Overgrazing is dead. At least that seems to be the case in this part of the country. I know that’s not news for some of you, but for others I bet it is. I wasn’t sure what we would find at the beginning of this ride, but so far we’ve discovered that, if anything, the ranchers in northeast Montana have gotten too good at growing grass. Or at least that’s what the ecologists are saying. “The ironic thing is that for decades everyone was telling us to reduce bare-ground, to leave more grass and leaf litter for wildlife,” said Leo Barthelmess as he drove me through rolling hills covered in thick grass and sagebrush. “And now they’re all saying we need to graze it down in some areas to make habitat for the species that need that open ground.” As we wound our way down the gravel road, we only occasionally passed patches of bare hard-pan, where the white clay earth is smooth and hard as cement. Small areas of blue grama grass, growing like the turf of some wild golf course, and thick beds of prickly pear cactus were scattered here and there amid the taller grasses and shrubs. You might wonder why any ecologist would want a rancher to graze down their grass to nearly nothing, when you’ve heard that overgrazing is such a problem.
Overgrazing was a serious problem in this area at one time, and a national disaster for the United States. In other regions, and certainly in other countries, overgrazing is still an issue, especially in the more arid climates of Southern WY, UT, NM, and AZ. When the Indian peoples were displaced from much of the land in this area, the settlers that moved in were largely from cool moist climates, such as Norway, Sweden, and Ireland. Raising livestock in the northern great plains, a cold high semi-desert prone to drought and severe winters, was something none of the settlers knew anything about. It might have been different had the settlers been from Kazahkstan or Mongolia, which have long histories of livestock husbandry in high steppe environments, but they weren’t. There was a steep learning curve as they figured out what the carrying capacity of this land really was, both in the average years and in the bad years.
In the days of the cattle drives up from Texas in the late 1800’s and the homesteading days of the early 1900’s this whole region was open range. There were no fences. Any land that was not claimed for a homestead, which was much of the land out here, was retained as federal land. Anyone was allowed to run their livestock on that public land, and a classic environmental problem ensued, a phenomenon known as “The Tragedy of the Commons.” It takes a big disaster to get Washington’s attention for any national policy change, and they didn’t realize the importance of regulating the public lands until disaster struck in the 1930’s. A combination of severe drought, overgrazing, and newly plowed up wheat fields let the dirt fly, blacken the skies, and literally coat the desks of the bureaucrats in Washington as it drifted east on the prevailing westerlies.
What’s needed to combat a tragedy of the commons is either privatization of the public resource (get rid of the commons, get rid of the problem) or some serious community organizing. This can come from the grass roots, but in this case it came from the top down with the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act. Taylor and a small group of men, pouring over maps and traveling the west, split up the Federal Lands into grazing allotments, giving individual ranches 10 year grazing leases for so many cattle per so many acres of public land. Now individuals had incentives to care for their portion of the range knowing that they would reap the benefits from any improvements in management, and any grass they left standing wouldn’t simply be eaten by a neighbor’s stock. The implementation of the plan took time, however, and much of the lands weren’t actually fenced into the 1950s. Just about everyone we’ve talked to around here remembers growing up without fences anywhere. Robin and I can only fantasize about not having to open 15 gates a day in 15 miles as we ride down the roads and have to get around cattle guards, dismounting at each one to pry the gate post free from the barbed wire and swing the gate around without getting our string of horses tangled. It would be nice to not have to sidetrack miles out of the way to find a gate while cutting cross country as well, but knowing how much healthier some aspects of the grassland ecosystem are for all of the fencing quiets my complaining, though they present their own problems with obstruction of wildlife migration.
Another contributing factor to the overgrazing of this area’s grasslands was feral horses. Horses were continually escaping or being turned loose onto the public lands. They were allowed to breed and when anyone needed spare horses or money they’d round up a small band, brand them, break them to ride or sell them at auction. (We’ve also been told some pretty colorful stories of this occasionally happening to the neighbor’s horses). It was a good system except that, with no one claiming the vast majority of them, their population exploded and they added to the overgrazing problem. Eventually there were government roundups and the range was cleared of the feral horses, except in designated areas reserved for the mustangs, but that is another story.
In addition to those pressures on the grasslands was the near eradication of most predators in the early 1900s. Leo Barthelmess remembers when jackrabbits and cottontails were absolutely thick, and Sage Grouse, now under consideration for listing as an endangered species, could be flushed by the hundreds. The Mule Deer and Pronghorn Antelope numbers were higher than they ever were before or since, with no predators to keep their numbers in check. Well, it may have been a hunter’s dream, but for livestock producers Leo figures that the benefits of losing a few less calves and lambs every year to predation were outweighed by the damage it did to the grass, reducing the livestock carrying capacity further. Since Coyote numbers have climbed over the past half a century, it has become extremely hard to keep sheep in this country, though some like Leo have had success with guard dogs protecting their flocks. Still, with game animal numbers very low throughout the area we’ve been riding, and Coyote numbers high, more predator control may be necessary to achieve a desirable balance of species.
