Outdoors blog

Grazing doesn't quickly improve wildlife forage, WSU researchers say

Mule deer keep an eye on the many anglers moving up and down the Snake River as the sun rises. Bighorn sheep also are common sights along the Snake and Grande Ronde rivers. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
Mule deer keep an eye on the many anglers moving up and down the Snake River as the sun rises. Bighorn sheep also are common sights along the Snake and Grande Ronde rivers. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)

WILDLIFE RESEARCH -- Researchers say a cattle grazing project on the Asotin Wildlife Area has reduced overall forage without making significant immediate improvements in the nutritional value of the remainig forage for wildlife.

The study results and information from ongoing research is set to be released next week by Washington State University.

The research is central to an ongoing debate over the appropriateness of grazing on state land managed for wildlife habitat and hunting and fishing, according to a story by Eric Barker of the Lewiston Tribune.

Some conservation groups have opposed the research worked out in agreements with cattle ranchers and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Concern for allowing grazing on state-managed wildlife lands is understandable. But one must be wary of the contempt for the attempt to research the theory that controlled livestock grazing might stimulate better forage for wildlife.

Read on for details from the Lewiston Tribune report.

In 2006, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife started a pilot grazing project on portions of the Asotin Wildlife Area. Agency officials wanted to see if limited springtime grazing could be used as a tool to improve deer and elk habitat, while also providing pasture to local ranchers and benefits to the rural economy.

Many ranchers argue deer and elk often follow grazing cattle because the cows eat old decadent grasses and spur new succulent growth that is high in energy and nutrition. Environmental groups, like the Western Watersheds Project, contend grazing harms wildlife habitat, causes erosion, fouls water quality and spreads noxious weeds.

Soon after the program started, scientists at WSU were brought on board to help settle the dispute. Following spring grazing in 2009, they placed tame mule deer in pens on grazed and ungrazed areas. Graduate students closely monitored what and how much the deer ate in an effort to determine the short-term effects of grazing.

"What we found is, as you would expect, there was about 40 to 50 percent less biomass available in the grazed areas than the ungrazed areas," said Lisa Shipley, a WSU professor of Natural Resource Sciences.

The more central question was whether the grazing would spur new nutritious growth that would offset the reduced amount of forage available.

"We did not find large increases in nutritional quality of the food that was out there, or in the diets of the deer. Basically we found no difference," Shipley said.

Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, feigned surprise at the results.

"I am deeply shocked. I had to reach for my medication - my heart pills," he said. "I would regard this as not rocket science; however, we certainly hope it informs the future behavior of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and that there will be a full accounting of the costs to taxpayers of everything that has gone into the outcome of this study, including the cost of livestock grazing in the wildlife area."

Jennifer Quan, lands division manager for the department at Olympia, said even though there was less food available to wildlife after grazing, the area is still able to support more deer than are currently there, and the elk herds there are meeting the agency's goals. Those two factors would allow grazing to continue "so long as we don't impact the ecological integrity of the landscape," she said.

A second WSU study, led by Linda Hardesty, also of the department of Natural Resource Sciences, is attempting to determine the long-term effects of grazing and is expected to be completed next year.

A lawsuit filed and won by Western Watersheds halted grazing on the wildlife area last year




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Rich Landers
Rich Landers writes and photographs stories for a wide range of outdoors coverage, including a Sunday feature section and a Thursday column. He also writes the Outdoors Blog.

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