Photo Credit: Rangeland in Lemhi County, Idaho. Photo by Katie Wollstein.

Editor’s Note: FAC Net staff would like to acknowledge the many people and their communities experiencing losses and severe wildfire and smoke impacts. We will continue to publish content written by wildfire adaptation practitioners and researchers to highlight stories of resilience and lift up their voices. Our thoughts and heartfelt support go out to everyone impacted by wildfires at this time.

Katie Wollstein is a research assistant from the Policy Analysis Group and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Idaho. Katie has been working for the past five years on researching the social and policy aspects of rangeland management in the West talking with ranchers, land managers and policy makers. In this blog she shares a bit about what she’s learned.

“When the ranch burned, we had the dozer right there, a full-service engine was there, the rural fire department was there, and the helicopters were flying over.”

The cattle rancher I was visiting in Elmore County, Idaho, gestures around us and continues, “The hay was on fire and it was spotting across the road. The wind was blowing 30 or 40 miles an hour and I was frantically trying to put out spots around the house.”

Remembering, he trails off and he looks away, unable to go on.

Many Western ranches in the U.S. rely on a network of public and private lands to meet their operations’ annual forage needs. Federal grazing allotments are often closed for two years following a fire, so when a fire comes through and burns a pasture or hayfield used for winter feed, some ranchers must rethink their operations. Will they have enough forage to feed their livestock for the next few years? Beyond the loss of homes, livestock and infrastructure, this question is a heavy one following rangeland fires where ranching is a predominant land use. In conversations with Idaho ranchers over the last few years, I have noticed that while many have accepted frequent fires as part of life on the range, this acceptance has done nothing to cool other frustrations present long before the start of fire season.

Cattle grazing on rangeland

Cattle graze on BLM allotments in the Twin Falls District in Idaho. Photo credit: Andrew Donaldson, Agricultural Research Service.

Grazing to manage fire?

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) undertakes mechanical thinning, prescribed burning and chemical treatments to manage fuels on their lands. However, due to the vastness and mixed ownership of Idaho’s rangelands, these treatments alone usually cannot influence fire behavior at a landscape scale. With livestock grazing authorized on 155 million acres of BLM lands in the West, strategic grazing is a relatively widespread but currently underutilized tool for reducing fuel loads under some conditions. But ranchers can’t simply graze allotments to reduce fires; there are rules for livestock grazing on BLM land along with reasonable concerns about resource degradation. With their livelihoods intertwined with the health and productivity of the landscape, many ranchers feel the BLM is missing an opportunity to have them help manage the size and intensity of rangeland fires before they even ignite.

In Idaho, the BLM issues nearly 1,900 livestock grazing permits covering 12 million acres. These permits include terms and conditions such as when and how intensively permittees may graze. However, most permits do not include any flexibility to respond to year-to-year changes in environmental conditions. For example, a particularly wet spring may yield a lot more grass than a typical growing season, but unless terms are specified on the grazing permit, ranchers must leave the excess grass on their allotments. Some ranchers I’ve spoken with with about this issue cringe and liken the allotments to tinder boxes. Most BLM Rangeland Management Specialists I’ve spoken with agree, telling me they would love to be flexible in unexpectedly productive years so ranchers could utilize the extra forage and reduce fuels. However, responding in real-time to on-the-ground conditions is nearly impossible for BLM staff because authorizing activities outside the terms and conditions of a grazing permit requires analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—often a slow process that may not be complete until the rancher has already moved on to another pasture.

What is Outcome-Based Management?

Recognizing these difficulties, the BLM has recently been exploring how to better respond to annual variability. In 2018, the agency began piloting Outcome-Based Grazing Authorizations (OBGAs) and issued guidance to field offices on flexibility in grazing management.

Termed “Outcome-Based Management” (OBM), OBM was conceptualized as a collaborative approach for BLM staff and resource users, like ranchers, to address place-specific challenges and identify desired outcomes and activities to achieve those outcomes. In Idaho, OBM could be useful for addressing annual grass invasion on an allotment, which heightens wildfire risk and condenses the natural fire return interval. For example, in an OBM approach, the BLM manager and rancher identify a mutually-agreed-upon goal of reducing wildfire risk and increasing the more fire-resistant perennial bunchgrasses. The BLM then authorizes the permittee to graze in early spring, before bunchgrasses grow, to reduce annual grass abundance.

Rangeland with grass and mountains in the background

BLM allotment dominated by medusahead, an invasive annual grass. The grass creates a continuous layer of fine fuels that contributes to hotter and fast-moving fires. Photo credit: Katherine Wollstein.

What does it take to make Outcome-based Management work?

Working within policies instead of around them. I’ve talked with ranchers, BLM staff, and other resource management agencies to get a sense of the policies and social factors that might enable or constrain outcome-based approaches to managing fire risk on Idaho’s rangelands. Although folks were quick to point to federal policies like NEPA and ongoing lawsuits by environmental groups as major barriers to OBM, I found that some field offices are creatively working within existing policies to get outcome-based approaches and other innovations on the ground. For example, some field offices have authorized targeted grazing as a biological control measure so that livestock grazing may be used in specific instances to manage fuels.

Relationships are key. Field offices with low staff turnover, especially among Rangeland Management Specialists with whom ranchers most closely work, benefit from many years of BLM staff’s observations and experiences with specific allotments. Moreover, staff who have worked in a field area for many years often build relationships with ranchers, in some cases co-developing ideas to better respond to specific resource management challenges on allotments.

Leadership that is supportive of experimentation. Leadership within field offices is also important; some Field Managers are more inclined than others to try new approaches that may draw attention of litigious groups.

Shared vision for rangeland management. Unsurprisingly, beliefs about the usefulness of grazing as a tool in managing fire risk is also a consideration and potential limitation to employing outcome-based approaches. For example, in one Field Area with expanses of flammable annual grasses, many ranchers I talked to viewed the required post-fire allotment closures as the BLM allowing the annuals to encroach. In contrast, many BLM Field Area staff cite concerns that cattle can be detrimental to the bunchgrass seedlings that are applied after fires and therefore that determines their allotment closure decisions, not annual encroachment considerations.

Lessons from OBM for Fire Adaptation

The Elmore County rancher reflects, “You have to accept in your mind that you’re going to burn. And if you can get your head around that, then you can try to lessen the impact when a fire does come through…I’m managing for a resource to hopefully heighten the strength and viability of the natives that are there and slow the aggression of the annuals. I hope to do that with livestock. The other thing I hope to do is survive as a viable operation. I have to do that. I can’t just disappear.”

Ranchers live with fire and have an acute awareness of fire risk to their communities; loss of working ranches have cascading social and economic consequences. The OBM effort is new and experimental; opportunities for learning, reflection and knowledge-sharing will be vital for meaningfully changing how we manage public rangelands in the West. Given that, OBM offers a potential avenue for community adaptation to fire by providing a flexible setting in which private citizens can partner with public land managers to work across land ownership boundaries in support of landscape-scale actions that promote healthy, resilient rangelands.

Ranchers are some of the best positioned resources to help leverage pre-fire mitigation efforts and fire response. They are invested in protecting rangelands from catastrophic fires, their livelihood depends on it. By working within existing policies and with shared vision for management, OBM offers a venue for rancher and agency collaboration to address fire risk in rangeland communities.

Please note that comments are manually approved by a website administrator and may take some time to appear.