Dale Veseth, who runs cattle and sheep on the land his grandparents homesteaded (not so long ago really) could explain each stage of the improvements to the range first hand, as he’s lived through them all (and he’s really not very old). It continually amazes me how recent all of this history is. There were border fences put in on property boundaries which helped people use their own land more responsibly, and kept livestock off of public land unless it was permitted to be there. Dale doesn’t remember the grizzlies being roped and shot by cowboys in the late 1800s, nor the demise of the prairie wolf and coyote from hunting, trapping, and poisoning, but he does remember the steady increase in the coyote numbers since he was a boy, and the decline of jackrabbits etc. Then there were improvements in cattle management on private ranches. In the early stages, there might have been a perimeter fence, but the cattle were largely allowed to graze through the entire ranch year round, though they were herded to areas that weren’t being used as heavily when possible. Then the seasonal pasture system came about as interior fences were put in. There were generally four or so big pastures that the cattle would be rotated through corresponding to the seasons. They would spend about three months in each pasture. Usually each pasture was used during the same season every year, which impacted some pastures much harder than others. Grass is most vulnerable during the growing season in the spring and summer, so the spring and summer pastures were usually in the worst shape. Dale explained that the next big thing was the rest-rotation system, where one pasture was entirely unused each year, a sort of fallow system. That helped improve conditions, but it took a large chunk of the ranch out of production every year and the cattle were still in each pasture for months at a time. After that, some people started experimenting with dividing up their pastures further. It seemed like the more pastures they had and the shorter the period of time cattle were in any given pasture, the better the grass did. They also figured out that if you grazed a pasture in the dormant season, it was like you had rested it for the entire year. By rotating which pastures were grazed in which season, they could largely do away with the “rest” portion of the rest-rotation system. Not all ranchers have adopted this rotational grazing system. Some still have just a few big pastures, but almost all of them have moved in that direction and implement some of those principles in one way or another. About the only pastures that are hammered down year round now tend to be the small horse pastures by the houses.
And the proof is in the pudding. The drought (pronounced “drowth” here) in the 1980’s was bad. All of the patches of bare ground expanded. The cactus grew like crazy. The cracked black clay of the adobe hills was all bare. For two nights we stayed with the Stonebergs in Valley County, sleeping in their sheep wagon and letting the horses run in their horse pasture. Rose Stoneberg fed us the most wonderful meals and gave us as much fresh milk from her two half brown swiss nurse cows as we could possibly drink. She knew it was bad living through the drought in the 80’s, but when she went back recently and looked up the weather records, she realized that the 80’s had been even drier than it had been during the Dust Bowl. And you didn’t hear about a Dust Bowl II in northeast Montana. So something had improved. The Drought that has been raging for over a decade in south eastern Colorado, north east New Mexico, western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, the exact same area as the heart of the 1930’s Dust Bowl, has been drier and lasted longer than the drought in the 30’s too. Yet so far the dust hasn’t made it to Washington, so something is different there too.
Now, the dust bowl didn’t result from overgrazing alone. It was largely a consequence of native grasslands being plowed up for dry land wheat fields. With the encouragement of the railroads, the homestead acts, and several good years of rain leading up to the 30’s, settlers moved into the country in droves. Sylvan Walden rode with us across her ranch in McCone County. She pointed to a small depression in the ground, a few snowberries growing inside, and told us of the dugout where a homesteader tried to “prove up.” She knew that’s what it was because it matched the government records of the homestead’s location. We never would have seen it, but the spot came alive with history after she pointed it out. It was a requirement to plant wheat if you wanted to own the land. At one time, she said, there were seventy homesteaders along this small dry creek. Now, the creek sustainably supports one family. A lot of the wheat fields were abandoned during the Dust Bowl. Some were left bare to be re-seeded by the surrounding vegetation, some were replanted to perennial grasses (sometimes native, sometimes not, usually to the introduced Crested Wheat Grass around here). The federal government reclaimed much of the abandoned ground, and private landowners did the same, turning land from crop production to permanent pasture for grazing. That in and of itself has made a huge difference in the resiliency of the plains to severe drought, though the improvement in grazing management on private and public lands alike has certainly helped too.
“What we want to manage for is heterogeneity,” explained Charlie Meserley to Robin, a group of New York City students in the Nature Conservancy’s LEAF program, and me. We were taking a break after moving hay bales all morning in the heat. “Most ranchers manage their grass for a mid level height” he held his hand apart about six inches, one over the other. “They try and take about fifty percent of the grass in a pasture and move on.” Grass is most productive when you do that. It grows more grass through the season than it would if you didn’t touch it at all, or if you grazed it down more. It is basically pruning to stimulate more growth, without taking away all of the leaf area that makes photosynthesis and re-growth possible. We sat in the dim light of the old log bunkhouse where generations of cowboys rested their weary bones, and at least one was shot in the door. “For a lot of species, that’s good,” he continued, “but others prefer longer grass, and some need the short grass and bare ground.” At The Nature Conservancy’s Matador Ranch, they use area rancher’s cattle to manage the grasslands for a range of different grass heights. “What we graze this year is creating the habitat structure for next spring, when the birds are nesting,” he explained. They aren’t destroying the vegetation in any areas, just creating different habitat structures. For a three inch long bird, six inches of grass height can make a big difference.
