Western history is replete with bloody chapters about the battle for control of vast stretches of rangelands.
The legacy from countless land disputes with murky resolutions is polluted streams, noxious weeds, grasslands depleted from overgrazing and record wildfires. But in a rare display of cooperation, several government agencies and ranchers in northern Utah are working together to prove that the landscape can be healed and those ills combatted on a grand scale.
A project has been proposed to improve 136,000 acres of rangeland in Rich County that's nearly twice the area of Salt Lake City. Livestock are an integral part of the plan, which would combine a patchwork of Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and state grazing areas into a single management unit.
The number of cattle and sheep on public lands would remain the same. But under so-called, time-controlled grazing, livestock would be rotated across the range throughout the season. Only 20 percent of the land would be open for grazing at any given time, and herds would be frequently moved so that plants would be bitten once, rather than multiple times. Pastures also would be opened at different times each season, allowing a diversity of plant life to reseed.
"No one agency, industry or individual is to blame for poor rangelands," said Bill Hopkin, who is director of the state's Grazing Improvement Program and is also spearheading the project. "It's going to take a cooperative effort to improve the landscape."
The grazing-rotation plan also would free up 80 percent of the land. The respite would allow pastures to rest, provide the public with more recreational opportunities and increase the likelihood that wildlife numbers will increase, said Hopkin.
Mike Gates, an assistant field manager for the BLM, said the agency normally doesn't combine grazing allotments with other government entities. But the Rich County project is promising, "because it uses a sound land management tool that is proven," noting that his agency still must conduct a detailed environmental study before the effort can proceed.
Not everyone is sold on the idea. Jon Marvel, executive director of the Idaho-based environmental group Western Watersheds Project contends that grazing livestock on public lands should be completely stopped because "it degrades the soil, the vegetation, wildlife habitat and is negative for water quality. There is no evidence that time-control grazing works in an economic way."
Hopkin counters that he has 18 years of data to show that it does. The research comes from the nearby Deseret Land & Livestock, a 200,000-acre ranch outside Woodruff, 125 miles north of Salt Lake City. Hopkin, who worked as the ranch's cattle manager and general manager for 21 years, was involved in a similar grazing project there from its 1983 inception.
The grazing rotations, which continue today, replenished the land, allowing the ranch to double the number of cattle and big game. Receipts from cattle sales and hunting permits took the ranch from a $500,000 yearly deficit to a $1.5 million profit. Among other benefits, in less than 20 years of controlled grazing, the sage grouse population increased sixfold, making the ranch the only location in the Intermountain West to post such a significant increase in the at-risk species. In addition, The National Audubon Society has designated the ranch an Important Bird Area, with more than 260 species.
When Bill Fenimore, owner of the Wild Bird Center in Layton, leads bird watchers on expeditions, he routinely tells them they will see 100 different species on any given day.
"You don't get that type of bird diversity without having a functioning habitat, "said Fenimore.
Deseret managers had a level of flexibility in overseeing the state's largest privately held ranch that's seldom seen in the West. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which still owns the ranch, did not have to contend with special-interest groups that can derail a project or tie it up in court.
Gregg Simonds, a former ranch manager who implemented the plan, said that Americans have based their grazing practices on the European model, which uses fenced pastures or small tracts of land for grazing. But that concept doesn't work in the arid West with its vast tracts.
"Keep a cow, a horse, a buffalo or a deer in a confined space, and the land will be overgrazed," said Simonds, a range consultant. "It's not an issue of how many animals are on a single plot or grazing allotment, but the fact that they're constantly there."
Rancher Alvin Shaul, who worked at Deseret ranch in the 1970s, was astounded at the improvements he saw years later. More than a decade ago, Shaul and 14 other ranchers helped form a similar grazing project on 13,000 acres in Rich County managed by the BLM, Forest Service and Utah Trust. Now, Shaul is one of 28 ranchers involved in the 136,000-acre project.
"With a consolidation of grazing allotments, we can do a better job of managing the land," he said. "It's better for the cattle, the wildlife, the land, the streams and the watershed."
Grazing practices at the ranch attracted the interest of the Government Accounting Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress. In a 1998 report, the GAO reported that by rotating livestock, the ranch "has been able to increase plant density and forage diversity and production, as well as reduce runoff and soil erosion."
The pioneer of time-control grazing is Allan Savory, a former wildlife biologist and author of Holistic Management, a New Framework for Decision Making . Savoy points to historic western ranges kept healthy by roaming buffalo herds so massive that 19th century observers described them as miles wide and days long in passing.
The potential benefits for the Rich County project are huge, said Peter Holter, CEO of the New Mexico-based Holistic Management International, founded by Savoy. "The thing that makes our concept unique is that we work to a triple bottom line. Anything we do needs to be financially, environmentally and socially sustainable. Money is not the only thing, but it's one of the requirements for sustainability."
Ranchers in the Rich County project are prepared to pay more for grazing allotments because they believe nutrition on the range will be vastly improved. And Hopkin hopes the project will establish a model that can be replicated to improve rangelands through Utah and the West.
In Rich County, several federal, state and private grazing areas will be combined into a single unit totaling 136,000 acres. Supporters say:
Livestock would graze on less than 20 percent of land at any time, giving each pasture time to rest.
Grazing areas or allotments would remain the same, at 3,200 head of cattle and 3,000 sheep.
As livestock rotates across the range, recreation opportunities will increase.
Wildlife numbers are expected to go up through healthier plant biodiversity.
Big Creek is expected to go off the impaired-water list.
Source: Utah Department of Agriculture and Food
In his 1933 classic book, Game Management, American conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote that wildlife "can be restored with the same tools that have hithertofore destroyed it: fire, ax, cow, gun and plow." The difference, said range consultant Gregg Simonds, "is how you use the tools."