If you look at a map, and run your eye along Oregon’s straight-edge southern border to the point where Nevada and California meet beneath it, and then travel slightly north and east, you will see a chain of small, unremarkable dry lakes indicated. This area is flanked to the west by the fertile Warner Valley, the narrow, desolate Guano Valley bordering it to the east. Northward, it is abutted by the sprawling Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge. This remote expanse of territory, administered by the Bureau of Land Management, has no particular name of its own. Locals simply call this “the Desert.”
Aside from the lake beds, a good map may also show a number of dotted-line dirt roads, ranging from decent to fictional, winding through this far-flung district. It may even indicate by means of lines that the topography of this area is varying and changeable, but it is doubtful whether it will give you any real impression of the landscape’s character, unless the map is in your hand, and your boots are planted on its alkali soil. So situated, an early rising visitor might watch first light touch the reference points that these concentric topo lines suggest.
It is five a.m. and the hard blackness is softening to gray. In the gathering light, looming outlines emerge of a jagged canyon rim. Down canyon, and rising from the valley floor, the light illuminates peculiarly tilted upthrusts where eons ago the earth buckled and heaved, hoisting great slabs of the prehistoric ground high in the air, like tilted tables. This is not mountain country, exactly. It is the broken face of the south-east Oregon desert. Ancient and austere, it is a vast, unadorned starkness.
An observer located on the east rim of Fisher Canyon this morning might also be able to discern through the pale darkness a slow, stately procession making its way across the valley below. As dawn approaches, what might have looked like a winding black snake is revealed to be a serpentine stream of the backs of red and black cows, flanked by riders on horseback. As they approach, the cows’ low calls for their calves and the occasional shout from a cowboy ring out echoing in the huge space between the buttes.
This morning, John O’Keeffe and six day workers are moving about five-hundred head of O’Keeffe’s Angus-Hereford cattle to new pasture. They have been riding since four-thirty a.m., to make the most of the cool morning hours when the cattle will move comfortably and willingly. Now, they are about to ease their train of mama cows and bawling tag-along calves through a gate into what is called the Mud Flat pasture, where fresh forage awaits.
O’Keeffe is a public lands rancher. In the spring and summer months, he turns his cattle out on a BLM allotment, for which he has a grazing permit. The permit entitles O’Keeffe to a certain number of animal unit months, or “AUMs,” per allotment, with an AUM equaling one month’s grazing for a cow and her unweaned calf. To maintain his permit, O’Keeffe must respect stocking limits, turnout and removal dates, pay annual fees, rotate his cows from one pasture to another, and keep facilities such as fencing and water sources in good order.
Active, compact, and industrious, O’Keeffe approaches ranching with the devotion and discipline of a Buddhist monk. Three a.m. wake-up calls and eighteen hour days are not infrequent on this outfit. And though his dour, common-sense talk doesn’t usually wax toward the poetic, it is clear that for him, ranching is not just a way to make a living. It is a way of being connected with the living world around him. Riding out through the fragrant sagebrush on a recent morning, he confided, “I think of all those people sitting in rush hour traffic right now, and I feel like I’m getting away with something.”
O’Keeffe grazes fifteen BLM pastures on the Desert. Each year, several of these are “rested,” and not grazed. On the others, cows are carefully rotated from one pasture to another from March through August, staying long enough to eat some, but not all, of the grass. O’Keeffe works closely with Les Booth, the local BLM Range Conservationist, or “Range Con,” to make sure his stocking levels and rotation schedules make sense in the current forage conditions, which in the erratic east-Oregon climate can change radically from year to year.
Les Booth is a hard man to catch at his desk. His real office is out on the grazing allotments, and he can occasionally be seen at the Adel Store picking up a coffee on his way out to the Desert to do range monitoring. Summer is his busiest time, and he spends it covering countless miles on the Desert. His government pick-up is thick with alkali dust.
“In the spring and summer and fall, I try to be out there at least three to five times a week,” says Booth.
Yet Booth is not out on the Desert just for the benefit of ranchers. A Range Con’s job is to see that all of the multiple uses of the public lands—grazing, wildlife, recreation, wilderness—are tended to. Explains Booth, “We go out there, we communicate with [ranchers], we make sure they understand what the rules are, and that they’re managing the public lands for the benefit of the resource... There’s a whole list of things we worry about besides just the grazing, and we try to protect all those resources while allowing the rancher to utilize the range.”