Sierra Holt leans back. She has to raise her voice over the whining roar of the four wheeler she, her husband Jason, Robin and I are piled onto. We’re headed between vegetation monitoring transects on their place, slowly accumulating a healthy coating of dust from head to toe. “Well, it really depends on what you mean by ‘improved’. What your values and goals are.” She points to the small patches of hardpan that remain bare. “There is more grass now, especially since the eighties, but there is less cactus and blue grama.” Living on the ranch with her parents, Rose and Ron Stoneberg, she understands that usually “improvement” of rangelands means increased carrying capacity, heightened functioning of the mineral cycle and water cycle, higher productivity etc. Being a botanist by training, with a PhD in plant taxonomy, she leans towards a wider perspective of what “health” means for grasslands. “Depending on your values, having areas of low productivity, of a stunted mineral cycle and inefficient water cycle isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can actually be a good thing.” I’m beginning to sense a pattern here. “That’s why having different ranchers across the landscape is so important. Everyone will manage slightly differently, and that will create some heterogeneity across a region.”
I used to think I understood that we needed heterogeneity for a healthy environment, but I still perceived grazed down, grubbed out pastures hammered into the ground as a bad thing. Now, I’m not so sure. As we’ve ridden our horses across eastern Montana at a snail’s pace, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I’ve been hearing from the ranchers and ecologists we’ve met. A shift is taking place inside of me. I’m starting to feel it. When we started I half-suspected we might find some terribly overgrazed pastures, and I thought that that would be a bad thing. I’ve found that there aren’t many overgrazed pastures at all, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing if a few of them are around. I’m not too worried about overgrazing creating another Dust Bowl, either. The vast majority of ranchers understand the limitations of the land now, after generations spent figuring it out, and they will be careful not to exceed it going into the future. Their livelihoods depend on it. If anything, the biggest problem on the public land in this part of the country may be over-rest of the grass, which is arguably just as bad for grassland productivity and biodiversity as is overgrazing on a wide scale where everything is homogenous.
What I’ve slowly been learning is that overgrazing isn’t really a useful term at all in most cases. There is heavy grazing, moderate grazing, and light grazing. None are bad or negative in and of themselves. Each is good and necessary on a certain scale, in certain areas. If your management goal for one area is to have it lightly grazed and it ends up being heavily grazed, you could say that it has been overgrazed; but you can’t look at a piece of land that has been heavily grazed and say that it is overgrazed without knowing what the management goal was for that piece of land. The same applies for “over-rested” land. The ranchers around the Charles M. Russle National Wildlife Refuge are fond of saying that the grass there is all over-rested, because of the extremely low stocking rates allowed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Riding along the shores of the Fort Peck reservoir, we saw that much of the grass is thick with old dead growth from previous years, and likely has lower productivity than if it were moderately grazed. The question is, what is the management goal for that land? Is it over-rested, or lightly grazed? Perhaps more importantly, should the entire refuge, over 1 million acres in size, all be managed for the same level of grazing, or should heterogeneity be part of the refuge’s grazing management goal?
I can’t help it, but rotational grazing still gets me excited. I still get a kick out of talking with a rancher about how to increase leaf litter, use hoof action to aerate the soil, get more water to infiltrate into the ground, and reduce bare ground. But maybe not everyone should try and do that. I no longer think it is such a bad thing if a few guys still have just a couple of big pastures, where some areas inevitably get “overgrazed” and others are “over-rested.” It depends on rancher’s goals. For some it is maximum productivity. That might mean moving cattle every day on a four wheeler through three hundred and sixty five small pastures. Others might value having large pasture free of fences, using horses to move them when necessary, and having more spare time to do other things. If different people manage for different values, it is a good thing ecologically too. We heard of one neighbor who always puts off fixing his fences. “It would cut into my riding time,” he told them. “I’d have to spend all summer fixing fence instead of riding to gather up the strays.” It is all about values, I guess.
During the environmental movement of the 1960’s and 70’s many people perceived cattle as the root of the problem. “Get rid of the cattle, get rid of the overgrazing” was the common thought among many environmentalists. Even the Nature Conservancy took that stand back then, though they’ve taken the opposite stand now. Livestock numbers were drastically reduced on public lands. In some cases environmental groups fought to end all grazing on some public lands. What wasn’t appreciated at the time is that grasses and grasslands evolved with large grazers moving across the landscape. Large grazers are needed to maintain range health, as well as something to move them across it. With the Bison and Wolves that chased them gone, you need cattle and the cowboys that chase them or the grasses and grasslands would diminish. And don’t worry, they won’t overgraze it. Besides, if a few do, thats not such a bad thing.