By Peg Herring
John O’Keeffe’s pick-up truck bumps through a landscape of gnarled sagebrush and bunchgrasses near the Nevada border in southeastern Oregon. “This is good sage-grouse habitat,” O’Keeffe tells me, gesturing across a broad horizon toward the Warner Mountains. He should know. O’Keeffe is a leader in sage-grouse conservation, helping to restore the bird’s habitat of native grasses, sagebrush and wetlands across much of Eastern Oregon. And he’s a rancher.
From the sagebrush upland, we descend toward a lush mountain meadow, emerald green from early summer rain. Ranching in Eastern Oregon is a sustainable industry, powered by photosynthesis, turning grass into food for people. As the incoming president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, O’Keeffe is working tirelessly to help ranchers develop ecosystem-based management plans that encourage healthy native landscapes for sage-grouse and livestock alike. “We’re resetting the clock and restoring native habitats,” he says. “Sage-grouse is just one of the species that benefit.”
If you visit Eastern Oregon only to drive through it, you might not notice much beyond a vast sagebrush sea. But gradual shifts from bunchgrass to annual grass and from sagebrush to juniper have had a huge, negative impact on the people and wildlife who live here. This iconic landscape, that once covered 150 million acres across the inland West, has shrunk by half and faces threats from wildfire, invasive weeds, oil and gas development and subdivision.
For decades, ranching in the arid West was attacked by antigrazing activists, who cited examples of trampled streams and overgrazed land. In 1986, the writer Edward Abbey described the Western range as “cowburnt.” Many things have changed since then, including livestock grazing and the way people on both sides of the fence have learned to work together. A quiet revolution is occurring in Eastern Oregon. The name-calling has been replaced by conversations about wildlife habitat, ecology and quality of life. The goal is to save the sagebrush sea.
Research on the Range
Burns is an Old West town in the heart of Oregon’s sagebrush-grassland ecosystem. Here, in a cluster of dust-colored buildings south of town, is the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, a collaborative laboratory shared by Oregon State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. Scientists and OSU Extension faculty conduct research to guide restoration and management of the sagebrush grassland.
“It’s a big region, and some of the most extensive research and most innovative collaborations are coming from right here in Eastern Oregon,” says David Bohnert, an OSU animal scientist and center director. The current focus of some of that research and collaboration is, of course, the potential endangered species listing of the greater sage-grouse, a bird that is considered a key indicator of sagebrush ecosystem health. But restoring the grassland goes far beyond protecting one species. “Conservation benefits a lot of other wildlife, like mule deer and pronghorn, brush rabbits and songbirds,” Bohnert adds. “Our job is to understand the complexity of this ecosystem, and help people restore its function and structure.”
Tony Svejcar is the center’s research leader. Standing at his desk, surrounded by files of reports that go back to the center’s beginnings in 1935, Svejcar recounts some of the history that has shaped this landscape. “Think about the original Homestead Act, signed by President Lincoln in 1862,” Svejcar says. “It offered people 160 acres to encourage Western settlement. But it was hard to survive on 160 acres in most of the arid West.” As a result, low-lying sites near water were homesteaded and dryer uplands were left unclaimed, heavily grazed, and hotly contested. “More than a few Hollywood films featured ‘range wars’ from this little segment of history,” Svejcar adds.
As conflicts flared, the federal government sent Major John Wesley Powell to evaluate the West and assess its suitability for farming. Powell reported in 1878 that a farm in this region should be at least 2,560 acres, with boundaries based on watersheds to provide access to scarce water. For 98 percent of Western land, he proposed conservation and low-density, open grazing.
The U.S. Congress ignored Powell’s recommendations. “Most people in Washington, D.C. had no idea what this region was like,” Svejcar says. “And many still don’t.”
Instead, Congress encouraged settlement of the West based on the theory that “rain follows the plow,” that farming would result in increased precipitation. What actually resulted was 70 years of unrestricted grazing and severe damage to the land. Svejcar recounted how flooding in Utah caused whole hillsides to flow into towns because there was no intact vegetation to hold the soil in place. Eventually, the effects of overstocking, drought and the Depression brought about the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934. It required grazing permits and stipulated that those permits be issued only to ranchers who owned private property where livestock could be kept part of the year, to eliminate constant pressure on public land.
The following year, the federal government established a study site west of Burns as a place to test strategies for rangeland management. Today, Svejcar’s research team still maintains the 16,000-acre Northern Great Basin Experimental Range and the fenced study plots that have excluded grazing since the 1930s. Here, as it turns out, is a ready-made site to observe the effects of permanently removing cattle from the sagebrush grassland, as antigrazing activists had advocated. The exclosure plots have been spared long periods of heavy grazing that elsewhere had left land battered, weedy and prone to fire.
In the 21st century, parts of the sagebrush grassland that historically burned every 50 to 80 years now burn every four to 10 years. The experimental range allowed Svejcar’s team to compare the effects of fire on grazed and ungrazed plots. The results have been surprising. Perennial grasses that had dominated the ungrazed plots were killed by fire and did not re-establish, even after 14 years. In their place, invasive weeds took hold. In contrast, plots that had been moderately grazed over the course of decades showed marked recovery of perennials following fire. Grazing had reduced the amount of dead material built up around the bunchgrass crowns, so fires had less fuel to burn.
More Weeds, Hotter Fires
This research is important to Eastern Oregon residents who are facing much more frequent — and catastrophic — wildfires. Fast-growing weedy annuals, such as cheatgrass and medusahead, have overtaken perennial bunchgrasses, fueling bigger, hotter blazes. In the summer of 2012, three wildfires in southeast Oregon burned a million acres; as a result, 10 percent of the state’s existing sage-grouse habitat went up in smoke.
In a comprehensive study of invasive weeds in the West, the Burns researchers found that medusahead grows for a longer period and produces more total biomass than even cheatgrass. Its sharp, twisted tips injure animals’ eyes and mouths; its deep roots hog moisture; and it goes to seed early in the summer, leaving a mass of dry material ready to burn with the first lightning strike.
At higher elevation sites, where medusahead and cheatgrass have yet to dominate, western juniper is advancing. Drive through southeast Oregon and you’ll see slopes dotted with juniper woodlands. As much as 90 percent of these woodlands were sagebrush 150 years ago. Invading juniper sucks up ground water, desiccating native shrubs and grasses and ruining habitat for sage-grouse and other wildlife. “My grandfather came to this land from Ireland in 1907,” O’Keeffe tells me. “Through that time, we’ve watched juniper advance.” Over the last few years, he’s removed western juniper from 4,500 acres of his ranch, encouraging the return of native plant communities. “It’s improved our ranching operation — better watershed function, better forage,” O’Keeffe says. “The work coming out of the Burns lab is helping us understand how to manage the land for ecosystem function.”
Fire, grazing and logging have all caused problems when they occurred in the wrong place at the wrong time for too long and too intensely. But researchers and land managers are finding that, if used strategically, these disturbances can become tools to control weeds, prevent juniper invasion and limit the extent of wildfire. Good management can improve the ecosystem just like bad management can harm it. The trick is to know which is which.
Grazing by Spreadsheet
Jack Southworth’s ranch is in a high mountain valley near Seneca, a place that holds the state record for lowest-ever winter temperature (minus 54 degrees in 1933). In this region, where frost can occur at any season, Southworth has developed a grazing management plan of very short duration and very long recovery. From May to July, he moves his cows every two or three days to fresh pastures, where they won’t return for months, possibly for more than a year.
In a spacious workshop at his ranch headquarters, Southworth diagrams the basis of his plan on a flipchart. “We want dense stands of healthy perennial grasses and shrubs; streams shaded with willows for fish and beaver; open forests with trees of various ages; and cattle well adapted to this environment.”
He shows me a complex spreadsheet that tracks about 500 steers and heifers through a rotation of 50 pastures that he’s subdivided into smaller paddocks of 40 to 60 acres each. “Rangeland planning is not shooting from the hip,” he tells me. He calculates stocking rates based on the changing weight of the growing animals, the changing height of the growing grass, precipitation, temperature and other variables. Ranch-hand Winnie Browning refers to the spreadsheet each time she moves the cattle, setting up a half-mile or more of electric fence to contain the herd for 72 hours. “Ideally, we won’t graze here again for 13 months,” Jack says. That way, the grass has a full year to recover and won’t be grazed again at this same point in its growth cycle.
Among the tenets of good ranch management, Southworth strives for sustainability of the land and the community. “We plan around what the grasses need, what the cattle need and what Winnie needs,” he says with a smile. “Sometimes our priority is for Winnie to go camping with her kids.” And then he adds, “We’ve stopped thinking about how to do more with less, using machines. Now we’re thinking about how to do more with more, with more people, more jobs, more support for families, to rebuild communities around ranching.”
A big step toward rebuilding the community occurred in 1986 among a handful of Oregon ranchers. Beef prices were low, interest rates were high, profits were non-existent and the accusation of “cowburnt” echoed across the West. That year, 14 ranching families in Eastern Oregon got together to consider a new direction for the cattle business. They decided to leave the commodity market and create their own, with third-party certified hormone-free beef, environmental sustainability requirements and a plan to connect directly with new customers. The ranchers focused on sustainable land, profits and communities. That effort eventually grew into Country Natural Beef, a rancher-owned cooperative, now with over 120 ranching families across the Western states. Jack and Teresa Southworth were among the founding members. Jack drafted the ecological stewardship guidelines used by the Food Alliance, a nonprofit organization, to certify each member ranch.