The Great Debate
In recent years, public lands grazing has become the focus of intense debate. Like water, grass is a renewable resource. If managed properly, it will flourish, but it can be degraded and destroyed if overused. Critics claim that ranchers chronically abuse public lands by overgrazing. They maintain that grazing promotes invasive species of weeds, and that the presence of cattle negatively impacts habitats and threatens the existence of native wildlife.
With an abundance of negative allegations in the air, it isn’t surprising that people have come to wonder whether grazing public lands is a wise use of a precious national resource. Open spaces, wildlife, healthy habitats and fresh, abundant water are among the things we value most. Yet recent research in the field of range science is reshaping the terms of this debate. Range ecologists are finding that in many ways grazing, practiced responsibly, is highly beneficial both to plants and wildlife. Good grazing, they argue, is an environmentally superior arrangement to no grazing at all.
This interesting trend was recently noted by renowned journalist Michael Pollen, who in his groundbreaking book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” observed: “In fact, a growing number of ecologists now believe the rangelands are healthier with cattle on them, provided they’re moved frequently.”
Alongside this scientific discussion, a moral discourse is also taking shape. Distinct from a “must not touch” approach to environmentalism, many people are rediscovering a classical form of conservation that promotes fruitful interaction between ecosystems and human communities, and maintains that there can be an important role for the human element in supporting flourishing rangelands.
A History of Grazing
Grazing has not always been kind to the range. Prior to 1934, our public lands went largely unmanaged. Homesteaders, itinerant sheep herders, and cattle barons all ran vast numbers of livestock in common on the unfenced range. In a classic playing out of the tragedy of the commons, these stockmen frequently followed the destructive principle that they ought to use all available grass, lest it be consumed by the neighbor’s livestock. When the grass ran out, these early stockmen simply moved on. The effect of this “first come, first served” approach to public lands use was egregious overgrazing.
Since then, two major changes have reshaped the way we use the public range. One is the Taylor Grazing Act, which passed in 1934 to regulate grazing and restore the beleaguered ranges. The Act introduced a system of dividing public lands into grazing districts, which were further parceled into grazing allotments for individual ranchers, such as those O’Keeffe has a permit for. BLM Range Cons like Booth now work with ranchers to ensure that each allotment is maintained in good health.
Second and more recently is the emergence of the field of range science. Many people don’t realize that just as marine biologists study complex marine ecosystems, range scientists are people who specialize in the biology of the ecosystems of grasslands. They are typically not ranchers. They are more likely to be university professors, government employees, or private consultants. Les Booth, who holds a master’s degree in range science from Colorado State, has a background in plant ecology, soil science, wildlife biology, and surveying.
The emergence of range science as an academic discipline has brought a greater understanding of how grazing can be practiced sustainably, and at what numbers. “There’s been a time of much higher stocking rates early in this century when range science wasn’t as well understood, and it’s good that those days are past,” observes O’Keeffe. “We’ve had huge reductions in numbers since that time.”
But range science is also exposing some very positive relationships between grazing, wildlife, and plant life. Far from what people have long assumed, grazing may well be part of the answer to preserving our treasured rangelands and the wildlife they support.
How can biting a stand of bunch grass be good for it? In quite a number of ways, as it turns out. Dr. Wayne Burkhardt, Professor Emeritus of Range Science at the University of Nevada, Reno, has spent a career exploring the answers to this question. Recently, he explained four surprisingly intuitive ways that grazing can help the range flourish.
Grazing stimulates growth
When a grazing animal bites off grass, the action stimulates growth in the plant. The effect is similar to mowing your lawn. Most of us are well acquainted with the fact that routine mowing stimulates, not suppresses, grass growth. (Hence the constant need to mow.) But why should cutting or biting grass have this effect? First, trimming grass at a moderate height delays the seeding out of the plant, so it can put its energy into growth. Second, trimming grass keeps down dead stems and leaves that can accumulate and choke new plant growth. It is true, ungrazed or uncut grass may look taller than grass that has been grazed. But this does not imply that the grass is more vigorous. Like a cemetery plot that has been left untended, much of this matter will be dead overgrowth, known as “litter.”
Says Burkhardt, “It’s unhealthy for plants to stagnate and accumulate in their own excess organic tissue. You tie up nutrients in that litter, when it is taken out of the soil. Grazing is one of the mechanisms for recycling nutrients back into the soil.”
Ultimately, by the same simple logic that recommends deadheading flowers, rotational grazing facilitates removal of dead matter and promotes new, live growth.
Grazing makes plants more nutritious and palatable
Many people assume that wildlife is most abundant where there are no cattle. Yet ranchers have long observed that deer, elk, antelope, and other grazers follow cattle, and are often more abundant on grazed ranges [Anderson and Scherzinger]. This may seem counterintuitive, since wild grazers would appear to be in competition with cattle for grass. But by extending the growth phase of bunch grasses, prolonging the period before grass gets rank and tall and goes to seed, cattle grazing makes these grasses more palatable and nutritious for all grazers, thereby improving the quality of the forage.
A similar preference for “grazed” plants should be familiar to anyone who has ever raised a garden. As plant eaters, we humans also favor tender green shoots which are sweet and rich in high-energy protein. But who has not left his garden for a two-week vacation, only to find that upon returning, the lettuce and herbs have grown tall, leggy, and have seeded out? The lettuce is now bitter, the parsley woody, the basil tough and fibrous.
Yet a well-tended lettuce or parsley or basil plant can be judiciously “grazed” all summer, and continually provide sweet, tender shoots. Likewise, rangeland grasses that are judiciously grazed can continue to attract wildlife with more palatable, nutritious, growth-stage forage.
Grazing reduces fire
When range fires occur, they destroy essential habitats for important sagebrush steppe species like sage grouse and pronghorn antelope. Dry, dead plant matter burns hotter and faster than living plant matter. And the more dead litter there is, the hotter a fire can get. Because grazed range has a much lower accumulation of these fine fuels, fires are less frequent and less intense on rangeland where grazing occurs. [Davies (1)].
Obviously, fires cannot be entirely eliminated. But researchers have also found that grazed range that does burn is much less likely to come back as invasive cheat grass, compared to burned ungrazed range. [Davies (2)]. This is because range that has been grazed has fewer fine fuels, and therefore does not burn as hot. Less intense fires are less likely to entirely destroy the root system of bunch grasses, while hotter fires are more likely to destroy the entire plant, opening the door for cheat grass invasion.
Ranchers like O’Keeffe also play a direct role in fire prevention. As on-site custodians of these ranges, they can respond rapidly to a fire, preventing large-scale devastation. In a similar way, ranchers have often spotted and eliminated outbreaks of noxious weeds, such as medusa head and pepper weed, long before they become intractable monocultures.
Grazing is part of a natural biotic system
“Grazing is not something man invented,” emphasizes Burkhardt. “It is not an insult to nature. Grazing and the use of grass is a natural, fundamental process in the biology of the Earth.”
The fossil record shows that the native grasses on these Great Basin ranges evolved at a time of heavy grazing pressure during the pleistocene era [Burkhardt]. During that time, numerous large grazing herbivores—mammoths, camels, horses, bison—so-called “megafauna,” roamed these ranges.
“[R]ange grasses evolved with grazing pressure,” says Burkhardt. “The pleistocene megafauna evolved along with those plants in a natural grazing system. The lack of large grazing animals on this landscape is an anomalous condition. To think that livestock grazing is an insult is utterly amazing, if you spend a little time reflecting on things.”
Burkhardt stresses that in a world where industrial agricultural production has become the norm, grazing represents the last truly natural food production system, requiring no inputs of fertilizers, herbicides, or fossil fuels.
“Grazing performs a function, a positive function, for the maintenance of plant communities. That’s not to say that grazing in certain ways can have bad effects on our plant communities. It certainly can, if grazing isn’t done in the proper way.”
> What, then, is the proper way to graze, in order to reap the benefits that grazing potentially offers?
“We have to attempt to make our grazing systems mimic the kind of system that these plants evolved under,” Burkhardt explains. Hence the employment of the rest and rotation system; it approximates a natural grazing system by allowing plants to rest, and by grazing them at different times each year.
As Burkhardt sees it, in the final analysis the issue of whether cattle are good or bad for rangelands is ill-posed. Rather, this is at root an issue of good or bad management. Poorly managed grazers can cause destruction to riparian areas and to grasslands. But well-managed cattle provide a sustainable, and in many ways, beneficial presence on the range.
The Simple Mathematics of Grazing
Adopting Burkhardt’s perspective, the relevant question is: What motivation is there to be a good manager?
People often forget that unlike other natural resource users, ranchers are rooted to the land. Ranchers are, as O’Keeffe likes to put it, “in this for the long haul.” Where they graze is also where they live, and often have lived, for generations.
For O’Keeffe, the need to care for this range is as simple and obvious as a desert dweller’s need to prevent the fouling of his well. In either case, care of a vital natural resource is the key to ongoing existence.
