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Large wildfires are becoming more common as climates become warmer and drier and fuels build up after years of wildfire suppression and reduced grazing and logging. Important wildlife habitat in the Great Basin has been destroyed by these mega-fires, impacting sage-grouse, antelope, mule deer, and other species. Just a few examples -- the Murphy Complex Fire burned from Twin Falls, Idaho to Nevada, covering 650,000 acres in 2007; eight years later, in 2015, the Soda Fire burned 280,000 acres in Idaho and Oregon; and in 2018, the Martin Fire burned more than 400,000 acres in Oregon and Nevada. In addition to habitat loss, bare ground is susceptible to erosion by wind and water, and invasive species can out-compete native vegetation as grasses re-establish post-fire. While native plants provide food and forage for livestock and wildlife alike, many invasive plants are often less palatable. These non-native plants are also often more flammable and fire-adapted, exacerbating the potential recurrence of fire. Recovery will take years, and ecosystem composition and function may be permanently altered. It is recognized that sustained and long-term conservation efforts will be required (NRCS, 2020). In an attempt to reduce fuel loads and give firefighters a better chance to stop wildfires sooner, the BLM is exploring the potential of using livestock grazing to create strategically located fire breaks by having cattle graze the grasses, as well as weeds and shrubs, that are the “fuel” for rangeland wildfires. This approach is called “targeted grazing.” This project evaluates the economics of targeted grazing for ranchers including costs for fencing, water-hauling, supplements, herding, and any other practice they utilize. Research questions include: What are ranchers saving by avoiding feeding hay during the spring period or early fall when public lands grazing is usually not permitted? How do these additional costs and potential feed savings pan out in terms of the ranchers’ bottom line? Are these figures the same or different across the 3-state area (Idaho, Oregon, Nevada)?
Ranch models were developed in Major Land Resource Areas 23, 24, and 25 (NRCS, 2006) for large and/or small ranch sizes based on ranch models that cover the majority of the area in southwest Idaho, southeast Oregon, and northeast Nevada. Baseline (BL) models were balanced to use the minimum amount of forage and hay to sustain the ranch. The Targeted Grazing (TG) models were adapted to the BL model using spring and fall targeted grazing, spring-only targeted grazing, and breakeven spring-only targeted grazing model. In the latter case, the number of AUMs was adjusted so that the average net household income is roughly equivalent to the BL ranch model. In addition to comparing the targeted grazing scenarios with the baseline ranch model, we also looked at what the breakeven amount of spring grazing would be for the representative ranches by MLRA and ranch size. In this case, the AUMs of early spring grazing to create fire breaks in cheatgrass-dominated communities were reduced to the point where the net household income is approximately equal to the baseline model. Net household income is defined as total livestock and hay income minus variable costs of production minus fixed costs for the ranch minus family living expenses plus off-ranch income.
For all ranches in the 3 MLRAs, it appears that the ranch would have a positive return on investment for participating in the targeted grazing program. This assumes that the program would continue into the future so that the rancher can make herd adjustments. Note that the assumption that drought conditions would only affect whether the ranch could use the targeted grazing areas in spring and/or fall affects that decision. Researchers did not consider the effect of overall drought on BLM, Forest Service, or private rangelands on herd size or economics. The intent was to separate the effects of targeted grazing on BLM allotments with all else held constant. It is likely that if such severe droughts were occurring, adjustments to grazing on those forage sources would need to be made and model results would have been different. That consideration was outside of the scope of this project.
Based upon the 12 representative ranch types in the 3 MLRAs, researchers concluded that targeted grazing under the assumptions of the scenarios would be profitable for the ranchers to undertake. This requires a long-term commitment on the part of the BLM to continue the program, in this case for 40 years. The ranchers must be willing to adjust herd size based on the probability of drought and concomitant cheatgrass production. There are many other factors that a rancher would need to consider for herd size, but based solely on the targeted grazing scenarios presented, herd size is critical for profit maximization. The breakeven spring-only scenario indicates that the number of spring AUMs does not have to be significantly large for the ranch to break even. While it varies by ranch size and location, the breakeven number appears to be relatively small. Because researchers were working with assumed levels of AUMs for one month of early spring grazing, it was arbitrarily set as the whole cow herd moving to the BLM allotment one month early. The breakeven AUMs show that fewer animals could be moved for the ranch to make additional profit. If targeted grazing investments and annual operating and maintenance costs are larger than what we assumed, the breakeven number of additional AUMs will be higher. Using targeted grazing to create fuel breaks is but one tool in the arsenal to address large catastrophic wildfires. Methods such as manual, mechanical, and chemical treatments, and prescribed fire have been used in a variety of scenarios. Selecting the right tool for the environment is critical to address the problem. Finding cost-effective methods should be an important consideration. Savings to federal agencies from controlling large wildfires can be significant if the full suite of tools is used to restore or rehabilitate nonnative annual grass-dominated rangelands (BLM 2020b). What this study indicates for the types of ranches in the three MLRA’s is using cattle for targeted grazing and creating fuel breaks can be profitable for the ranch and cost the BLM relatively little.