By Jerry Hoagland, Kelly Aberasturi and Joe Merrick | Owyhee County commissioners
The BLM management of fine fuel load to prevent catastrophic widespread wildfires in southern Idaho is not working. Change is needed in how federal land managers use the management tools they already have available to reduce fine fuel loads. Analysis of wildfire history over the last several decades tells us federal land management efforts are ineffective in preventing large catastrophic fires. In fact, our experience in Idaho shows BLM management is aggravating the situation. BLM needs to change their biased and ineffective practices in dealing with fine fuel loads and employ all available options in fine fuel load management on Idaho’s rangelands.
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the BLM began arbitrarily capping Temporary Non-Renewable (TNR) grazing in eastern Owyhee and Twin Falls county grazing allotments. This allowed large amounts of fuel to accumulate. In 2007, the Murphy Complex Fire burned an estimated 652,016 acres. By acreage, it was the third largest wildfire in the United States between 1997 and 2009. The fire affected Owyhee and Twin Falls counties in Idaho, and Elko County, Nevada. Total reclamation costs of taxpayer dollars were estimated at well over $11 million taxpayer dollars during fiscal years 2007–2010, with full recovery of the natural systems taking several additional years.
When the Birds of Prey National Conservation Area (NCA) was established, the BLM began reducing spring time grazing allowing fine fuels to accumulate. The result was that thousands of acres of the Birds of Prey NCA’s big sagebrush and salt desert shrub habitat have burned and is now replaced with exotic annual grasses (cheatgrass) and weeds. As these wildfires continue in southern Idaho at such large scales, research indicates a significant negative trend in other Idaho natural resources due to wildfires. The number of Golden Eagle pairs in the NCA, have had a 30 percent decline between 1971 and 2009, according to Michael Kochert, scientist emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey in Boise.
According to Kochert, “although various human uses have affected raptor populations, the loss of native plant communities, spread of annual weeds and the escalating fire cycle have
probably had the most significant and profound influences” (U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management web site).
Now the public land users in Idaho have to face the aftermath of the Soda Fire in Owyhee County which burned approximately 284,000 acres. Some of the most productive sage-grouse habitat is now burned and blackened as a result of inadequate fine fuel load management. Despite the warning signs, BLM continued to dismiss the issue of high fuel loads on the public lands. BLM’s own data showed excessive fuel loads and these same federal land managers received warnings of catastrophic fire events from State Agencies.
The Idaho Governor’s office recently protested BLM grazing decisions specifically pointing out that the fine fuel loads significantly increased the possibility of catastrophic wildfires. Yet the BLM seemed to ignore or dismiss those warnings. As recently as 2 to 3 years ago, examples of, and data on, the increasing fuel loads could be found in the NEPA documents prepared by the BLM. Numerous examples of light forage utilization levels (reduced grazing) were identified in those documents showing that light utilization is a cause of the increased fuel loads over the last two decades, which is at the heart of these catastrophic rangeland fires.
One of many examples is the final grazing decision issued on the Sands Basin Allotment (part of the Soda fire) which has now burned. BLM documents show that utilization of a key grass species, Bluebunch wheatgrass changed from an average 47% grazing use prior to 1996 to an average of 11.67% grazed in 2011 in pasture 3. On this same allotment in Pasture 4, Bluebunch wheatgrass was an average of 50% grazed prior to 1996 but reduced to an average of 12.9 % grazed in 2011. Yet in a final grazing decision issued to ranchers in recent years, BLM’s management prescription, for an allotment which was noted to contain large amounts of very flammable exotic plants, further decreased the livestock grazing in the allotment. These types of management decisions will continue to allow for fine fuel loads to increase over time.
The BLM noted in their NEPA documents that a number of private, public and State Agencies asked them to consider using grazing to reduce fine fuel loads to limit wildfires. Yet when the BLM issued the grazing decision, the BLM Manager decided the “resource cost” was too great and grazing was reduced. The result of that decision, and dozens of like decisions over the years, is a blackened and charred landscape with no recreation value, no wildlife/sage grouse habitat value, and no grazing value.
Academic research and the science tell us that “livestock grazing is one management technique that has been shown to decrease fine fuel loading and subsequent wildfire severity (Archibald et al., 2005; Davies et al., 2010). Ungulate grazing reduces the standing herbaceous plant material available for burning; this in turn can potentially reduce the frequency, extent and intensity of fires in grass, shrub, and forest understory fuel types (Vale, 1974; Zimmerman & Neuenschwander, 1984; Tausch et al., 1994; Hobbs, 1996;Belsky & Blumenthal, 1997; Blackmore & Vitousek, 2000). In the absence of livestock grazing, cheatgrass will likely increase to its ecological potential for the site Journal of Rangeland Applications - Volume 1, 2014; pp. 35-57; ISSN: 2331-5512 - Livestock Grazing Effects on Fuel Loads for Wildland Fire in Sagebrush Dominated Ecosystems Eva K. Strand 1, Karen L. Launchbaugh 2, Ryan Limb 3, and L. Allen Torell 4).
The Soda Fire’s now burned and blackened 284,000 acres will have negative impacts for recreationists, ranchers, endangered species, and the Owyhee County economy for many years to come, not to mention the extremely high cost of suppression and rehabilitation that taxpayers will now pay. The Soda Fire burned 52,000 acres of priority sage-grouse habitat, 194,000 acres of important sage grouse habitat, and 36,000 acres of general sage-grouse habitat. It has still far-reaching and yet to be calculated impact to the livelihood of many ranches and the families who make their living on the range. Recreationalists will not be able to use the lands for many years. Wild horse herds will be displaced. All of this, simply because of a BLM institutional bias against using livestock for fine fuels management except for other than an insignificantly small number of “targeted grazing” special project animals.
History clearly shows us that BLM management practices have been a complete failure.
Rather than preventing catastrophic fire, BLM’s actions have ensured they will occur with regularity. Even “Smokey Bear” understands that Fuel is one of the elements of the fire triangle (http://www.smokeybear.com/elements-of-fire.asp ) . Yet the one tool which BLM refuses to use at its full potential in reducing fuel loads is livestock grazing. It is time for a change and for the BLM to discard their institutional biases and fully use the readily available tools at hand. If not, left to BLM’s current management practices, a charred landscape and smoky summers will be the new “normal” for Idaho and the western states.