Utah program puts science to work for grazers

Mar 2, 2012

Most every rancher wants to do a good job managing their range, but where do you turn if you have an area that needs improvement?

Riparians, wildlife habitat, invasive species and uneven grazing patterns all present challenges that frequently require extra attention and enhanced management. But long-standing mistrust between ranchers and federal agencies, and often just a lack of funding, can limit a rancher’s options, leaving many to try and muddle through the best they can with long-established grazing routines.

But things may be ripe for a change. Thanks to an innovative program spearheaded by the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF), Utah ranchers are no longer left struggling for solutions to grazing issues.

Now in its sixth year, the Utah Grazing Improvement Program (UGIP) offers Utah livestock producers access to a wealth of range science expertise as well as funding to help them optimize grazing practices, both on private and public land.

Brainchild of UDAF Commissioner Leonard Blackham, UGIP was first conceived in 2005 when ranchers communicated to Blackham a need for assistance with grazing management. A modest sum of state funding was secured for the program through the Utah State Legislature and in 2006, UGIP was up and running.

“It was a one-man show with $150,000 to spend,” says UGIP Director Bill Hopkin of the program’s humble beginnings. Since then, the program has expanded, and flourished.

“Now we have nine employees and $1.3 million to spend on projects,” Hopkin continues.

UGIP-funded projects have run the gamut from habitat enhancement using juniper and sagebrush thinning to adding pastures and pipelines to better distribute livestock and adjust duration and season of use. By supporting more productive rangelands, UGIP projects have helped improve sage grouse habitat, big game habitat, and restore riparian areas, all while improving livestock productivity.

Rancher participation

Though UGIP is administered by UDAF, its core is composed of five regional grazing advisory boards made up of local ranchers. Each region also has a paid regional coordinator who is a credentialed range management specialist. The coordinator helps ranchers in his region to identify grazing issues and design projects to solve them. The coordinator also functions as a middleman between ranchers and land management agencies. It’s a key role, given the frequently strained relationship between permittees and their federal landlords.

“The most successful regions have a very good relationship with their (agency) field offices,” Hopkin observes.

The program is rounded out by a state grazing advisory board with rancher representatives from all five regions, as well as representatives from the oil and gas industry, the state Department of Natural Resources, and several others. The state board is responsible for giving final approval of range improvement projects.

According to Utah rancher and state board chairman Jay Tanner, producers have welcomed the program and are stepping up to help make it a success.

“They’ve done a good job of getting people to serve on the boards,” remarks Tanner. “The boards have been active and innovative.”

Undermanaged, not overgrazed

Given the morass of litigation that often surrounds grazing issues, it is not surprising that one of the keys to UGIP’s success is the role of science in guiding the range improvement projects funded by the program.

“When we put the program together, we knew that we needed to be sciencebased,” remarks Hopkin.

A technical committee of range experts from the state extension service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), State and Institutional Trust Lands, and the Forest Service was put together to meet that need for UGIP, as well as providing the transparency necessary for a program which runs largely on taxpayer dollars.

One of the grounding principles the technical committee has established for the program is that most range health issues are not the result of overstocking cattle and sheep, but rather of under managing them. This pro-active philosophy has uniquely positioned UGIP to help ranchers develop solutions to grazing challenges while maintaining the trust of agency.

“If a permittee is getting beat up by the agency and the management is not good, we’re not going to defend it,” Hopkin points out. “Our attitude is: Let’s go in and fix it.”

Trusted middleman

The can-do attitude demonstrated by Hopkin and his team of UGIP regional coordinators has gone a long way toward building bridges between agency land managers and permittees.

Whereas, previously, a permittee might shrink from addressing range issues for fear of having animal unit months cut, UGIP coordinators are now helping premittees pro-actively develop management proposals for agency approval. Signs are, BLM and the Forest Service are starting to recognize a good thing.

“Slowly but surely, the agencies have started to come to us,” Hopkins says, noting that now, agencies will sometimes approach a UGIP coordinator for technical assistance with a grazing issue. “Over time, those range cons and agency personnel have taken a lot of pride in being able to accomplish something with not a lot of money” by authorizing UGIP range improvement projects, Hopkin continued.

Yet Hopkin emphasized that UGIP projects can only go forward provided that the rancher is in agreement.

“We certainly listen to the agencies if they have a concern and want to do something, but we don’t do anything on public land unless it is strongly supported by the permittee.”

In the long run, the presence of UGIP is reshaping the long antagonistic relationship between grazers and land managers into something far more productive and cooperative.

“What’s been really encouraging is that we’ve slowly been able to rebuild confidence with the federal agencies,” remarks Hopkin. “It’s really helped with bringing us together with a common goal of improving management. The permittees trust us because we don’t have a tan shirt with an emblem, and the agencies trust us because we don’t defend bad management.” A new model for management?

There are many reasons why the joint management of public lands by ranchers and agency personnel has not always resulted in perfect success. Lack of communication, lack of funding and personnel, and lack of knowledge have all played a part in sometimes preventing working landscapes from flourishing as they can, and should.

The consequences can be frustrating, and sometimes financially devastating, to ranchers.

“One of the typical things we hear from ranchers is, ‘Look, we’ve done everything agency told us to do, and now they want to cut our permit,’” relates Hopkin. “The way the public lands grazing system is put together doesn’t motivate or incentivize good management.”

It may be that UGIP offers a new model for rangeland management by giving ranchers the ability to be pro-active and take ownership of the condition of the range instead of trusting to agency and hoping for the best. For ranchers in Utah, the experiment certainly seems to be paying off. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent