March 9, 2003
Dr. Jack M. Payne
It takes a while sometime, but I am finally getting around to addressing my concern with Extension, especially as related to Rangeland and Wildlife Management. The enclosed article from the Deseret News (August, 2001) and some of my previous experience with Extension have caused me to write this letter. That article is about the disappearance of sage grouse across the west and the supposed decrease of sagebrush as a cause.
That article uses quotes from Dennis Austin of DWR blaming a lack of livestock grazing for the decline of sagebrush and sage grouse. Terry Messmer then goes on to blame highways, homes and exotic weeds for fragmenting the sagebrush habitat. Note that the photo in the article shows sagebrush with nothing but bare ground in the interspaces (where did all the grasses and forbs go?). The second article I have enclosed is from the Idaho Statesman (October, 2001). Clait Braun, the premier sage grouse expert stated flatly in that article that sage grouse are being done in by livestock.
The third article I have enclosed is one written by Thad Box in Rangelands (2000). In that article he raises concerns that Range Professionals have become apologists for the livestock industry instead of remaining true to their profession and the land they have pledged to preserve. I have been on range tours with representatives of USU Extension and have been amazed at how true this is. A typical example occurred on a range tour where I pointed out livestock-caused damage to streams and uplands. The Extension person present obfuscated around it by blaming elk. Yet when I asked the permittee how many cows were in the pasture, the answer was 730. About 40 elk graze there seasonally. I won’t cite the hundreds of publications that document the effects of livestock grazing on riparian areas or uplands, nor will I cite my own work on our local forests that shows the severity of the damage and loss of productivity. I am, however, enclosing a copy of “Welfare Ranching” for your use along with a Power Point Presentation I put together dealing with sage-steppe. There is also a Word file on the CD that you can print and use for slide-specific explanations.
Let me point out that Terry Messmer’s statement in the Deseret News article has provided a classic example of this “livestock apologist” characterization when he lists every cause for dysfunctional sagebrush communities except livestock. Where does he think those “exotic weeds” come from? Clearly, the removal of ground covering native
grasses and forbs and cryptobiotic crusts from livestock grazing and trampling has lead to the increased ability of annual weeds, including cheatgrass, to invade and multiply. This process has continued for over a century in most of our sagebrush habitat. Anyone with a basic education in ecology, biology, range science or wildlife management should understand the mechanisms that drive weed infestations and also select against the most nutritious native plants. Certainly the literature is full of demonstrations of the degradation of not only sagebrush, but aspen and riparian habitats by livestock. Even Forest Service Regional Assessments recognize the sad state of these habitats and the historic and ongoing role of livestock in their destruction. Neil West (cited in the Power Point Presentation) described the effects of livestock grazing on sage-steppe as reducing the productivity of the herbaceous component by 60 to 90% by 1930.
In any event, neither Dennis Austin of DWR nor Terry and Roger with Extension are doing ranching any favors. The coupling of continued heavy grazing by livestock and its associated removal of nutrients, soil erosion and loss of infiltration capability will ultimately end grazing on these rangelands because they will no longer provide forage. Instead, these people ought to be using their science and advocating for scientific management within the capacity of the land. If you are interested in reading a review of livestock management, capacity and stocking rates for arid areas, I will be happy to email you an early draft I have begun. Even current Range Management Textbooks and peer-reviewed articles are recommending much reduced stocking rates for sustainable management. This also financially benefits ranchers. This is especially true regarding drought management and the need to de-stock during drought when livestock prices are low. Once they have sold off much of their herd, they are then faced with rebuilding their herds during higher precipitation times with livestock that cost more. There have been a number of studies during the last fifty years that have validated this. USU Extension ought to be taking advantage of this science instead of advocating for livestock owners and misleading the general public.
John Carter, PhD