Time for the cows to come home



 On October 1st, we trailed 136 cow/calf pairs down Dry Cottonwood Creek and settled them in a stubble field near the Clark Fork River. This cattle drive marked the end of the 2009 grazing season and the beginning of our shift toward winter management of the ranch and herd. Now, with the days getting shorter and fall’s first snow on the ground, it seems like a good time to revisit some of the summer’s challenges and achievements.

The D.C.C.R. ran two herds this year: The smaller bunch, which grazed on our deeded ground, rotated through a series of six pastures over the course of four and a half months. Moving in accordance with a season-long grazing plan, the herd passed quickly through the ranch’s more fragile areas and spent the bulk of their summer up on the high, grassy benches between Sand Hollow and Dry Cottonwood Creek. Temporary electric fence and consistent herding kept our cattle moving, and close attention from ranch staff ensured that we left ample grass in each pasture for wildlife and general improvement of the range. We were able to defer grazing in two pastures, allowing for reseeding on than 800 acres of native grassland.

On the National Forest, things were a bit more complicated: We share a grazing permit with three other ranchers, and have a combined herd of more than 500 cow/calf pairs. The allotment consists of four enormous pastures, which are better measured in square miles than acres and span the drainages of four perennial creeks. Three of these pastures are grazed each summer, while one enjoys a full season of rest.

The allotment’s vast scale and steep topography make it difficult to manage cattle well. It’s hard to find the cows up there, let alone control where and when they graze. In past years, intensive management on the allotment was viewed as something of a lost cause. The herd went where it pleased, and fragile riparian areas around Orofino, Sand Hollow and Dry Cottonwood Creeks suffered as a result.

This year marked the beginning of a new era on Dry Cottonwood Creek: In May we joined forces with our co-lessees to hire an allotment rider. Our rider, Jim, herds cattle away from creeks and other fragile areas, and does his best to avoid overgrazing. I supplement this work with a comprehensive range and riparian monitoring program to track improvements and identify problems.

All in all we’re making progress. Although a few trouble spots remain, the allotment looks healthier than it did last October. In some places our efforts have produced striking results: There are areas along Dry Cottonwood Creek where I can walk with grass up to my knees, see new shoots on what used to be browsed-out willows, and feel as though we’re getting somewhere—forging a balance that works for wildlife, livestock, and the land.


Bryce Andrews is the Ranchlands Program Manager for the Clark Fork Coalition, the "Voice of the River." More information can be found at www.clarkfork.org.