Of Cattle and Fire 

Emotions run high as officials look at grazing's relationship to fire

This summer, Idaho is burning like never before. From the mountains of Central Idaho to the southern deserts, wildfires have claimed hundreds of thousands of acres of land in what is quickly shaping up to be the worst fire year in history.

No fire, however, has been able to compare to the 653,100-acre Murphy Complex Fire on the border between Idaho and Nevada. Not only was it the largest fire of the summer, but the massive blaze threatened two towns, the Duck Valley Indian Reservation and numerous ranches spread out across the desolate terrain.

While fire crews struggled to contain the fire, many ranchers watched as the land their livelihoods depend on was scorched. In some cases even livestock were caught by the fast-moving flames.

In the wake of the fire, everyone involved has tried to assign blame. Ranchers and residents point to the state and the Bureau of Land Management, who, in turn, point to federal regulations they say tied their hands. After a tour of the affected area, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig joined the party, placing blame on grazing regulations, stating that restrictions allowed vegetation to become overgrown, providing more fuel for wildfires.

But grazing in Idaho and the West is no light matter—especially not in the Jarbidge area, at the heart of the fire.

For years, the area has been in the middle of a legal free-for-all as conservation groups like the Western Watersheds Project have sued to limit or eliminate grazing on public lands, stating that cattle can cause irreparable harm to rangeland by spreading noxious weeds like cheatgrass, destroying the soil crust, and damaging wetlands and streams.

Just last week, after a meeting with three other Western governors, Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter declared a campaign against cheatgrass, a non-native plant that dries quickly and burns hot. The governors want to focus on replanting native grass species, which tend to be more fire-resistant.

While ideas abound, no one seems to know the answer.

"From our perspective, it's a complex matter," said Barry Rose, public affairs specialist for the BLM Idaho State Office.

The BLM manages roughly 10 million acres in Idaho, 90 percent of which is open to grazing. Grazing permittees are assigned specific allotments, which are divided into four parts. While one of these sections is not grazed for a year, livestock is shifted between the remaining three for specific time lengths.

The issue is far more complex than grazing vs. no grazing, Rose said, but added that it's a fair question to ask whether it could help reduce fire risk without negative effects on the health of rangeland.

"Rangeland management is a science and an art," Rose said. "A lot comes down to the local situation. Look at the allotments, each has its own issues ... The BLM has to apply broad principles but work with local conditions."

Rose is quick to admit that his agency doesn't have all the answers, and officials are hoping that a special science task force can give them a clearer picture.

The BLM is in the process of assembling a team of fire, wildlife and livestock ecologists to spend the next several months studying the Murphy Complex Fire. The team is made up of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Nevada Reno, University of Idaho, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Idaho Fish and Game, among others, and will be led by Mike Pellant, coordinator of the Great Basin Restorative Initiative.

Pellant points out that the initiative was started after 1.7 million acres in the Great Basin burned in 1999. Already more than 2 million acres have burned this year.

Last week, Pellant toured the Murphy Complex area by helicopter to help the team find areas to focus on. Once the team meets, it will break down the top questions, including why some areas burned worse than others, the prevalence of native plants in these areas, and the level of grazing.

"This is an issue elsewhere," Pellant said. "This isn't the first time we've had a fire and had a controversy about the level of livestock usage."

Pellant said the team will move beyond the controversy. "We're trying to bring in science and be unbiased," he said. "To look at the pros and cons of bringing in livestock and the fire and help to prevent a Murphy Complex Fire in the future elsewhere."

Pellant is realistic about what might come out of the study. "Some of the report may be that we don't know the answers to all of this," he said. "We may have some solid recommendations and identify some gaps of knowledge."

He also knows that it's impossible to separate the emotion from the issue. "Livestock grazing alone can be an emotional issue with some groups. You add fire, and it just broadens the perspective for conflict."

One group in the middle of that controversy is Western Watersheds. For the conservation group, Craig's comments are just another example of bowing to the influence of ranchers and the agriculture business in Idaho.

"Larry Craig, Gov. Otter and Sen. Crapo were using the Murphy Complex Fire as a venue for promoting benefits for their friends that are ranchers," said Jon Marvel, Watersheds executive director. "It continues to be a politically motivated effort to secure control over millions of acres of publicly held lands ... it has almost nothing to do with fire ecology."

Marvel points to work done by his own team, showing that some areas that were heavily grazed burned as well. He is requesting that his organization be involved with the BLM's emergency stabilization plan, and other restoration efforts for the area.

Sid Smith, spokesman for Craig, said the senator doesn't believe that fire can be completely eliminated, or even that it should be, but that increased grazing could keep it in check. Smith said Craig's comments came after he had met with ranchers in the area. "Once we got on the ground, that seemed to be the conclusion of a lot of the ranchers and the land users in the area that federal grazing policies had allowed a lot of excess fuel to build up," he said.

While he couldn't site any particular study, Smith said Craig believes ranchers have a vested interest in taking care of the land from which they earn a living. As to the charge of political motivation, Smith said Craig was elected to represent the people of Idaho, many of which are ranchers. "Some could interpret that as a political move," he said.

Smith said it isn't an issue about the state BLM office, but with federal policy. "People on the ground are usually doing the best they can, and a lot of times, policy gets in the way," he said.

For Rose, big plans are one thing, but actual work on the ground and an understanding of the issue have to take priority. He hopes the science task force can shed some light on the topic.

"Can grazing be used for fire management? Maybe they can coexist," he said. "It's a big question and the answer isn't obvious."

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