Range Management School teacher Floyd Reed, left, highlights the benefits of a “principles-based approach to grazing management” during a Friday, March 20 class at Canyonlands by Night and Day. [Photo by Heila Ershadi / Moab Sun News]

“People think that if you just stop grazing, everything will be hunky-dory,” Range Management School teacher Floyd Reed said. “But in a disturbance-driven ecosystem, a lack can be just as bad as too much.”

Reed was speaking at a Friday, March 20 Range Management School class called “Managing for Riparian Values,” which focused on a “principles-based approach to grazing management.”

Over the course of four hours, Reed, along with co-instructors John Murray and David Bradford, talked about a range of issues related to riparian areas – lands that immediately surround waterways.

Before they retired, Reed and Bradford worked for the U.S. Forest Service, and Murray worked for the National Resources Conservation Service. Today, they conduct range management classes upon request under the banner of the Range Management School, which is not a brick-and-mortar building, but a team of professionals who will travel to share their knowledge. The material they presented was a compilation of their combined hands-on experience, along with that of other Range Management School teachers.

Reed discussed the importance of riparian areas, especially in desert environments.

“While riparian areas typically make up only one or two percent of the landscape, they often provide as much as 25 percent of the total forage available,” he said. “And, there are instances where as much as 80 percent of the total forage consumed in a pasture comes from the riparian areas.”

Reed also noted the importance of riparian habitat for wildlife, reporting that 98 percent of area wildlife species use riparian areas to some degree.

According to the course material, another important feature of our area is that it is composed of “disturbance-driven” ecosystems.

“Unlike other parts of the country with ample moisture … the interior West is dominated by arid or semi-arid ecosystems,” the material says. “Without enough moisture to promote decay of plant material, these landscapes need disturbance to cycle nutrients. Prior to settlement, frequent low-intensity fires cycled nutrients and kept the country in balance.”

Inadequate disturbance can lead to the build-up of dead plant material, which may shade out new growth and create fire hazards. If there is a fire, the abundance of deadfall may cause it to burn so intensely that nothing can grow back afterward. Conversely, too much disturbance may lead to a loss in species diversity, disruption of the water cycle and soil compaction. Both under- and over-use can reduce habitat quality, according to Reed.

Reed challenged what he called “a common perception that grazing is always abusive.”

Acknowledging that grazing can be quite destructive to an area’s ecology when done improperly, he disputed the practice of solving a rangeland problem by automatically cutting herd numbers or closing the area to grazing.

He emphasized that proper management is key, and that with this, grazing can occur without damaging the land. Reed said that it can even have a positive impact. The solution, he said, is to find the balance between too much and too little.

The Range Management School teaches that balance is achieved by taking into account the intensity and duration of grazing, as well as making sure there is opportunity for plant regrowth before grazing resumes.

According to the school’s teachings, grazing can stimulate root growth, resulting in a healthier plant, better soil stabilization and drought resilience. However, if a plant is grazed too far down, or too frequently, or at the same time ever year, it may be damaged. Leaving four inches of growth and having a good pasture rotation system will ensure the plant is stimulated rather than harmed.

Many “before and after” slides were shown to class attendees, to illustrate how well-managed grazing has improved the health of the ecosystems involved. For example, one “before” slide showed a sparsely vegetated pasture with a muddy, eroded stream bed. The same view was shown in the “after” slide, transformed with years of careful grazing management into a verdant field with a tidy waterway.

Monitoring and documentation are also important Range Management School principles. Monitoring keeps tabs on the grazing methods being used and their impacts on the land, and should be the basis for making decisions on how grazing proceeds. Documentation, both written and photographic, provides a solid historical record.

“You have to have documentation,” Reed said. “Otherwise, you’re just one more person with an opinion.”

Reed said that monitoring should take place on an annual, short-term period of three to five years, and on a long-term basis. Annual monitoring looks at factors like grazing intensity and plant regrowth. Short-term monitoring involves criteria like the width of the waterway and changes in plant vigor. Over the long term, things like channel and bank conditions, as well as changes in the plant community, need to be incorporated into the assessments.

He also encouraged ranchers to use the process for assessing “Proper Functioning Condition.” This is a rating system evaluating 14 pasture characteristics that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) developed in the Pacific Northwest, and in time adopted nationwide by the BLM and the Forest Service. Reed urged ranchers to “become acquainted with this with your agency people,” adding, “It affects your livelihood.”

Reed’s audience at the Canyonlands by Night and Day class location included a mix of area ranchers, land managers and conservationists.

Colleen Tibbetts is a ranch hand who attended the Range Management School class. She said that the ranch she works for, which is located in the La Sal Mountains, already uses the practices taught in the class. But, she said, “It’s good to come to a class and get a review.”

Grand Canyon Trust Utah Forests Program Director Mary O’Brien also sat in on the class. She said she appreciated how welcoming the Range Management School teachers were to conservation group members, and that “the kinds of recommendations that the presenters are making should lead to better care.”

O’Brien added that, while the principles taught in the class are general, each individual ecosystem often has specific needs that must be taken into account – needs which conservationists “are paying attention to” and which would be useful in further informing rangeland management.

She said these are questions such as, “Are there sufficient forbs (wildflowers) for sage grouse? Are the aspen, cottonwood and willow doing well? They’re essential for aquatic community. Are the grasses long enough for ground-nesting birds?”

She also said she sees a need for some areas to remain ungrazed to provide a comparison with grazed areas, “to know what it could look like.”

O’Brien said that the Grand Canyon Trust will be sending a letter to the Range Management School with its recommendations on incorporating these types of concerns.

Class teaches sustainable livestock management practices

… (In) a disturbance-driven ecosystem, a lack (of grazing) can be just as bad as too much.

For more information on the Range Management School, contact Robbie LeValley at rlevalley@deltacounty.com.