THE TARGETED GRAZING SCAM

The Idaho BLM is implementing what is sometimes called “targeted grazing” with livestock in an effort to reduce large wildfires. The theory is that if livestock graze enough of the “fuel”, then large wildfires like the 600,000 Murphy Complex or the Soda Fire which burned across southern Idaho in recent years could be more easily controlled.

On the surface, this strategy seems plausible. Less fuel should mean fewer large fires. But here’s the rest of the story.

First, nearly all the acreage burned annually is the result of a very few large fire complexes. For instance, in the years 1980-2003 there were 56,320 fires in the Rocky Mountain states. Of those fires, 96% of the blazes were responsible for charring only 4% of the total acreage burned. By contrast, 0.1% of the fires—less than 50—were responsible for over half the acreage burned during that time.

Therefore, the fires that are the biggest threat to both human communities and the ones fuel treatments like targeted grazing seek to control are those very infrequent but large blazes.

However, large blazes occur during what are categorized as “extreme fire weather” conditions. These conditions include serious drought, low humidity, high temperatures and most importantly high winds.

The reason winds are key to fire spread is because they “fan” the flames,  and toss embers 1-4 miles ahead of the fire front, making any attempt at containment impossible.  A narrow strip of targeted heavily grazed rangelands is not going to stop a wind-driven blaze since burning embers will easily be blown over any fuel reduction.

Numerous studies of large fires have acknowledged this, including A University of Idaho study, following the 2007 Murphy Complex fire, that burned more than 600,000 acres, which found “much of the Murphy Wildland Fire Complex burned under extreme fuel and weather conditions that likely overshadowed livestock grazing as a factor influencing fire extent and fuel consumption in many areas where these fires burned,”

Another widely cited study done in Arizona heralding the benefits of “targeted grazing” on wildfire reduction, concluded that while fuel removal by livestock might reduce fire spread under low and moderate fire weather conditions the situations where it might be beneficial were limited to small areas, and under less than extreme fire weather.

The authors concluded “Targeted grazing treatment did influence fire behavior in grass/shrub communities, but its effects were limited. Although it is a promising tool for altering fire behavior, targeted grazing will be most effective in grass communities under moderate weather conditions.”

In other words, targeted grazing is limited in affecting fire behavior and outcome under the extreme fire conditions agencies like the BLM seek to control.

To have any effect on fuels, the areas targeted for grazing need to be scalped down to stubble. This removes the hiding cover for wildlife, results in soil compaction, serious impacts on native grasses due to “overgrazing” and destruction of soil crusts.

Loss of soil crusts is important because this facilitates the establishment of cheatgrass, a highly flammable annual. So, in effect, target grazing often creates a more flammable zone of cheatgrass.

Another issue is the very low probability that a fire will encounter any fuel break. Because the conditions under which a blaze is transformed into a large, unstoppable wildfire are so rare, most fuel breaks never encounter a fire, making their implementation a waste of time and money.

Target grazing is like “investing” in the lottery. Yes, you can always point to someone who is a winner, but most people buying lottery tickets are just throwing away their money. It’s the same with “fuel treatments” like targeted grazing.

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About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

5 Responses to Targeted Grazing Scam

  1. avatar Dave Nielsen says:

    G. W. I suggest that you and your associates buy ranch land and manage it as you like. The Public Lands are owned by the public and should be managed to benefit the public. Managing public lands should be the responsibility of State and County Governments and not the Federal Government!

    • avatar Nancy says:

      Curious Dave, where do you live and why do you feel public lands should be managed by state and county governments?

  2. avatar Nickolas says:

    Regardless of who manages it we need to protect our rivers and wildlife. We are losing biodiversity. Hard to see that a change of government management would change anything for the better in this case.

  3. avatar Maggie Frazier says:

    Might possibly be that rather than moving more domestic livestock into these areas, wildlife – ACTUAL wild animals – could be the answer! Rather than rounding up wild horses & warehousing them – they could be not only doing us (taxpayers) a favor, but living free again – not living in corrals & feedlots. Also could be a good idea to prevent Wildlife Services continued war on predators! Certainly more common sense than the BLM’s solution – what is it they call it? “Humane Euthanasia”??? The true term would be slaughter!

  4. avatar Bruce Bowen says:

    This article is pretty much right on. The BLM is probably doing this just to appease grazers. The reader should keep in mind that grazing fees on BLM managed lands are ridiculously low ($1.41/AUM). Here in Montana the going rate on private land is $24.50/AUM. The BLM will never be able to take in enough from federal grazing fees to pay for it’s grazing program, which is just what the republican controlled congress likes. Tax payers have to make up the difference.

    Take it from an old grizzled biologist like myself who has walked over many miles of public land-there should be no livestock grazing on public land. Period.

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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."

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