California ranchers learn about water testing program

Aug 27, 2010
by WLJ

Cattle grazing has been a part of beef production in California since before the Gold Rush and practices that protect the environment have dramatically evolved through the years. As those practices have come under increased scrutiny, university and government scientists have undertaken new studies, including work that focuses on the water quality of High Sierra streams.

At a briefing for ranchers last week in Sonora, the regional rangeland program manager for the U.S. Forest Service, Anne Yost, said the agency is looking for additional data to demonstrate the relationship between grazing on public lands and water quality requirements.

On 36 grazing allotments in the Stanislaus National Forest in Tuolumne County, for example, ranchers run about 2,000 head of cattle in an area that encompasses about a half million acres. Most of the grazing occurs in high altitude meadows, with ranchers spreading the cattle into higher elevations as seasonal forage dries up.

Cliff Hodge, who ranches in Oakdale and Sonora, said his family has maintained summer grazing allotments in the Summit Ranger District of the forest for more than 30 years. His allotment was used last week to help explain a number of research projects currently under way in the forest to assess environmental and water quality.

About 40 people, including grazing permit holders, community stakeholders, researchers and forest management experts, toured grazing meadows and learned about a variety of new approaches to measuring forage utilization, erosion control and surveys for Yosemite toad, a species of concern, and its habitat.

At Bloomer Lake, a small body of water near the 8,500-foot elevation surrounded by hip-deep grasses, Hodge surveyed the wide meadow and said, “I believe the condition of this land is as good as when we got here. In some places it’s probably better. We’ve changed a lot of our practices over the years to improve the environment and fit better with other uses. We’re constantly adjusting our cattle to be sure they’re spread across the range and that they stay away from sensitive areas.”

Yost said the Forest Service and rangeland experts have been interested for some time in gathering scientific data on livestock grazing and water quality, as well as updating assessments of the effectiveness of best management practices on rangeland.

“We’ve been aware of this informational need and want more data behind us as we go into the required National Environmental Policy Act pro cess, which calls for analysis, in order to reauthorize grazing on allotments in our region,” she said.

“I believe the condition of this land is as good as when we got here. In some places it´s probably better. We´ve changed a lot of our practices over the years to improve the environment and fit better with other uses.”

In addition to the agency’s 10-year rangeland study on conditions and trends in the Stanislaus National Forest, Yost said the Forest Service has launched a new pilot study on water quality that will serve as a model for expanded water-quality testing in other national forests in the Pacific Southwest region. The 10-year condition and trend study shows the majority of forest meadows to be in a stable or improving trend, in terms of environmental health.

Part of the solution, she said, is a new, comprehensive water testing program being conducted by researchers from the University of California, Davis. The study will include taking multiple water samples from 48 different sites during the next several months, with preliminary results available by year end. Sites will include a number of areas, including those used for grazing and recreation.

At the same time, Yost said, the State Water Resources Control Board is working on a water-quality plan that will review grazing practices to ensure best practices provide sufficient protection. The Forest Service lists best management practices for grazing that include protecting streambanks, wetlands, estuaries, ponds, lake shores and creeks by a variety of methods, such as providing stream crossings or hardened access to watering areas, providing alternative drinking water or mineral supplementation locations away from surface waters, and excluding livestock during strategic times.

Best practices also call for active herding to reduce physical disturbance of the land and reduce presence of animal waste in water bodies.

Because there’s an immediate need for reliable waterquality data for the Stanislaus National Forest and there’s the anticipation of more widespread testing requirements on public lands in the Sierra Nevada in the future, forestry officials have chosen the Stanislaus as the place to begin.

For ranchers like John Harvey of Sonora who move cattle on horseback several times a week in the Stanislaus National Forest, rangeland assessment is a big part of the job. On the allotment he and partner Ben Cassineto share, he said they constantly assess forage quality and grazing impact, moving cattle from lower elevations into forage in higher meadows as the summer progresses.

“I’m not a scientist, but I’m out here nearly every day and I’ve been working here nearly all my life,” Harvey said. “I can see what’s going on. The cows this year are fat as pigs because there’s been good forage and we keep them moving to prevent overgrazing.”

He said that requires evaluation of forage quality, stubble height, water availability and other conditions.

It also means erecting miles of removable barbed wire fencing to keep cattle in desired areas.

And research indicates that following best management practices for grazing a given ecosystem brings a variety of benefits to the landscape, said Elisa Noble, California Farm Bureau Federation natural resources and public lands director.

“For example, research has shown that the bay checkerspot butterfly depends on grazing to promote plants the butterfly needs to complete its life cycle,” Noble said. “Western burrowing owls also make their home in grazed areas because shorter grass allows the birds to see both predators and prey.”

She said grazing also has proven to enhance native plant growth, foster ecological diversity and control invasive species.

Lands administered by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are intended for multiple uses, including grazing, she noted.

“That requires periodic monitoring of grazing lands, as well as the impact of other uses, to ensure that management practices are effective,” she said.

“It’s important to note that the Forest Service has been complying with the Clean Water Act and other water-quality laws since their passage, through its Water Quality Management Plan and associated best management practices,” Noble said. “Studies have shown the Forest Service is successfully monitoring and protecting water quality on national forests. Now, the agency wants to study more specifically the causes of water quality concerns and to develop solutions.”

Noble said well-designed and executed scientific studies are an important part of rangeland monitoring and help ensure continued use of public lands for production of a safe, affordable, domestic food supply.

Rancher Harvey said scientific water-quality information from studies by experienced researchers “will be very helpful to us as we adjust management practices to protect the land. We welcome it.” — California Farm Bureau Federation