At Hart Mountain, the land came back

 

Cattle are hard on streams. There’s no getting around it. They’re large creatures, they travel in big herds unlike native ungulates such as mule deer and pronghorn, and they love to hang out in streambeds where the living is easy, with plentiful water to drink and delicate plants to munch on.

The damage they do to riparian vegetation can speed up erosion, harm fish by increasing water temperature, decrease bird populations through the elimination of shrub habitat, and cause a long list of other ecological problems.

Conventional wisdom holds that in order to repair this damage, it’s necessary to actively restore a streambed by replanting vegetation, reshaping eroded banks, and filling gullies. If you’ve ever worked trying to restore habitat, you know that it is both time-consuming and expensive. I discovered this myself when I worked for a watershed council in eastern Oregon, spending hours planting willow stakes and spreading grass seed along streams that had been degraded by cattle.

Happily, though, there is some good news for underfunded and understaffed restoration efforts throughout the West. A new study carried out at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge by Oregon State University researchers suggests that in some cases, overgrazed riparian areas can recover on their own in the decades after cattle are removed -- no assistance from us needed.

Hart Mountain is a wildlife refuge in sparsely populated southeastern Oregon, established in 1936 to protect remnant herds of pronghorn in the area. Originally, land managers believed that allowing cattle to graze in the refuge would actually improve the quality of the habitat; a 1970 document described grazing as the “primary means by which vegetation would be managed.”

Over time, it became clear that this assumption was dead wrong; by the 1990s 73 percent of Hart Mountain’s streams were listed as being in poor or very poor condition. The radical solution? Removing all cattle from refuge lands, accomplished in 1991.

To see how things had changed in the decades since, Oregon State University ecology professor Bill Ripple, his student Jonathan Batchelor, and their colleagues tracked down the sites of 110 historical photos of the refuge’s degraded riparian areas. Then they re-photographed each site to see how it looks today. The images were dramatic (see for yourself at www.cof.orst.edu/hart).

Previously eroded channels had been filled with lush grass and willows, bare soil has disappeared, and aspen stands have regenerated. In a few areas, some active restoration had been done in the form of controlled burns and willow plantings, but amazingly, today you can see little difference between managed and unmanaged sites.

Ripple called his paper “rare,” because it showed what happened to the land before and after cattle were removed and can serve as an example to all Westerners. “It’s not practical to do active restoration for huge areas, where people are planting willows and other species,” he said. “What makes this potentially a very powerful management tool is that it is a passive restoration approach, where the government took action to remove the cattle and over two decades later we’re seeing a major resurgence of stream-side plants. It’s an indicator of the resiliency of nature.”

He was quick to caution that these results may not be universal; nature is temperamental as well as adaptable, and what works in one place may not work in another. In a degraded streambed that has been overtaken by invasive weeds, for example, native plants will probably have trouble reestablishing without a helping hand. 

That Hart Mountain’s streams are now healthy again doesn’t mean it’s time to reintroduce cattle to the refuge, either, Ripple adds. if the grazing were managed intensively, using a low stocking rate and frequently moving cattle between pastures, cattle could be compatible with healthy riparian areas, but he adds, it would be challenging.

I wouldn’t trade the time I spent on the banks of Fox Creek planting willow stakes along with a group of teenage volunteers. It got me out of the office on a sunny day and deepened my understanding of the land whose stewardship I was supposed to be overseeing. But restoring every foot of overgrazed streambed across the vast American West by hand is clearly not going to happen, and it’s a relief to learn that maybe it doesn’t need to. Thanks to the experiment at Hart Mountain, we finally have data to back up what ranchers and others who live close to the range have long maintained: Given time, on the scale of decades or more, tired, beat-up, overgrazed land has an amazing capacity to heal itself.

Rebecca Deatsman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She is a writer in Walla Walla, Washington. 

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.