Cows and conservation: a round-up of speakers to discuss new ideas on ranching

August 09, 2000

To some observers, the American cowboy seems like an endangered species. Threatened by suburban sprawl, regulated by an increasing number of federal laws, and often outcompeted economically by large agribusiness corporations, cowboys are sometimes described as little more than artifacts of the Old Wild West. But many ranchers say this just isn't the case; they are adapting to change with the times, and want to teach others how the mix of cattle and conservation can be a win-win situation. On Thursday, August 10, the Ecological Society of America will host a symposium as a part of the Society's Annual Meeting in Utah entitled "Cows and Conservation." This symposium will examine some of the ways in which ranchers are stepping forward to take an active role in the emerging New West.

The session will begin with Bob Budd, from the Red Canyon Ranch in Landen, Wyoming, who will discuss "Cattle and Biodiversity in Southern Wind River Landscape." Ranching, which continues to be a prominent land-use in the western United States, may have either neutral, positive, or negative effects on natural resources. In many landscapes grazing and fire are natural processes that can shape the land's ecological potential, Budd believes. Surprisingly, livestock can be used to create habitat, or manipulate habitats in a way that proves favorable to some native species. Budd will examine how a combination of grazing, fire and vegetative "rest" may lead to more dynamic and more diverse ecosystems. The loss of ranching can lead to the conversion of highly valuable riparian and weltand habitats into homogeneous landscapes of invasive species or housing developments, Budd asserts, and incentives which encourage ranchers to protect endangered or threatened species need to be tested. He will also advocate a management style which is inclusive of multiple ecological values.

The second speaker in the session, Mike Wolfe from Utah State University, will discuss the exemplary techniques of progressive management used on a privately owned ranch during his talk entitled, "Managing for Cattle and Wildlife on Deseret Ranch." The ranch, located in the sagebrush ecosystem of northeastern Utah, employs a progressive approach to using domestic and native animals for economic return while maintaining land health and biological diversity. The ranch is home to some 6,000 to 7,500 cows, but their grazing is contained in large pastures for short-duration, high-intensity periods, timed to occur during the period of active growth of herbaceous plants. The grazing periods of both summering elk and domestic sheep are also managed along sensitive drainage areas, allowing the vegetation to "rest" occasionally. An increase in groundcover, improved quality of riparian systems, and substantial increases in cattle stock have all been achieved through these and other management practices.

In an attempt to ensure sustainable cattle ranching, the Malpai Borderlands Group located at the juncture of Mexico, New Mexico, and Arizona, is committed to restoring and maintaining the health of the borderlands region. Bill McDonald, Executive Director and founding member of the Malpai Borderlands Group, will be speaking on "Cattle, Conservation, and Cooperation -- Building the Radical Center." McDonald is the only rancher ever invited to speak before the National Academy of Sciences, and was the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant. His organization is interested in maintaining the open spaces and the natural ecosystems that support this cattle ranching community. Often land values, tax laws, and population pressures prevent ranchers from operating in a manner that perpetuates stewardship of the land. Thus, the Malpai Borderlands Group is dedicated to overcoming these pressures and focusing upon planning and managing the borderlands on an ecosystem basis.

The fourth speaker, Scott Kronberg from South Dakota State University, will examine the dedicated efforts of one cattle ranching family to restore woodlands and grasslands despoiled by homesteading in the early 1900's. For over fifty years the Mortenson family has implemented management practices which have enabled the native woodland to return to the streams on their western South Dakota ranch. These practices include changing grazing methods, constructing sediment storage dams, and allowing the beavers to return. The sheltering effect provided by the woodland has benefitted spring calves and increased overall ranch profitability. Kronberg's case study, "Cattle and Trees at Home on the Range: The Mortenson Ranch Story," demonstrates the benefits of cooperative efforts between ecologists and ranchers.

Bob Lee, a rancher from Judith Gap, Montana, will discuss using cattle to manage natural resources in his presentation entitled, "It Takes Ten Dimes to Make a Dollar and Remain Ecologically Sound." Lee believes that ranchers are caretakers of our greatest natural resource, the rangelands. As a part of his own stewardship efforts, he uses innovative watering systems, pasture rotation programs, and monitoring. Lee stresses the importance of ranchers working within and as part of their environment, rather than working against it. The Lee Family was lauded in 1997 for their management ideas by the National Cattleman's Beef Association when they received the National Environmental Stewardship Award.

Wendell Gilgert from the Natural Resource Conservation Service's Wildlife Management Habitat Institute will examine how rancher concerns in one California watershed led to the formation of an innovative new training program on progressive management for ranchers during his presentation entitled, "Upper Stony Creek -- A Thoughtful Approach." Decades of season-long, continuous livestock grazing along the rangeland sandwiched between the western rim of the Sacramento Valley and the Mendocino Coast Range Mountains had caused serious degradation and decline. A collaborative planning process which included ranchers, local, state and federal government officials and the Natural Resources Conservation Service Watershed Planning staff led to the creation of a Watershed Project Plan in 1989. As a part of the plan, ranchers are provided incentives to take measures which will help defray or control the potential negative effects of livestock and grazing. The key to this program has been its goal of treating the cause rather than the symptoms of the land's decline. Now eleven years old, the program includes classes, demonstrations and workshops which emphasize management practices aimed at maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Gilbert will explore exciting new evidence that the land along Stony Creek is recovering and in some areas, beginning to flourish.

Noted author and editor Paul Starrs will be the session's final speaker, asking the rhetorical question "SAbsent Western Ranching, What?" Visiting a controversy which has been in the news numerous times during the last year, Starrs will compare the cost of ranching on public land with the those of ranching on private lands. Highlighting themes from his new book, Let the Cowboy Ride: Cattle Ranching in the American West, Starrs will discuss the legacy of ranching and range lands, and give consideration to the future of ranching in America.
-end-
This session is sponsored by the National Cattleman's Beef Association, The Nature Conservancy, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service's Wildlife Management Habitat Institute. For more information about this and all other ESA Annual Meeting activities, visit the meetings section of the ESA website at http://esa.sdsc.edu/snowbird2000.htm. The theme of the meeting is "Communicating and Advancing Ecology," and over 3000 scientists are expected to attend.

The Ecological Society of America (ESA) is a scientific, non-profit, 7500-member organization founded in 1915. Through ESA reports, journals, membership research, and expert testimony to Congress, ESA seeks to promote the responsible application of ecological data and principles to the solution of environmental problems. ESA publishes three scientific, peer-reviewed journals: Ecology, Ecological Applications and Ecological Monographs. Information about the Society and its activities are published in the Society's newsletter, NewSource, and in the quarterly Bulletin.

Ecological Society of America

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