February 9, 2011

Grazing Assoc. has beef with new pasture requirement

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

A new U.S. Forest Service scoping document that would create a new requirement for high grass structure on three pastures of the Little Missouri National Grasslands has members of the McKenzie County Grazing Association up in arms over potential grazing cuts.
At the heart of the grazing association’s concern is the Forest Service’s  requirement that 20 to 30 percent of the pastures have a minimum of 3.5” Visual Obstruction Reading (VOR).
“We don’t believe that it is possible to achieve a 3.5” VOR on the grasslands under normal conditions,” states Keith Winter, president of the McKenzie County Grazing Association. “We have scientific data that was compiled by North Dakota State University that only 2.8 percent of the land within these three pastures is biologically capable of producing high structure.”
According to Winter, if the Forest Service proceeds with implementing the 3.5” VOR requirement in its management plans for Pastures 2, 10 and 11, which covers grasslands in western McKenzie County, the number of cattle that will be allowed to graze on the grasslands would be cut by upwards to 46 percent.
“The VOR is not a stubble height measurement. It’s possible to have grass 12 inches tall and still not meet the 3.5” VOR rating,” states Winter. “It’s a brand new concept that has never been tested. In fact, the McKenzie County Commissioners asked the Forest Service to provide their science in an Aug. 23 letter, but the Forest Service never responded to that request.”
But according to Dan Svingen, a grasslands biologist with the Dakota Prairie Grasslands, the VOR standard is necessary on the grasslands to provide for greater wildlife diversity.
“The new grasslands plan, which was adopted by the U.S. Forest Service in 2006, places a greater emphasis on conservation,” states Svingen. “To accomplish this conservation objective, we are looking at adding a high structure vegetative component. We want a portion of the landscape to have the view of low disturbance, which can be achieved with the 3.5” VOR standard.”
While Svingen notes that the 3.5” VOR standard is drawing criticism from the grazing association, that number is the minimum needed to provide adequate habitat for nesting ducks and ground nesting birds, as well as certain species of butterflies.
“The indicator that we used in setting the 3.5” VOR was how much vegetation was needed for the sharp-tailed grouse,” states Svingen. “A study has found that nesting grouse favored habitat with a VOR reading of 5.9” or higher. But since we manage the grasslands for more than just grouse, we opted to use a 3.5” VOR to allow for grazing.”
“We thought we had an agreement with the Forest Service that they would hold off on this until a new study by NDSU on the ability of the soils out here to reach the 3.5” VOR was completed,” stated Winter. “But apparently the Forest Service has decided to move forward.”
Big grazing cuts coming
While the argument between the Forest Service and the grazing association centers around whether or not the majority of the national grasslands in western North Dakota can achieve a 3.5” VOR, the grazing association knows one thing for sure. If the Forest Service does include the new VOR standard, big grazing cuts are coming that will not only impact area ranchers, but the economy of McKenzie County as well.
“From our analysis of the document, we are going to see grazing cuts from between 15 and 46 percent on these three pastures,” states Winter. “The Forest Service is basing the cuts on a five-year average, two of which were years of severe drought, and they aren’t taking that into consideration.”
According to Don Anderson, grazing association director for Pasture 10, the number of permitted cattle on that particular pasture, which has 7,978 acres of federal land, would be reduced from 700 head to 450.
“We voluntarily cut 180 head of cattle on that pasture because of drought conditions. And now they are going to penalize us by using that number to compute the reduction instead of our actual number of permitted animals,” states Anderson.
Between the three pastures, the grazing association is estimating that 830 head of cattle would be removed from the grasslands.
“We’re talking about a lot of money to individual ranchers,” states Winter. “At today’s market price of $600 per head, a loss of 830 head equals $498,000. And that is just a one-time loss. The loss goes on year after year.”
While the Forest Service, according to Winter, says the economic impact is insignificant, he completely disagrees.
“Locally, the loss of this income is huge,” states Winter. “It means that these ranchers will have less money to spend in the local economy. But more importantly, it means eliminating some ranchers.”
The bottom line for Winter and the grazing association is that even though they believe that they have been and continue to be good stewards of the land, the push by the Forest Service is to remove cattle from the grasslands.
“This is just the start,” predicts Les Haugen, Pasture 11 director. “The same process is going to apply to all of the other pastures managed by the grazing association.”
The public scoping process is the Forest Service’s first step to address  its vegetation management and update allotment management plans for livestock grazing in Pastures 2, 10, and 11 of the McKenzie Ranger District. Public input from the scoping process will be used to help the Forest Service determine the issues, concerns and possible alternatives to the proposals developed.
The public is invited to comment on the Pastures 2, 10, and 11 Allotment Management Plan Revisions by addressing them to Libby Knotts, Project Leader, McKenzie Ranger District, 1901 South Main Street, Watford City, ND  58854. Comments can also be emailed to comments-northern-dakota-prairie-mckenzie@fs.fed.us, with “Pastures 2, 10 and 11” in the subject line.
Comments are due to the Forest Service by Feb. 18.