Public rangelands support producer livelihoods and ranching communities. Society also expects public rangelands to provide clean water for recreation and drinking, plus habitat for wildlife of special concern such as the Greater sage-grouse. Because grazing can reduce water quality and wildlife habitat, federal agencies face litigation curtailing grazing. A common way to address ecological concerns on public lands is to de-stock rangelands. While reducing grazing intensity, such as by de-stocking, can improve range condition, reducing cattle numbers negatively affects rancher incomes and communities.
To address this tricky management problem, thirty-six Rich County Utah producers engaged in an eleven-year collaborative process with federal and state agencies to develop an innovative grazing plan for their public lands. A key element is altering grazing-duration (defined as length of grazing-time) along streams. Understanding how grazing-duration affects key ecological goals and producer economic-vitality is critical to determining this project’s success.
Our study addresses this goal by examining how three grazing-durations in replicated riparian areas affect water quality, sage-grouse habitat, and forage recovery. We additionally assess producer cost for altering durations as required in the new Grazing Plan adopted by Rich County producers. Our objectives are to quantify benefits and costs of switching grazing-duration, and demonstrate for producers and policy-makers how altering duration across a working landscape improves ecological outcomes. To this end, our study examines not just how grazing-duration affects forage production, which has been studied, but also how duration impacts ecological benefits and producer economic-vitality – elements often overlooked.
Our education and outreach plan includes local data-sharing via personal meetings and field days with producers and agency managers who will use this information to adaptively manage these public lands. We will share information nationally through extension fact sheets, a community newsletter, website postings, and scientific publications and presentations at national conferences.
Results will ensure the new Rich County Grazing Plan achieves state-mandated water standards and sage-grouse habitat goals, while supporting economically-viable livestock operations. These results are aimed to avert lawsuits targeting public-lands grazing, and provide a balanced public-lands grazing model that can be replicated in other areas.
(1) Determine how grazing-duration affects: (a) stream-side vegetation recovery from grazing, (b) sage-grouse habitat quality, and (c) water quality (Yr 1&2).
(2) Quantify improvements to environmental quality (i.e., recovery of stream-side vegetation sage-grouse habitat, and water quality) gained via shorter grazing-durations used with implementation of the Three Creeks Grazing Allotment Consolidation Plan (Yr 1-3; plus Yr 4-6 if we gain additional funding as a long-term project).
(3) Quantify the economic costs incurred by producers of changing grazing-durations via implementation of the Three Creeks Grazing Allotment Consolidation Plan by comparing producer costs before implementation to after implementation (Yr 1-3; plus Yr 4-6 if we gain additional funding as a long-term project).
(4) Compare implementation costs incurred by producers with improvements to environmental quality to determine pros and cons of altering grazing-durations on Rich County public lands (Yr 3; plus Yr 4-6 if we gain additional funding as a long-term project).
(5) Evaluate the value to local producers of altering grazing management (including grazing-durations) via implementation of the Three Creeks Grazing Allotment Consolidation Plan by conducting producer surveys and interviews. These will gauge producer-perceived costs of changing grazing management (e.g., monetary, time) and benefits of doing so (e.g., improved environmental quality, reduced risk of litigation) (Yr 1: survey before the Plan implementation; Yr3: survey and interview after implementation).
(6) Share project results, including any found benefits of using grazing-duration as a tool to balance public-lands grazing with provision of clean water, sage-grouse habitat, and resilient riparian areas to rangeland managers and federal agencies in charge of public-lands policy (Yr 2 & 3; plus Yr 4-6 if gain long-term funding).
Hypotheses per Objective
Obj 1: Determine how grazing-duration affects: (a) stream-side vegetation recovery from grazing, (b) sage-grouse habitat quality, and (c) water quality (Yr 1&2). Forage-recovery: We expect shorter grazing-durations to result in more forage recovery near streams due to less continuous disturbance by cattle during the grazing season. We expect that no-grazed controls will have taller forage than grazed treatments. Sage-grouse habitat quality: According to sage-grouse habitat guidelines, taller grass/perennial forbs and more grass/perennial forb cover correlate with better sage-grouse habitat (Stiver et al. 2015; Messmer & Dahlgren 2018). We expect no-grazing controls and 2-3 week grazing-durations will have taller vegetation than 1.5-month grazing-durations due to less grazing disturbance. It is possible, however, that no-grazing controls will have less perennial forb cover than grazed sites due to dominance of grasses. If so, sites with short grazing-durations could provide the habitat most favorable to sage-grouse – i.e., taller vegetation, more forbs. We will also cross-walk our collected sage-grouse habitat quality data under different grazing-durations with sage-grouse location data collected via Dr. Messmer’s work deploying GPS radio-transmitters on sage-grouse in the Three Creeks area – thus leveraging sage-grouse research efforts. Water quality: We expect water quality violations to occur when cattle are in-pasture, but not once cattle are removed. Thus, we expect shorter grazing-durations to result in fewer water quality violations.
