A series of workshops being conducted in Oregon are bringing renewed focus to rangeland monitoring, pulling ranchers and agency personnel together on the subject, and providing ranchers the opportunity to take an active role in monitoring the health of both public and private rangelands.
Offered by the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association (OCA), the two- to four-hour workshops are designed to provide ranchers with the knowledge and tools necessary to measure range utilization and other factors using techniques that mimic those used by the Forest Service, the BLM, and other agencies involved in grazing management.
The purpose, says OCA Science Advisor Pat Larson, is to allow Oregon ranchers and agency personnel to collect data in a standardized way using simple methods. The lack of standardized measurements has long been a source of potential discord between agencies and permittees.
“Everybody was out monitoring, and using all different kinds of methods,” she explains. “If you went out and took measurements based on the standard way of doing things, you’d never match up with (the agencies), so there was always this argument going on.”
Frustrated by the lack of a standard system, OCA began meeting with agency personnel to find a solution that would work for all parties. “We wanted something that was objective, accurate, and we wanted it to have some credibility no matter who does it,” says Larson. Both Forest Service and BLM officials proved highly supportive of the idea. “We finally got everybody into a room and came up with some ideas,” says Larson. “The Forest Service and BLM helped put a manual together, and we’ve got a guide now that explains how to take measurements, which ones we’ll use, and which ones we won’t.”
The guide forms the core of the workshops now offered by OCA. According to Larson, the first two hours of each workshop is devoted to training the attendees to measure stubble height, a key measurement that can be used to estimate the percent of available forage that has already been utilized on a given site.
Maximum utilization level is a primary way to determine when livestock must be removed from an allotment. While measuring the height of grass may seem straightforward, Larson explains that assessing it correctly over a large area takes some training.
“It sounds easy until you try to do it,” she says. “But we’ve got two methods that are very accurate, and we’re teaching our ranchers how to do them. They’re quick, they’re repeatable, and down the road, if you collect your data and keep it, it could be statistically tested to make comparisons.”
“These are simple methods,” she adds. “But they are very scientifically sound, and they certainly give the rancher and the agency a place to start from.”
Attendees to the workshops also receive copies of the manual, as well as several of the tools necessary to conduct the monitoring.
While attendance has varied from one location to the next across the state, the response from those who have attended has been very positive, according to Larson. “It’s been wonderful meeting all the people in all these areas, and how hungry they seem to be for this information,” she says.
In Wallowa County, where attendance has been the highest, County Extension Agent John Williams says that the positive response from attending ranchers was evident.
“Once the program was all done, we couldn’t get them to go home,” said Williams. “They were engaged and they were talking. They were talking among themselves, with the OCA folks, and with the agency people. To me, it was a great day.”
Bringing ranchers and agency personnel together has been another benefit of the workshops, according to Larson, who points out that agency support for the program has been strong.
“We’ve had tremendous support from the regional level all the way down,” she said, support that includes allowing a permit holder to take an active role in monitoring an allotment. Under a cooperative agreement with the agencies, a trained rancher can submit monitoring data that will be considered by the agency. “At the end of the grazing season, you can hand your data sheets in to the agency, and it goes in the file and counts for something,” explains Larson.
Additionally, being trained in the same techniques puts ranchers and agency personnel on clear path towards a common goal. “The biggest problem in any agency is being able to speak both lan guages,” says Nick Stiner, of the Malheur National Forest. “To understand what the permittees are saying, and to be able to explain to them what the Forest Service, the BLM, whoever it is, wants. Having a monitoring guide like this, where we’re all trained at the same time, bridges that gap.”
Larson and Williams also point out that the benefits of a solid range monitoring program are not limited to permit holders on public lands; it can pay dividends on private land, as well.
“It doesn’t make any difference what land it is on; it’s good management,” says Williams.
Besides the stubble height measurements, the workshops are being tailored to suit the additional needs of ranchers in the areas where they are being conducted.
“When we get a call, we can do whatever (the ranchers) want,” says Larson. In Wallowa County, Williams added a photo monitoring segment to the program.
Training in the collection of water quality and other riparian sampling techniques is also available, something that Larson says may become increasingly important in coming years.
Under Oregon law, the state’s Department of Agriculture is required to investigate complaints lodged against landowners with regard to water quality, which may be filed by anyone, for essentially any reason.
“If you have a road near you that the public uses, anybody can file a complaint against you, and the state has to investigate,” says Larson. “This puts the landowner on the defensive right away. If, however, you went out and actually measured the site within the last year or so, and were able to repeat that, you can probably overcome that complaint pretty fast.”
In an era of increased scrutiny, Larson points out that a scientifically-based monitoring program can provide a solid defense for ranchers in disputes.
“Times have changed,” she says. “Whether on a permit or on private property, a rancher needs a couple years’ worth of data stashed away. They don’t have to do it every day, but at least a couple of times per year. Put that information in a file, and you’re set to go. This can be a great way to cover yourself.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent