Using grazing-duration to balance: livelihoods, clean water, sage-grouse habitat, and sustainable forage in semi-arid rangelands

Project Overview

SW22-942
Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2022: $328,329.00
Grant Recipient: Working Lands Conservation
Region: Western
State: Utah
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Kris Hulvey
Working Lands Conservation
Co-Investigators:
Taylor Payne
Utah Department of Agriculture's Grazing Improvement Program

Commodities

  • Animals: bovine

Practices

  • Animal Production: grazing management
  • Sustainable Communities: partnerships

    Proposal abstract:

    Public rangelands support producer livelihoods and communities. Society also expects public rangelands to provide clean water for recreation, plus habitat for wildlife. Because grazing can reduce water quality and wildlife habitat, federal agencies face litigation curtailing grazing. A common way to address ecological concerns is to reduce grazing intensity by de-stocking cattle. Although this can improve rangeland conditions, reducing cattle numbers negatively affects rancher incomes and communities.

    To address this management problem, 38 Utah producers engaged in a 11-year collaborative process with federal and state agencies to develop an innovative grazing plan for their public lands: the Three Creeks Grazing Allotment Consolidation Plan (The Grazing Plan). A key element of this plan is shortening 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 the Grazing Plan’s success.

    Our study addresses this need by examining how the region’s historical grazing-durations affect forage recovery, sage-grouse habitat, and water quality in replicated riparian areas. Because producers will shorten grazing-duration when they implement the Grazing Plan in 2022, we also have an opportunity to examine whether implementation of new grazing practices improves management outcomes.

    Our study combines ecological, economic, and social sustainability by assessing producer costs of altering management, and using surveys and interviews to understand whether the Grazing Plan is meeting rancher needs. Our goal is to quantify costs of shortening grazing-duration and demonstrate whether ecological outcomes improve across a working landscape. To this end, our study examines not just how grazing-duration affects forage production, which has been studied, but also how duration impacts ecological outcomes and producer economic-vitality - elements often overlooked.

    Our education and outreach plan focuses on sharing data and the story of this project at local, regional, and national scales. Locally, our team employs participatory learning and partnership building through talks, field tours, and rancher surveys; regionally, we share outcomes and innovative management practices with young ranchers through a sponsored workshop and with federal and state agencies through personal meetings; nationally, we share outcomes and project details with the public, researchers, and managers through presentations, publishing in peer-reviewed and popular literature, social media, and peer-to-peer learning.

    We expect project results to highlight how short-duration grazing allows producers to meet federal/state regulations on public lands without reducing livestock numbers or facing lawsuits that eliminate grazing privileges. Since the effects of management accrue over multiple years, continued funding will allow our team to more accurately detail whether shortened grazing durations achieve rangeland management goals. We expect this research will identify social factors likely to constrain adoption of novel grazing solutions, but also highlight benefits of altered grazing that make the cost-benefit ratio of adopting innovative management attractive to producers. By linking the costs of altering grazing with gains in environmental quality, this research will justify creation of cost-share programs that support ranchers when they adopt innovative management on public lands. We expect our project to provide a balanced public-lands grazing model that can be replicated in other areas.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    • Determine how grazing-duration affects: (a) stream-side vegetation recovery from grazing, (b) sage-grouse habitat quality, and (c) water quality.
    • Quantify improvements to environmental quality (i.e., recovery of vegetation, sage-grouse habitat, water quality) when shorter grazing-durations are implemented through the new Three Creeks Grazing Allotment Consolidation Plan.
    • Quantify the economic costs to producers of changing grazing-duration by comparing costs before versus after implementation of the Three Creeks Grazing Allotment Consolidation Plan.
    • Compare implementation costs incurred versus improvements to environmental quality to determine pros and cons of altering grazing-duration on Rich County public lands. 
    • Evaluate the value to local producers of altering grazing management through surveys and interviews. These will gauge producer-perceived costs of changing management (e.g., monetary, time) and benefits of doing so (e.g., improved environmental quality, reduced litigation risk).
    • Share project results (a) with producers and management agencies via local activities, (b) by engaging with regional stakeholders and young ranchers, and (c) by sharing project information nationally.
    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.