Obj 2: Quantify improvements to environmental quality (i.e., recovery of stream-side vegetation sage-grouse habitat, and water quality) gained via shorter grazing-durations used with implementation of the Three Creeks Grazing Allotment Consolidation Plan (Yr 1-3; plus Yr 4-6 if we gain additional funding as a long-term project). Hypothesis: We expect shortening grazing-duration will improve environmental quality (forage recovery, sage-grouse habitat quality, water quality) on public rangelands. We expect these attributes will begin to resemble those within no-grazing exclosures and on private lands already employing 2-3 week rotations.
Obj 3: Quantify the economic costs incurred by producers of changing grazing-durations via implementation of the Three Creeks Grazing Allotment Consolidation Plan by comparing producer costs before implementation to after implementation (Yr 1-3; plus Yr 4-6 if we gain additional funding as a long-term project). Hypothesis: We expect producers’ change-in-costs to be variable per producer, but that consolidating management will ultimately allow producers to realize economic benefits due to efficiency gained through streamlined management.
Obj 4: Compare implementation costs incurred by producers with improvements to environmental quality to determine pros and cons of altering grazing-durations on Rich County public lands (Yr 3; plus Yr 4-6 if we gain additional funding as a long-term project). Hypothesis: We expect the largest improvements in environmental quality will occur to operators who incur the largest cost to transition to the new grazing Plan.
Obj 5: Evaluate the value to local producers of altering grazing management (including grazing-durations) via implementation of the Three Creeks Grazing Allotment Consolidation Plan by conducting producer surveys and interviews. These will gauge producer-perceived costs of changing grazing management (e.g., monetary, time) and benefits of doing so (e.g., improved environmental quality, reduced risk of litigation) (Yr 1: survey before the Plan implementation; Yr3: survey and interview after implementation). Hypothesis: We expect producers’ perceived benefit of altering grazing will outweigh any increased management cost. We expect that producers’ views will be influenced by results of our economic and ecological study. If our study indicates producers are spending less and that environmental conditions are improving after implementation, we expect producers to feel more positive about the Plan’s implementation then they did before knowing outcomes. We expect producers will take ownership for ecological improvements and express a sense of stewardship of their public lands.
Methods objective 1: To accomplish Objective 1 we will collect information on forage recovery, sage-grouse habitat quality, and water quality across replicated riparian areas employing different grazing-durations. Data collection will take place in Rich County, UT on public lands and a private ranch (Deseret Land and Livestock). For forage recovery and sage-grouse habitat quality, we will establish sampling sites along perennial streams in areas employing the following durations: 1.5-months, 2-3 weeks, no-grazing. For the no-grazing treatment we will use existing exclosures that exclude cattle (but not deer, rabbits, or rodents) from riparian areas. Exclosures are large enough to minimize edge effects. We will not be able to use the exclosures to provide no-grazed controls for water quality because cattle can access areas upstream and wastes may flow into exclosed areas. We will thus examine the effects of grazing-duration on water quality by comparing water quality at 1.5-month and 2-3 week sites. There are at least three replicate sites in independent watersheds per grazing-duration. Sites are grazed with beef cow-calf pairs. Because we are working across a large landscape, we will also obtain a non-grazed baseline for vegetation at all sites to ensure similarity. We will install two-1m2 grazing-cages per site, and use vegetation in cages to determine if production and cover are similar among sites.
Forage recovery: Monthly throughout the public grazing season (May-Sept), we will measure change in: (a) stubble height, and (b) percent bare ground near streams as cattle move in and out of pastures. We will use point-intercept methods along three-75m transects per site, located within 1m of streambanks and running parallel to streams. Transects will ensure we capture each site’s spatial heterogeneity.
Sage-grouse habitat quality: Steam-side areas are prime habitat for sage-grouse with broods early- to mid-summer (Stiver et al. 2015). Criteria for good habitat include: (a) total grass height/cover, which serve as cover for young sage-grouse, and (b) total perennial forb height/cover with forbs serving as cover, food, and also supporting insects that are food of young grouse (Stiver et al. 2015; Messmer & Dahlgren 2018). We will use the 75m transects established to assess forage recovery to also collect grass/perennial forb height, cover, and composition once per month (May–Sept).
Water quality: We will measure Escherichia coli (E. coli), pH, temperature, and dissolved oxygen levels in streams twice per month, throughout the grazing season (May – Sept). These parameters are regulated by the Utah Department of Water Quality. Streams above regulated limits on public lands are included in the State’s Listing of Impaired Waters (303d) (Utah Department of Environmental Quality 2018). By monitoring streams twice per month, we will examine how quickly pollutants respond to cattle addition and removal and determine if grazing-duration can be used to maintain water quality. We will use a YSI probe® to measure pH, temperature and dissolved oxygen, and the Idexx System to determine E. coli levels in collected water samples.
Methods objective 2: Implementation of the Three Creeks Grazing Allotment Consolidation Plan will entail reducing public-land grazing-duration from 1.5 months to ~2-3 weeks. We will accomplish Objective 2 by assessing environmental quality before and after the Plan’s implementation in areas where duration is shortened. We will also compare environmental quality in areas where duration is shortened to that in no-grazed controls and that in pastures on private lands where the duration will remain 2-3 weeks. This will allow us to determine whether environmental conditions in areas with shortened durations begin to resemble no-grazed areas and areas with existing shorter grazing-durations.
Methods objective 3: We will accomplish objective 3 by compiling economic information from producers in the Three Creeks Grazing, LLC, plus from partners who provided cost-share funding. We will standardize producer costs (e.g.: moving cattle, building/repairing fencing, managing water sources) per AUM. This allows us to compare producer costs across different sized allotments. Pre- and post-consolidation information has already been collected by Taylor Payne (Extension/Outreach Representative).
Methods objective 4: We will accomplish objective 4 by combining collected economic information (Objective 3) with post-implementation ecological data (Objective 2). By pairing producers’ implementation costs with changes in environmental quality, we will determine the cost for incremental increases in environmental quality that occur when grazing-duration is changed.
Methods objective 5: We will accomplish objective 5 by conducting pre- (Yr1) and post- (Yr3) implementation surveys of producers involved in the Three Creeks Project, plus a post-implementation interview (Yr 3). Surveys will include a mix of multiple-choice and short answer questions, asking about producer motivation for participating in the Three Creeks Project, perceived barriers to participation, and expected outcomes for their operations and the environment. Interviews will include open-ended questions that expand on themes discovered in the surveys, plus those found in a study conducted by PI-K. Hulvey of producer motivations for public lands management.
Obj 1: During the spring & summer of 2019 we set-up field sites, and started collecting data on our three target ecosystem services. While final analysis of these data will occur after a second field season in 2020, we have started to graph and interpret this first year of data. The goal for this objective is to determine how grazing-duration affects: (a) stream-side vegetation recovery from grazing, (b) sage-grouse habi
tat quality, and (c) water quality (Yr 1&2). We are finding the following:
Forage-recovery: We expected shorter grazing-durations to result in more forage recovery than longer durations due to less continuous disturbance by cattle during the grazing season. In 2019, we found this to be the case, with stubble height in the short (2-3 week) duration grazing system reaching 30 cm by June and ~50cm by July. In contrast, stubble height at the longer (1.5 month) grazing duration sites remained short (~10 cm) through the entire grazing season (Fig 1). We also expected that no-grazing controls would have taller forage than either of the two grazed treatments. While this was true for the comparison between the longer (1.5 month) grazing duration compared with the no-grazing treatment for the entire grazing season (Figure 1), it was not true for the short-duration grazing system. Rather heights were only slightly shorter in the short-duration system than the no-grazed system throughout the year. This result surprised us, because while grazing duration lasted only 2-3 weeks in these short-duration systems, these areas still were being grazed, a livestock disturbance that we would expect to reduce vegetation height. It is possible that in the short-duration grazing systems that cattle were moved through these pastures fast enough that vegetation was not highly affected. These are large pastures, and it is also possible that although cattle were in pastures, they did not graze along our transects. We do not believe this is the case however, because we saw cattle at each short-duration site during monitoring. If we find a similar result in 2020, this could indicate that these short duration grazing systems are able to successfully balance livestock grazing with the forage-recovery in pastures. This could also mean that once the Three Creeks Grazing LLC implements their new watershed scale time controlled grazing system that uses short durations, they may improve range conditions in their riparian areas.
