David Sparks Ph.d Custer County Land
by David Sparks Ph.d, click here for bio

Program: Idaho Ag Today
Date: August 28, 2017

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In 1976, there were about 30,000 head of cattle in Custer County. Today there are about half that many.

Restrictions applied by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have taken cattle off of the land in Custer County and throughout the western states. Ranchers contend the restrictions, in many cases, are arbitrary.

A group of Custer County ranchers and state and federal agency land managers recently toured the Morgan Creek Allotment west of Challis to discuss conflicts on federal land and to look at the health of the land.

Ranchers repeatedly questioned the federal officials about stubble height requirements along streams. They say the land is healthy and that is a long-term trend – a claim the BLM officials agreed with. However, stubble height requirements are limiting the number of cattle ranchers are allowed to turn out and that is threatening the future of several ranches.

In the Morgan Creek Allotment ranchers were penalized last year because stubble height measurements were at 3.5 inches, rather than the required 4 inches. Ranchers who attended the tour said overall the allotment is healthy and to restrict grazing because of half inch arbitrary measurement of grass in a creek bottom is harmful to many families and the overall economy of Custer County.

In addition, the grazing allotment is restricted because of the presence of salmon, steelhead and bull trout but the reasoning behind the restrictions is admittedly dubious.

Tom Curet, Idaho Fish and Game Salmon regional supervisor, said steelhead occasionally make it past a natural barrier in lower Morgan Creek but Chinook do not and have not been documented in the creek’s upper reaches. Curet acknowledged that Idaho bull trout populations are healthy and the fish should not be receiving special management considerations. He added that bull trout populations in other parts of the Intermountain region are in danger, which is the reasoning behind the listing. Bull trout, chinook and steelhead are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act which requires special management restrictions that frequently result in cuts to the number of cattle allowed to graze on public land.

Ranchers believe that special restrictions for fish management in the drainage are illogical and unreasonable – especially in the case of bull trout when the numbers of fish present in Morgan Creek and many other rivers, indicate a healthy population.

Curet said Idaho is “lumped” with other regions in regard to bull trout management and in those other regions populations are not robust, which makes the potential for de-listing remote. However, the recent de-listing of the Yellowstone Grizzly Bear population gives hope that distinct population segments of other threatened or endangered species may be released from ESA oversight.

“There are over a million bull trout in Idaho,” Curet said. “They have never been in trouble in Idaho and never should have been listed.”

The latest Census of Agriculture, completed by USDA in 2012, shows 16,400 cattle in Custer County. Estimates show each cow returns about $900 per year to the respective ranches. Custer County is 96 percent federal land, which limits the tax base and in turn the services the County provides its residents. Economic return from cattle is one of the most important income sources in Custer County.

Ranchers and federal land managers discussed a few options for solving problems in the allotment during the tour. It was suggested that flash grazing, or high intensity, short duration grazing may be a solution along Morgan Creek. They agreed that the allotment is healthy from a land management perspective, but cows tend to congregate along streams because of feed availability and shade. Fencing along streams was also discussed as a possible solution.

Rancher and Morgan Creek permit holder Jim Martiny said stubble measurements are a poor indicator of range health. “We are managing the allotment in one small space as opposed to looking at the big picture,” he said. “In year’s past we haven’t met the stubble height standard in a couple of places along the creek and our numbers have been reduced because of that. The end result is we lose numbers because of a half of an inch of grass but in the long run the allotment isn’t gaining anything.”

Rancher Gary Chamberlain asked the federal officials on the tour to take a close look at Morgan Creek. “I want you to pay special attention to the grass right here,” he said. “Last year it was grazed down to 3.5 inches and to look at it today, we didn’t hurt a thing.”

Regarding bull trout, steelhead and Chinook salmon, Chamberlain said ranchers are being forced to submit to more regulations that don’t and likely won’t ever provide any benefits to the fish or the land.

“We are told the range looks good and to keep doing what we’re doing but then every time we turn around we have new impositions put on us like stubble height,” Chamberlain said.

Todd Kuck, BLM Challis Field Manager, said the agency is focused on outcome-based grazing and sometimes the terms and conditions written in the permits “don’t necessarily get at the objectives we want out on the ground.” He said the BLM is looking into new projects and strategies that will help meet the objectives they have set.

“We want to come up with objectives for allotments and management strategies that allow more flexibility to permitees on how they manage cattle,” Kuck said. “We do realize there are issues with restrictions in the permits and we are looking at that. It will take some work to come up with how we write objectives and how we monitor to show how we are meeting or measuring what we want the allotment to look like.”

Kuck added that permit holders in the Morgan Creek drainage are doing a “really good job of managing on the ground.” “We are going in the right direction as far as management here,” he said.

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