Units of Grass
Good land stewardship is the guiding principle for Susan and Mark Doverspike. I met them and their son Steven at one of their family ranches west of Burns. They represent the fourth and fifth generation of the Hotchkiss Company. “Susan’s family, the Hotchkiss Company name, has always had a good reputation,” says Mark. “We continually strive to improve the ranch and the range, to make the land better for the next generation.”
Each generation is expected to add new ideas and value to the ranch. “We kick them out,” Susan laughs, which means, Steven explains, that each generation is encouraged to leave the ranch, go off to college and work somewhere else before coming back to the ranch with new ideas and experience.
As we stand on a rise overlooking the ranch, we talk about what it takes to raise cattle on land with 11 inches annual rainfall. Working high-desert lands means building ecosystem health from the ground up, soil and water first, then grass and forage, then livestock. For example, to keep cows out of sensitive riparian areas, the Doverspikes have installed solar pumps to move water into troughs and away from forest streams. And they have built more than 12 miles of gravity-fed pipeline to provide water for livestock and wildlife.
“It takes a lot of acres to run a ranch in this region, about 15 acres per cow per month,” Susan says. “Our buckaroos are on the range everyday, moving cows to avoid over-grazing.” The buckaroos (from the Spanish, vaqueros) examine the cows for body condition and general health. And they examine the land for evidence of improvement or need for repair, as they move cattle through the season from lowland meadows to sagebrush grassland and forest pastures. The Doverspikes have a management strategy for each of these ecosystems on public lands.
All managers of public lands are required to draft management plans every 10 years, and that includes all ranchers who hold grazing permits. Perhaps those permits were easily renewed in the past, but not anymore. Today, ranchers must demonstrate that their management practices meet or exceed the ecological goals established for the public lands they graze.
Just like plans drafted by the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management, grazing allotment plans involve a team of rangeland resource specialists (botanists, archaeologists, wildlife biologists and so forth) who prepare a detailed environmental assessment, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, to assess the impacts of livestock grazing on all of the other resources on the allotment. These reports are open to public comment and agency review before a final decision is made. Through this process, ranchers are expected to function like land managers on the public lands they are permitted to use, working to improve the condition and providing evidence of beneficial impact.
“We take measurements of the grass before we enter a pasture and when we leave it,” Susan explains, kneeling in the grass to show me how to calculate height-weight ratios to measure plant biomass. “That’s one of many ways we track plant productivity to keep these high desert lands healthy.” And it’s working. The Hotchkiss Company has received many stewardship awards, including the U.S. Forest Service Chief’s Award for range management.
Room to Boom
Ranchers who graze federal lands must adhere to multiple expectations for public lands and address a huge list of variables, including the condition of existing plant communities, the timing and duration of grazing, the geography, even the weather. Dustin Johnson, an Oregon State University Extension range ecologist in Harney County, helps ranchers develop plans to enhance sage-grouse habitat and monitor the effect of their management actions.
Sage-grouse need a variety of habitats throughout the year, Johnson says. First, they need open areas where males perform their puffed-up, booming displays in early spring. In the nearby cover of bunchgrass and sagebrush, hens establish nest sites where they hunt protein-rich ants and beetles. Later in the summer, hens and chicks seek broad-leaf plants along low-lying streambeds and wet meadows, much of it on private land. As summer turns to fall, their diet switches almost exclusively to sagebrush leaves, which sustains the population throughout the long winter.
Because they use so many parts of the landscape, the greater sage-grouse is a barometer for assessing the health of the sagebrush ecosystem. In the 1800s, these birds numbered in the millions, but much of their habitat has been lost to subdivision, land conversion and oil and gas development. Their numbers sharply declined, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010 to consider listing the sage-grouse as a threatened or endangered species.
Leaders in Oregon’s ranching community accepted the challenge to develop conservation plans using the best science available. They aimed to improve conditions for sage-grouse and potentially avoid the need for federal regulation. Agencies adapted incentive programs to encourage wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching. As a result, the Fish and Wildlife Service, in a decision announced in September 2015, withdrew the greater sage-grouse from the candidate species list, in part because “unprecedented conservation partnership across the Western United States has significantly reduced threats to the greater sage-grouse.”
However, the decision clearly noted that the “greater sage-grouse will still require intensive, conservative management into the future … and a concerted effort by all partners — public and private — to maintain and advance conservation measures, and control impacts to the bird and its habitat.” And so, work continues at Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center.
Back near his home in Adel, John O’Keeffe recounts the day last year when he hosted U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on a tour of his conservation projects. She was impressed. Following the tour, she said, “What’s been done in Oregon, and it’s been done in a relatively short time frame, is something that provides a model other states can follow.”
Ranchers like John O’Keeffe, Mark and Susan Doverspike and Jack Southworth are reversing decades of damage on public lands, part of a powerful collaboration to apply science toward healing the sagebrush sea.
”We’re leaving this land in a lot better shape than we found it,” O’Keeffe says.
Peg Herring is the director of communications for the College of Agricultural Sciences and editor of Oregon’s Agricultural Progress magazine at Oregon State University.