Sage-grouse habitat quality: According to sage-grouse habitat guidelines, taller grass/perennial forbs and more grass/perennial forb cover correlate with better sage-grouse habitat. We expect no-grazing controls and 2-3 week grazing-durations will have taller vegetation than 1.5-month grazing-durations due to less grazing disturbance. It is possible, however, that no-grazing controls will have less perennial forb cover than grazed sites due to dominance of grasses. If so, sites with short grazing-durations could provide the habitat most favorable to sage-grouse – i.e., taller vegetation, more forbs. We have not analyzed the sage-grouse data collected from this past summer yet.
Water quality: We expect water quality violations to occur when cattle are in-pasture, but not once cattle are removed. Thus, we expect shorter grazing-durations to result in fewer water quality violations. This is what we found in our first year of water quality sampling. Of the streams sampled streams in medium-duration pastures were out of compliance an average of 26% of the recreation season, while those in short-duration pastures were out of compliance 0% of the grazing season.
Obj 2: No results yet for this objective. Data will begin to be collected for this objective after implementation of a new grazing system in 2021.
Obj 3: No results yet for this objective. I will need to gather permission from ranchers to synthesize their economic data first. I was planning to gain this permission at the time I conducted the first surveys this spring (see Obj 5 below). However, due to the Covid outbreak, this has been postponed. I anticipate being able to obtain permission when I meet with Three Creeks LLC members in the Fall/Winter 2020. However, if this is not possible, my IRB review will allow me to obtain this permission by mail. This delay in gaining permission will cause achievement of this objective to occur later than initially anticipated in my grant activity timeline.
Obj 4: No results yet for this objective. I will need to complete the research for Obj 1-3 first.
Obj 5: No results yet for this objective. PI K. Hulvey began conducting a first round of surveys March 9th to the Three Creeks Grazing LLC Board Members. A general meeting was scheduled for March 16th, but was cancelled due to the Covid outbreak. I anticipate being able to meet with the other LLC members in the Fall/Winter 2020. However, if this is not possible, my IRB review will allow me to conduct the survey by mail. I don’t think this will be as effective as conducting it in person because the ranchers will possibly feel more comfortable completing the survey when they can ask me questions in person about the Survey Consent forms. Because of this, I will wait as long as I can to conduct this first round of surveys, which needs to be completed before the implementation of the new grazing system in March of 2021.
Producer & Ag Professional Educational Activities: Activities involving producers and ag professionals aim to combine experiential learning about project outcomes, with multiple types of data sharing.
Field Tours – We believe one of the best ways to share results is by showing people how grazing-duration can alter the landscape. We will thus conduct two field tours, one pre- and one post-project implementation. Tours will showcase outcomes to stakeholders, including: producers, BLM and UGIP managers from the Salt Lake Office, and staff at the Department of Water Quality, NRCS, Forest Service, and SITLA. During the first tour, we will visit sites employing the current 1.5-month grazing-duration to give participants an idea of current conditions on theses public allotments. We will also visit exclosures to highlight what conditions would look like without grazing. We will use these two endpoints to discuss how conditions might change once grazing-durations are shortened on these rangelands. We will demonstrate/explain our monitoring techniques for forage recovery, sage-grouse habitat, and water quality as a way to introduce these ecological management goals, and to ensure participants understand how we are generating data. The second tour will take place a year after implementation. We will discuss any initial improvements seen in environmental quality, plus show pictures of riparian conditions from the previous tour (via informational handouts) so participants can see before-after results. We will discuss barriers producers faced when implementing the new Grazing Plan and how they overcame these barriers. Tours will take place in September so we can see full-season effects of grazing.
Participatory surveys and interviews – The surveys and interviews outlined in Objective 5 will allow partners (including producers) to learn rancher perceptions of the costs and benefits of the Grazing Plan’s implementation. By participating in and gaining results from pre- and post-implementation surveys, producers can see how their opinions of the project have evolved over the project’s lifetime. This kind of meta-knowledge can help producers synthesize improvements to environmental quality, and changes to their economic security. Interviews will serve a similar purpose, and will allow producers to discuss reservations, frustrations, and ideas of achievement about the grazing switch. Summing such views will ensure there is a shared knowledge of these by all partners. Additionally, this information can help others planning similar projects gain an understanding of key factors leading to project success.