O’Keeffe’s cows, like his father’s and grandfather’s, must come back to the Desert year after year to graze, nurse calves, and breed. Through the rest and rotation system, the cattle graze the range, but also allow the grasses to rest, set seed, and store root reserves. This well-managed grazing system creates a chain of sustainable growth and regrowth. But if O’Keeffe overgrazes this range, the chain will break. Without abundant summer grass, O’Keeffe’s cows wouldn’t be able to feed their calves, or even at some point, themselves. In plain economic terms, several years of abusing this range would spell disaster, and a quick end, for O’Keeffe’s operation.
Conserving Open Spaces
It is worth considering what would happen if, as some groups have advocated, this renewable resource were no longer available for grazing.
Ranchers like O’Keeffe would go out of business. No longer viable for agriculture, their ranches, which currently provide vital habitat to native wildlife, would inevitably be bought up by developers. As has happened in so many other rural communities, development would bring fragmentation of the landscape. New roads, power lines, sceptic systems, and the inevitable proliferation of three-acre ranchettes and vacation homes would be carved out of the sagebrush. Sage grouse and antelope would have to find new homes, away from the spread of civilization.
Habitats are not the only thing that would be lost to development, if public lands grazing were to end. Ranches like O’Keeffe’s are a vital, living part of the fabric of Lake County history. But pre-planned communities of cookie-cutter ranchettes and mobile home houses destroy the beauty of these pastoral, agrarian landscapes.
Today in the Warner Valley, a traveler can still pass a hundred year-old barn, or spy sandhill cranes wading in the irrigated meadows in springtime. At harvest time, they can see bales of hay in symmetrical ranks casting long evening shadows across the pastures, or perhaps see a cowboy’s horse hitched at the Adel Store, patiently awaiting its owner within.
The pastoral has a value all its own. Ending public land grazing would destroy important habitats, and eliminate a sustainable, regional food source. But further, if these historic ranches are sold, subdivided, and developed, the exceptional beauty of Lake County’s remote rural landscapes, and its untamed pastoral aesthetic, will be irretrievably lost.
The sun is setting on the Desert. Accompanied by Skinner, his ebullient border collie, O’Keeffe is putting out salt and opening gates among the deepening shadows, preparing for yet another move in the morning. In the middle distance, curious pronghorn antelope observe his movements. These fellow grazers are a ubiquitous presence on the Desert, their slender silhouettes punctuating the wind-scoured skyline. This fleet armada turns suddenly about, exploding in effortless motion. Skimming the sage, their white sterns flash in the mellowing light.
Other creatures make their living on this range. It is not uncommon to meet an avuncular badger, trundling about his evening business. Or to spy the mottled backs of sage grouse, as they bob and weave their way through the brush. Above all—and at the root of all—there is grass: bowing on delicate stems in the breath of evening air.
John O’Keeffe doesn’t have a bumper sticker on his pick-up that advertises his love of this Desert. If he did, what would it say? That this land sustains him, and his family? That it is his past? His future? Or perhaps that this rugged world of sagebrush and antelope is all he has ever lived, or hoped to? The dried mud and thick alkali dust adhering to his pick-up, accumulated over countless days of tending to cattle and range, say these things in their own way, quietly.
The O’Keeffes and the other ranchers in the Warner Valley are a part of this landscape. They are a part of its history. They are a part of its rhythms. They are a breed of quiet environmentalist, maintaining a way of life that is inextricably linked to the well-being of the land. In the busy din of sloganeering, it is easy to miss this intimate connection between people and landscape.
But out on the rim of Fisher Canyon, where the last of the evening light is being gently extinguished, quiet sounds have a way of speaking with great voices. No map can tell you who has cared for this range for a hundred years. But the whispering grasses know, and they will tell you, if you are listening.
Andy Rieber is a free-lance journalist. She holds degrees in philosophy from Smith College and the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Adel, Oregon is her home. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Anderson, E. W. and R. J. Scherzinger. 1975. Improving quality of winter forage for elk by cattle grazing. Journal of Range Management. 28(2).
Burkhardt, J.W. 1996. Herbivory in the intermountain west. Contribution Number 817 of the Idaho Forest, Wildlife and Range Experiment Station: College of Forestry, Wildlife, and Range Sciences, University of Idaho.
(1) Davies, K., J.D. Bates, T.J. Svejcar, and C.S. Boyd. ( IN PRESS) Effects of long-term livestock grazing on fuel characteristics in rangelands: an example from the sagebrush steppe. Rangeland Ecology & Management.
(2) Davies, K., J.D. Bates, and T.J. Svejcar. 2009. Interaction of historical and non-historical disturbances maintains native plant communities. Ecological Applications 19:1536-1545.