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Know the West

Cows are not a 'tool'


When I read "The Odd Couple," I saw my career flash before my eyes (HCN, 2/17/14).  From 1984 to 2006, I was the hydrologist on the Beaverhead National Forest, and for most of that time, my fellow "ologists" and I were involved with the grazing issue. Occasionally, we would get the right combination of permittee, range con, ranger, staff officer and ologist to get new grazing protocols implemented, but it was pretty random. If you went to any of our 160 allotments today, there aren't many where you'd see much progress. The permittee strategy was to wait us out – make some small concessions this year and hope we'd either be transferred or retired, or forget, by next year. Changing the grazing system, fencing or water developments generally aren't that effective – unless they're combined with herding by cowboys to keep the cows away from the stream.

The key to functioning riparian areas is to either maintain or recreate the stream channel that should be there. That's the only way to distribute water throughout the riparian area, which is the only way to maintain the vegetation that creates habitat for songbirds and fish. Controlling cattle trampling on the stream banks is absolutely essential. Solve the physical problems first and the vegetative and biological solutions will follow. These systems are incredibly resilient. We don't need more knowledge, we need more commitment.

I don't know how many times over the years we said that the only real solution was to buy these guys out – which is why I think what is happening in New Mexico makes the most sense.  In the long run, it would be much cheaper and better for the land. Cows are not a "tool" to manage landscapes. (A chainsaw is a tool, but you don't do brain surgery with one.) The Forest Service, and especially the BLM, need systemic changes in the way they approach the most damaging land use in the West. I wish them all well, but there's a lot of negative inertia to overcome.

Pete Bengeyfield
Dillon, Montana