An Update from the Project to Reform Livestock Grazing on Public Land in Northern California
Updated: Dec 2, 2021
The Public Lands Program is a core focus of EPIC’s public interest conservation advocacy work. Monitoring industrial grazing activities on public National Forest lands in Northwest California is an enormous task and requires back country excursions into remote wilderness areas. The following is an overview from Felice Pace, who works closely with EPIC to track impacts of livestock grazing on public land and report those findings to the regulatory agencies who are responsible for managing those lands, but who have too little budget to monitor them. Thanks to Felice Pace for his labors on this project, and for making this report possible.
For the past 4 years, EPIC, the Project and other partners have been working to reform livestock grazing on Northern California’s national forests. We do this by documenting on-the-ground impacts livestock grazing is having on biodiversity, including water quality, riparian areas, wetlands, native vegetation and native species. Staff, interns and volunteers use that documentation to advocate for grazing management reform.
On the ground documentation informs EPIC’s participation in environmental analysis and decision making for specific grazing allotments. Where negative impacts can not be eliminated or reduced to insignificance though active management, we work to eliminate livestock grazing altogether.
During our first four field seasons, we focused on livestock grazing within portions of the Marble Mountain, Russian and Trinity Alps Wilderness Areas that are part of the Scott River Basin. On-the ground documentation of grazing impacts in the Scott River Basin compliments water quality testing by the Quartz Valley Indian Reservation, a federal tribe.
This past summer, we expanded the Project’s reach to include grazing on both the Oregon and California sides of the Siskiyou Crest between Mount Ashland (west of Interstate 5) and the Red Buttes Wilderness Area. The Pacific Crest Trail follows the Crest touching on 10 different grazing allotments on two national forests.
For three days in early September, Luke Ruediger, who lives on Elliot Creek below the Crest, and I monitored the Beaver/Silver and Elliot Grazing Allotments on the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest and the Horse Creek and Dry Lake Grazing Allotments on the Klamath National Forest. Unfortunately, what we found is what we’ve come to expect: trashed springs, degraded willow wetlands, trampled streambanks and streams opened to solar radiation through removal of riparian vegetation and to sedimentation from trampled streambanks.
Alex’s Hole: The streambanks are trampled, riparian willows have been degraded and removed
As on other grazing allotments the Project monitored, we found telltale evidence of the lack of adequate herding by livestock owners who are permitted to graze cattle on these public lands. Unlike elk which constantly move from place to place, grazing cattle find an area they like and stay there until moved by herders or until all palatable forage in the area has been consumed. That results in a pattern in which the locations cattle prefer are trashed while other parts of grazing allotment are lightly grazed or not grazed at all.
In three days of monitoring in which we visited portions of nine watersheds, the vast majority of the wet meadow systems encountered were negatively impacted by grazing. The hardest hit grazing locations are Alex’s Hole and the Silver Fork Basin on the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest, Reeves Ranch Spring and Deer Camp on the Klamath National Forest.
Mud Springs on the Dry Lake Allotment has been trampled. Cattle waste has been deposited in the water. The presence of multiple cattle trails are a classic indicator of overgrazing.
Our Project advocates that National Forest managers require grazing permit holders to ride the range on a regular basis in order to move their cattle from preferred to ungrazed locations and to keep them from trashing springs, streambanks and willow wetlands. While theoretically required, regular herding rarely takes place in fact. Lack of actual herding on the 13 grazing allotments the Project has monitored to date is a strong indication that the Grazing Allotment Management System – which is relied upon by agencies responsible for assuring that Forest Service managers comply with the Clean Water Act – is not functioning to prevent pollution and wetland degradation. While the Project has previously documented problems with the Allotment Management System on the Klamath National Forest, this is the first time we’ve made that finding with respect to the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest.
While trashed springs, riparian areas and wetlands are common on monitored allotments, the four Siskiyou Crest Grazing Allotments monitored this September are unique in significant respects. Unlike most other Klamath National Forest Grazing Allotments, the Dry Lake and Horse Creek Allotments have multiple permit holders rather than a single livestock operator. In addition, grazing on these allotments begins in Spring and extends a full six months. Cattle grazing on other allotments we’ve monitored is limited to 3 months, beginning mid-July and ending mid-October.
Unmanaged grazing can do a lot more damage in six months than in three months. With a month and a half still remaining until cattle were scheduled to be removed, Luke and I found that available forage had already been fully utilized on both sides of the Siskiyou Crest by early September. EPIC and its partners will push to have the grazing season shortened on these allotments.
Deer Camp Meadows: With over 5 weeks remaining in the grazing season available forage has already been fully utilized. The cattle should have been removed but were not.
Where’s the bunchgrass?
Native bunchgrass was once the dominant vegetation in dry meadows found along the Siskiyou Crest. However, many years of poorly managed grazing has eliminated native bunchgrasses from these meadows. Bunchgrasses are highly susceptible to repeated grazing in a single season. Their absence in dry meadows along the Crest is yet another indication that adequate herding is not occurring.
Near Reeves Ranch Springs: Repeated grazing in a single season has virtually eliminated native bunchgrass from Siskiyou Crest dry meadows (the fence post is from a fence the Forest Service built to protect the springs but which was taken down)
Scarcity of native bunchgrasses has also been observed on the nine other allotments we’ve monitored; dry meadows devoid of bunchgrass contrast with nearby ungrazed dry meadows where bunchgrass is the dominant vegetation. Repeated grazing during a single season is the only rational explanation. We conclude that the decline of bunchgrasses is the result of Forest Service managers allowing grazing permit holders to avoid regularly herding their cattle. Elimination of dry meadow bunchgrass results in cattle spending more time grazing in wetlands and along streambanks.
Getting to reform
The Project to Reform Public Land Grazing in Northern California prefers to work collaboratively with Forest Service and regional water quality managers and local stakeholders – including federal tribes – to achieve clearly needed reforms. Our experience with collaborative reform over the past four years, however, has not been positive. So far, responsible Forest Service managers have offered only token changes where fundamental reform is needed to end degradation of land, water, native vegetation and wildlife.
While the Project and its sponsors – which include the Klamath Forest Alliance and Wilderness Watch as well as EPIC – still seek collaborative reform, we are preparing to press the need for reform with higher levels at both federal and state levels. As we move up the chain of command, the focus will be on compliance with requirements of the Clean Water Act.
The high quality waters which emerge as springs on the People’s forests are supposed to be maintained at high quality; instead they are being polluted from the source on down.
The Project and sponsors have also begun exploring litigation options as a means to compel the Forest Service and regional water quality boards to bring public land grazing into compliance with the Clean Water Act and other applicable laws.
You can help
As the Project to Reform Public Land Grazing in Northern California looks forward to our fifth year, we encourage EPIC members, students and others to get involved. Grazing allotments are spread across Northern California public lands; citizens who use those lands are urged to visit local grazing allotment and take photos documenting cattle trashed springs, streams and wetlands. You can give those photos to Forest Service district rangers and ask them to end the degradation. If you send us the photos along with location information, we’ll use them to pressure federal and state officials to require real changes in how public land grazing is managed.
The more pressure we can bring to bear in support of reform, the more quickly and effectively reform will occur. Contact me at 707-954-6588 or Unofelice@gmail.com to explore how you can help reform public land grazing on Northern California’s public lands. Training in the field or in town is available.