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Ranchers return to Range

Idaho and Oregon Ranchers Return to Range

Murphy— Owyhee County cattle ranchers have made an epic return to the range.

Cattlemen were burned off the land two years ago when the Soda Fire destroyed more than 270,000 acres of prime rangeland. The fire stretched from Owyhee County to Oregon.

Because of the 2015 fire, more than 40 ranchers and cattlemen were forced to find grazing land in Nevada and as far east as Burley but in September they started trucking their cattle back to the range.

Rancher Ted Blackstock says his operation was able to return cattle to three-quarters of his allotments.

“We were happy to get back on the range. In fact, we were able to use some of the allotments this fall. But there’s still a few allotments this spring that we will not be able to use, but the majority of them we can use and after trucking cattle, we hope to cut those costs,” said Blackstock.

Cindy Fritz of the BLM says rehabilitation of the range came back faster than expected.

“Our seeding did well this past spring and we’re seeing much better results than what we expected. Everything worked and we had favorable responses from our treatments and I’m pleased for the most part,” said Fritz.

The Soda scorched 84 pastures on 40 different grazing allotments. The BLM says the majority of the devastation occurred in Owyhee County southwest of Boise, but it burned all the way to Jordan Valley area in Eastern Oregon.

After the fire, the BLM told ranchers they couldn’t graze cattle on their allotments for at least two growing seasons. Initially, that was an optimistic estimate considering the threat of erosion.

“We were devastated when they said we’d be off the range for years. But the BLM found that the range naturally came back. The had a funny way of classifying it, they said on some of the allotments that they would never achieve their standards but they just opened them,” said Blackstock.

Grazing started on 48 affected pastures six weeks ago and the BLM range managers expect to make decisions on the remaining 36 pastures after the first of the year.

“It’s been expensive for us because it wiped out all of our feed for the last part of 2015 and then all of ‘16 and most of this year. It cost us a lot buying all that feed,” said Blackstock who said he’ll now be able to use some of the winter range initially burned in the fire.

The lightning-caused fire rolled rapidly across the range destroying everything in its path. “There were no unburned islands or in this fire, everything was burned,” he said. “Whatever it went across, it burned 100 percent of it and it killed hundreds of cattle,” said Blackstock.

Owyhee rancher Ed Wisley was burned off the range, he says the fire burned hot because range managers let the fuels buildup for generations.

“They kept taking cattle off the range and then the sheep and it resulted in all of this organic overburden. The duff was a foot deep under the sagebrush. There was nothing but fuel out there, add a strong wind and some lightning and you lose a hundred thousand acres real quick,” said Wisely.

The BLM has studied the fire and fuel loads on the range and developed a restoration plan that they hope will make the range more resistant to catastrophic fires in the future.

Instead of keeping cattle off the range, they plan on using them across 30 miles of targeted grazing on the once blackened range. The grazing fuel breaks will start this spring, Land managers will work with ranchers in a grazing program designed to break up the vast sea of grass and underbrush.

“We started this targeted grazing program that the BLM fire guys suggested and its starting to work for us. I think we can show results as the range opens up and we can cut down on fuels and disastrous fires. We can control the long runs, the mile long runs of fires by controlling the underbrush fuels in the controlled grazing breaks,” said Blackstock.

Another element is the use of county and dirt roads. The BLM wants additional grazing breaks along key roads on the range. Each road will have 200-foot grazed buffers on each side of the road. Under the plan, the cattle will graze the grass down to a 2-inch stubble height.

The BLM thinks the breaks will keep fires from making runs and will slow the explosive spread of fires. The agency started using this tactic a few years ago in the West, but not on this massive scale and not without fencing.

The new grazing plan that incorporates the fuel breaks are part of the BLM’s innovative plan to protect the millions of dollars of restoration work done over the past two years. There was a time when cattle were considered a problem on the range, now according to ranchers, they're a part of the wildfire solution.