Study and photos show terrific regrowth of riparian vegetation-

Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in southern Oregon had been grazed by cattle for many decades when in 1991 the cattle were removed.

The refuge had been created in 1936 as a “last stronghold” for remnant pronghorn antelope. Since that time wildlife conservation has grown more general. Now there are more than 300 species of wildlife present on the 280,000 acres federal refuge.

The biggest change in management came in 1991 when the cattle from private owners were removed from the refuge. What was a maze of fences in part of the refuge were also torn down by volunteers. Now 20+ years later there has been a remarkable transformation, a restoration of the riparian areas. Riparian recovery is especially vital in this semi-arid part of Oregon. Other than the fence removal, this was a passive restoration.

Now Drs. Jonathan Batchelor and William Ripple of Oregon State University are the lead authors of a study showing the fruitful recovery.

Their team compared 64 pairs of repeat photographs taken in 2013 and 2014 with those taken before cattle were removed in 1991 on Hart Mountain. They found promising results showing that passive restoration works as a way to rehabilitate a landscape after decades of cattle grazing. There was an increase in woody riparian vegetation, and most notably a fourfold increase in willow and rushes. Patches of bare soil decreased to a tenth of what they were while livestock were still kept in the area. Exposed stream channels decreased dramatically in 63 percent of the cases, as did channel widths (64 percent) and the number of eroding banks (73 percent).

Efforts by ranch interests to attribute this to favorable changes in weather fail, according to the authors, because the years prior to 1991 had less drought than the years since.

Here is the news release about the study. Most interesting to look at is probably the rephotography.

Many of the same authors also produced a study in 2014 on the effects of livestock grazing on the refuge and its removal on quaking aspen. PDF. Long-term livestock grazing alters aspen age structure in the northwestern Great Basin.  They concluded that the grazing was the most important factor in a century of declining aspen recruitment.  Drought and temperature were found to have little influence.

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News Release

Simply removing cattle may be all that is required to restore many degraded riverside areas in the American West, although this can vary and is dependent on local conditions. These are the findings of Jonathan Batchelor and William Ripple of Oregon State University in the US, lead authors of a study published in Springer’s journal Environmental Management. Their team analyzed photographs to gauge how the removal of grazing cattle more than two decades ago from Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in eastern Oregon has helped to rehabilitate the natural environment.

Livestock ranching is ubiquitous across much of the western US. Depending on the density of livestock and grazing duration, it can have numerous impacts on the environment – from changes in the soil characteristics to the plants and animals to be found in an area. Riparian, or riverside, vegetation is particularly susceptible to the effects of grazing. This is because cattle tend to congregate around rivers for easy access to water, lush forage and favorable terrain. Their presence can cause woody plants to decrease, riverbanks to erode, streams to become shallower and wider, and a change to take place in the quality and temperature of the water.

It is not only important to note the effects of grazing on the environment, but also to know what happens when cattle are no longer present in a particular ecosystem. To this end, Batchelor, Ripple and their colleagues turned to Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, from which all cattle were removed in 1991 after decades of grazing. This was done as part of management plans to restore the environment.

Their team compared 64 pairs of repeat photographs taken in 2013 and 2014 with those taken before cattle were removed in 1991 on Hart Mountain. They found promising results showing that passive restoration works as a way to rehabilitate a landscape after decades of cattle grazing. There was an increase in woody riparian vegetation, and most notably a fourfold increase in willow and rushes. Patches of bare soil decreased to a tenth of what they were while livestock were still kept in the area. Exposed stream channels decreased dramatically in 63 percent of the cases, as did channel widths (64 percent) and the number of eroding banks (73 percent).

The resurgence of riparian vegetation was not ascribed to climate changes, given that the years prior to 1991 were generally less drought-stressed than the years following the removal of the cattle.

“The study at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge shows just how much a system can change within only two decades of cattle removal,” said Ripple.

Batchelor added, “The removal of cattle can result in dramatic changes in riparian vegetation, even in semi-arid landscapes and without active restoration treatments.”

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Reference: Batchelor, J.L., Ripple, W.J., et al (2015). Restoration of Riparian Areas Following the Removal of Cattle in the Northwestern Great Basin, Environmental Management. DOI 10.1007/s00267-014-0436-2

For more photos showing the restoration of Hart Mountain’s riparian systems, see:http://www.cof.orst.edu/hart/index.html

 

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About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University with specialties in natural resource politics, public opinion, interest groups, political parties, voting and elections. Aside from academic publications, he is author or co-author of three hiking/backpacking guides.

12 Responses to Hart Mountain refuge miracle: recovering cow-free for two decades

  1. avatar don says:

    Last Aug. I was at the Sheldon NWR just south of Hart in Nevada. There I spoke to an individual with the Fish & Wildlife Service and after a conversation regarding the Last Supper Cave in Sheldon I asked him when the agency was going to get rid of the feral houses and burros and he smile telling me that during that month the agency had removed all horses and all but a few burros, the rest to be rounded up in the week ahead. He then indicated that along with cow removal years prior, the refuge was now finally on par with Hart.

  2. avatar Gary Humbard says:

    Two important factors need to be mentioned. First, I believe the livestock were removed using contracts to purchase existing grazing permits by the The Conservation Fund (Conservation Organization). These contracts are perpetual in nature so livestock will never return to Hart Mountain. Organizations like The Conservation Fund spend money on the ground to protect and enhance wildlife and its habitat and without their work, livestock would probably still be there.

    Second, BLM livestock grazing standards have been significantly upgraded since the early 1990’s. These changes have occurred in part because of lawsuits and the evolution of science and pressure from conservationists. The photos are a statement to how fragile areas can be passively restored and can you imagine how the landscape would look without the current drought.

  3. avatar Jon Way says:

    Not being a rangeland specialist by any means, I read the scientific paper and it is quite amazing how natural recovery happened just by removing cattle and waiting with no active recovery efforts initiated…

  4. avatar Gary Humbard says:

    Debra K: Thank you for correcting my prior post.

    Larry and Ralph: The attached link to The Conservation Fund states that the “Fund” is able to acquire and permanently retire grazing permits from willing ranchers. The exact legal description may not be “retired” but the end result is that livestock can be perpetually removed.

    http://www.conservationfund.org/projects/a-bright-future-for-the-desert-tortoise

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      Gary Humbard,

      Yes there are ways of effectively achieving permit retirement even though federal rules do not allow retirement by purchase.
      1. In some areas legislation has waived the rules about purchase, e.g., the Owyhee Canyonlands.
      2. In others conservation groups work to get the agencies to modify their land use or management plans to close grazing allotments that are currently vacant or would be vacant if the permittees took their money and removed their cattle. Examples are the numerous buyouts in the Greater Yellowstone. Here is information on one of them — the NWF buyout of Blackrock-Spread Creek near Jackson Hole. http://tinyurl.com/ods6gvw

      “Following six years of grizzly bear/livestock conflict, and four years of grazing nonuse, the Walton Ranch Company approached the Forest Service and requested that the allotment be closed to grazing. After evaluation of the direction contained in the Bridger-Teton National Forest plan, the Forest Service closed most of the area to livestock grazing.” [boldface mine]

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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