CMR Allows Emergency Grazing

CMR Allows Emergency Grazing

The Lodgepole Complex wildfire in northeast Montana burned over 270,000 acres of federal, state, and private land east of the Musselshell River in Garfield and Petroleum counties, including 14,000 acres on the 1.1 million acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The fire destroyed 16 ranch homes, dozens of associated buildings, and hundreds of miles of fences. In response to a request from Montana’s congressional delegation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is providing emergency grazing on parts of the refuge to some affected livestock producers. Use of refuge lands is authorized through November 1, or until the animals were previously scheduled for shipment, whichever comes first.

Cattle Grazing in Montana

Refuge Manager Paul Santavy said he has authorized five ranches to move cattle onto the refuge and is in discussion with one other producer. Accommodating ranches affected by the fire changed the timing for planned, prescriptive grazing, but Santavy said that grazing occurs on much of the refuge and can be an important habitat management tool.

“While the FWS’ primary job remains managing the refuge to benefit wildlife, we are supportive of the surrounding ranches and communities and want to be good neighbors,” he noted.

Much of Montana has suffered from record high temperatures and low rainfall this summer. Eastern Montana has been especially hard hit, with most of the state under “Extreme Drought” conditions. On July 19th, a lightning-caused wildfire erupted in the dry grass, sagebrush, and scattered pine forests on the east side of the Musselshell River northwest of Jordan, MT. Over the following 10 days, the Lodgepole Complex fire burned 270,723 acres. Several ranches were affected by the fire, with many losing virtually all the forage in their pastures. Although donations of hay and feed from across the state were on their way to the area, producers with little or no grass remaining were faced with several bad choices: sell calves early and take losses from reduced weights, sell off their herds and lose genetics that in some cases have taken generations to refine, or purchase hay and feed during a time of high prices. At the request of Montana’s congressional delegation, the Secretary of the Interior and FWS agreed to offer producers who lost forage to the fire the opportunity to move their cattle onto portions of the refuge to avoid these economic impacts.

"While the FWS' primary job remains managing the refuge to benefit wildlife, we are supportive of the surrounding ranches and communities and want to be good neighbors." - Paul Santavy, Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge Manager

Grazing has a long and checkered history on what is now the refuge. Prior to the 1880’s, large numbers of bison would graze intensely in an area then move on. Several years might pass before bison returned to the area in any numbers. The native grasses were adapted to this “pulsed grazing” pattern.

When bison were extirpated from Montana and replaced by domestic livestock in the late 1800s, much of the refuge was subject to year-round, annual grazing. Although the number of animals allowed on the refuge was limited on paper after the refuge was established, stock numbers were rarely verified prior to the 1980s, and the timing of use was determined largely by ranchers. Much of the range was heavily over-grazed and impacts to wildlife and habitat were significant.

In 1986, the refuge began implementing restrictions on grazing and shifting to a grazing system with timing and rotation between pastures dictated by the FWS to improve habitat for wildlife. The recent Comprehensive Conservation Plan adopted in 2012, reaffirmed the FWS’ commitment to continued transition toward a prescriptive grazing system, using cattle grazing on the refuge only as a habitat management tool to benefit wildlife.

Many family ranches in the area have run cattle on the refuge for generations. Although the FWS’ grazing reductions have been phased in over several decades, some ranchers have chafed at the restrictions. Relationships between the FWS and ranchers have sometimes been further strained by the impacts of increasing numbers of deer, elk, and antelope that compete for forage on the public and private ranch lands surrounding the refuge.

When approached by Montana’s congressional delegation, the new administration in Washington D.C. saw the opportunity to address the needs of ranchers affected by the Lodgepole Complex fire as a way to demonstrate that the FWS can work with them as a partner. Ranchers expressed their appreciation of the FWS’ responsiveness. “They’re our heroes today. We’re just thankful the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came to our aid,” said rancher Dean Rogge.

Four of the ranches turned their cattle out into pastures that have not been grazed for two or more years. Those pastures were scheduled for prescriptive grazing in the future. Allowing grazing this year changed the timing of use, but is fully consistent with the refuge management plan. One other rancher put his cattle into a pasture being grazed this year by his brother’s cattle at a low stocking rate.

Santavy explained that grazing relief is only being offered for those producers that have been impacted by the Lodgepole Complex Fire. So far, only five producers have taken the FWS up on the offer; a sixth is considering whether moving his cattle onto the refuge is his best option. The producers will be required to fill out a permit application and obtain a permit from CMR, but under the unique circumstances created by the fire, the paperwork can be completed after the cows are moved based on a verbal, negotiated individual agreement. The producer will be charged this year's grazing rate as determined by USDA, which is $24 per Animal Unit Month (equivalent to the amount of grass consumed by one cow-calf pair in one month), for actual use. Producers will have to pull their cattle out of their assigned pasture on their normal planned shipment date, or November 1st at the latest.

Although some have questioned the FWS’ action, Santavy explained that grazing has always been part of the ecology of the refuge. In any given year, as much as two thirds of the refuge may see some use by cattle. “The important thing,” said Santavy, “is careful management of grazing to benefit wildlife.

Photo Credit
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Flickr
August 16, 2017