Documenting Bovine Degradation in Wilderness: A Call for Volunteers From the Project to Reform Public Land Grazing in Northern California

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Thursday, June 23rd, 2016
Project Volunteer Luke Ruediger surveys bank trampling and riparian shade reduction on the Silver Fork of Elliot Creek within the Siskiyou Ridge portion of Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest.

Project Volunteer Luke Ruediger surveys bank trampling and riparian shade reduction on the Silver Fork of Elliot Creek within the Siskiyou Ridge portion of Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest.

By Felice Pace, Project Coordinator

This summer and fall volunteers with the Project to Reform Public Land Grazing in Northern California will again be in the field monitoring conditions on public lands where cattle and other livestock are permitted to graze. Our task will be to document with photos, measurements and field notes how the cattle are managed and the resulting degradation of water quality, riparian and wetland habitats.

This will be the seventh year Project volunteers are in the field. So far we’ve monitories 17 grazing allotments on three national forests; many allotments we’ve monitored multiple times and in multiple years. Here’s what we’ve found: District Rangers, the Forest Service officials responsible for assuring that grazing on their districts is done responsibly, are not getting the job done. Those officials are allowing livestock owners to place cattle on public land and leave them there, without management, until the snow flies and it is necessary to bring the cattle to lower elevation. That results in degradation of water quality, riparian areas and wetlands, and that is what the Project aims to stop.

Project monitors record their observations and document the destruction photographically. We then use those observations and findings in monitoring and other reports and presentations which we provide to agency grazing managers and regulatory agencies. Project sponsor organizations like EPIC and me as the Project’s coordinator use that documentation to advocate specific management changes on the allotments volunteers monitored and for systemic grazing management reforms. We especially target the State Water Resources Control Board and Regional Water Boards which are responsible for assuring that public land management complies with the Clean Water Act. We want the State and Regional Water Boards to tighten Clean Water Act requirements for public land grazing, including requiring modern rest-rotation grazing management systems, regular herding and other best management practices.

Our ability to monitor public land grazing is limited by the number of volunteers working with the project. That’s where you could play a role. If you are familiar with the wilderness and able to walk off trail in the mountains you could monitor with the Project; or you could train with the Project and monitor grazing on your own and with friends. Often national forest grazing takes place in spectacular wilderness environments. And one can usually find a quite place, away from the destructive bovines, to camp. Many grazing allotments can be monitored via day trips from wilderness trailheads.

Monitors are especially needed for the Mendocino, Six Rivers, Lassen and Modoc National Forests and for BLM administered public lands. The more places we can document poor grazing management resulting in water quality, riparian and wetland degradation, the better the case we can make that systemic reform of public land grazing management is needed.

The destruction

When cattle are left unmanaged for months in mountains where the headwaters are replete with springs, wet meadows and willow wetlands, the result is a disaster. The photos below tell the tail to some extent, but photos can capture the full impact.

Season-long grazing without herding results in the elimination of dry meadow bunchgrasses and the trampling of springs. 

Streambanks are trampled, riparian vegetation destroyed and headwater willow wetlands are fragmented and dried out

Neglectful management of national forest grazing violates water quality standards, including EPA limits on nutrient pollution and the North Coast Regional Water Board’s limits on fecal bacteria pollution. Water quality monitoring by The Quartz Valley Indian Reservation, a federal tribe, citizen groups and the Forest Service itself show that wilderness streams which should provide the highest quality waters are instead being fouled at the source.

Wilderness headwater basins that should produce critical late summer and fall baseflow in salmon streams below are being relentlessly trampled year after year by cattle weighing up to1200 pounds. When wet headwater meadows are degraded in that way they dry out; their ability to store water for slow release during the dry season is damaged and, if the trampling continues long enough, destroyed. As hydrologist Jonathan Rhodes and Fish Ecologist Chris Frissell point out in a recent report, one of the three best ways to restore California’s dry season water supply would be to eliminate grazing from Northern California’s national forest headwater basins.

Our Strategy

Our Project does not insist that grazing be eliminated from Northern California public lands. But we do insist that those who enjoy the privilege of grazing their livestock on the people’s land manage those livestock responsibly.

We want Forest Service and other public land grazing managers to require modern grazing strategies like rest rotation grazing and best practices like regular herding and seasonal fencing to keep livestock out of wetlands, prevent them from trashing streams and protect riparian vegetation and streambanks.

Because both managers and regulators have refused for six years now to reform grazing management which is clearly inadequate and irresponsible, we are going up the line to supervisors and considering administrative and legal challenges.

We are determined to see modern grazing management brought to Northern California’s public lands. If livestock producers want the privilege of grazing in the public’s meadows and headwaters they must be willing to manage their animals responsibly, including riding the range regularly, moving cattle out of wetlands and rotating grazing to prevent degradation of land and water.

If the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management required modern grazing methods, we believe most individuals and corporations now permitted to graze livestock on public lands would voluntarily relinquish the permits. They would not be willing to incur the time and expense necessary to graze livestock responsibly in mountains that are replete with springs, streams, wet meadows and willow wetlands.

If you want to volunteer with the Project or just want more information contact me, Felice Pace, by email (unofelice@gmail.com) or by phone (707-954-6588). And please take the time to get out and enjoy the lands we all own together.

Happy trails!