said. The introduced grasses were reseeded in the 30s after farmland was reclaimed.

After hearing from the grazing association that some pastures were in good condition, Forest Service personnel decided that some areas needed to be checked out.

“We're hoping it looks better,” he said.

While cattle were out grazing on the green pastures that are filled with native and introduced grasses last week, Forest Service personnel drove down to view the pastures in person. Little Missouri Grazing Association personnel went with them and showed them the pastures.

Lambourn said his neighbor did hear back from the Forest Service by last week and was told to go ahead with his original grazing plans.

Others were to be notified this week of their decisions.

Up in northwestern North Dakota in the McKenzie District, Gary Petik, U.S. Forest Service range supervisor, said he is working with the McKenzie Grazing Association on voluntary cutbacks.

“It didn't fit our situation for a flat cut,” he said. “We evaluated each pasture on its own merits.”

Most of the region lost six to seven weeks of cool season grass growth due to the lack of moisture. Livestock producers are concerned about a shorter grazing season and some have already made adjustments, he said.

“We adopted the philosophy here of take half, leave half,” Petik said, adding it's an old rule that seems to work well. Voluntary grazing cuts in his region ranged from 15 to 30 percent. One producer volunteered a 40 percent cut.

“We don't try and dictate to them what to do on their individual operations. What we say is when the grass is at 50 percent, rotate the cattle,” he said.

At the Sheyenne National Grasslands in southeastern North Dakota and much of South Dakota, there was no cuts in grazing needed.

At Buffalo Gap national grasslands in South Dakota, livestock producers took a 20 percent cut in grazing. Some took a 40 percent cut depending on the condition of the pasture.

Meanwhile, the national grasslands in Kansas is not allowing any grazing.

At Cimarron National Grassland, the 101,175 acres of land that makes up the unit has only received 2 inches of rain since Jan. 1 and a total of 4 inches since last year.

“None of the grass is growing here,” said Nancy Brewer, rangeland management specialist at Cimarron. “Everything is in the dormant stage. We have no grazing going on.”

Brewer said livestock producers in Cimarron are taking huge hits, cutting their herds or buying expensive feed. Some have been able to move herds to other locations.

She said other states are taking grazing cuts, too.

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