Rich County Coordinated Resource Management (CRM) meetings – We will share ongoing results via short presentations at semi-annual meetings. The CRM group was created to provide economic stability and sustainable natural resources to Rich County stakeholders. This will be a key venue to share information with the community.
Personal meetings with partners and policymakers –Kris Hulvey, Taylor Payne, and Terry Messmer have worked extensively to build relationships with partners participating in the Three Creeks Grazing Project and policymakers interested in the work. Kris and Taylor will continue building these relationships by personally sharing project updates and research results to groups including: the Three Creeks LLC Board, BLM, UGIP, Utah Department of Environmental Quality, NRCS, the Forest Service, and SITLA. These meetings will allow Kris to share research results of interest to individual partners, and allow partners to ask detailed questions focused on their management needs. The meetings will allow Taylor to share implementation progress, highlight barriers faced and solutions found. This personal dispersion of information will also ensure information being collected is used to inform adaptive management of Rich County allotments
National conferences – To share progress and results to a broader audience (US-wide), Kris Hulvey and Taylor Payne will attend the Annual Meeting of the Society for Range Management to present results formally in talks, and informally in discussions with peers. This conference is a central place for information exchange in the rangeland management community. Taylor has presented talks focused on the Three Creeks Grazing Project in the past, and has found attendees of this conference to be very interested in ongoing progress. We plan to provide at least one presentation (sometimes two) at this conference each year.
Websites – We will share project updates via a page on Kris Hulvey’s lab website (https://qcnr.usu.edu/labs/hulvey_lab/), and via materials posted on the USU extension website that lists information about the Rich County CRM (https://utahcbcp.org/localworkinggroups/RichCounty/richcounty).
Scholarly Publications & Educational Materials: Scholarly publications and educational materials will combine peer reviewed publications in scientific journals, fact sheets published and posted on extension websites, and direct reports given to partners.
Refereed scientific journal publications: We will publish two scientific journal publications based on work that will be complete at the end of the three-year period: One will be targeted to Rangelands (results from Obj #1), and one will be targeted to Rangeland Ecology and Management (results from Obj #2). Both of these journals are read widely by rangeland managers. We also will publish an additional two journal articles based on results from Obj #4 and #5, but will not have the full manuscripts complete by the end of year 3, since some of these results will be collected in Yr 3. Results from Obj #4 will be targeted to Rangeland Ecology and Management, and results from Obj #5 to Environment and Society.
Direct written reports to collaborators: Because not all agency managers or producers have access to scientific journals, results from Obj #1-5 will also be shared in written reports distributed to collaborators in the Three Creeks Grazing Project. Reports will limit scientific jargon, and make results directly applicable to producers and managers.
Extension factsheets and newsletters: Results from Obj #1, 2, and 4 will be presented in factsheets published through the Utah State University Extension and articles published in the Utah Community-Based Conservation Program’s newsletter – The Communicator. These fact sheets and articles will aim to share results with managers and producers beyond Rich County, and who may not typically read scientific journals. These will be available on the Extension’s website, plus Kris Hulvey’s website.
Educational & Outreach Activities
(2) PI started conducting pre-implementation surveys to ranchers involved with the Three Creeks Project. These surveys are the first of a series of two surveys aimed to highlight how rancher perspectives of the grazing project change before vs. after implementation of the new grazing system.
(3) PI regularly posts updates from the project on the Working Lands Conservation social media sites including: website, facebook page, and via Instagram. To date there have been 8 website blog posts, 21 facebook posts (41 followers), and 20 Instagram posts (47 followers).
Our project is in early days so has not yet affected agricultural sustainability. However, we expect this work to benefit both the ranchers we directly work with via this project, as well ranchers more broadly. We expect our focus on grazing-duration’s effects on key ecological goals will allow stakeholders to assess whether the grazing-durations included in the new Grazing Plan are allowing them to achieve state-mandated water quality standards and sage-grouse habitat goals. This approach may avert future lawsuits aimed at reducing grazing on these public lands. In addition, because we consider the costs to producers of changing their operations, our study will allow ranchers to assess economic tradeoffs of altering duration to increase ecological health. More broadly, if this grazing-duration proves to balance livestock grazing with environmental outcomes, it could serve as a model of balanced public-lands management that can be replicated across other US public rangelands.