A homestead during the Dust Bowl. Photo by Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress.
Sometimes, we really do learn from our mistakes.
In the 1930s, the Dust Bowl taught Americans a painful lesson: when we mistreat our soil, our plants and our land through unsustainable practices, the land reacts in-kind, and we pay the price. In response to the Dust Bowl crisis, the federal government purchased nearly 5 million acres of damaged lands in order to rehabilitate them, and thus the system of National Grasslands was born.
“Some of the lands that were repaired and restored were sold off. Those are the ones that are privately owned today,” says Mark Hogan, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Wyoming. “Many were never sold off because they were so damaged at the time, but today they’ve become productive.”
The farming, ranching and scientific community now know that in prairies and pastures, grass with healthy root systems is essential to sustain healthy, nutrient-rich soil that stays put and doesn’t blow away. Today, the U.S. Forest Service manages the National Grasslands and issues leases to established grazing associations, who then provide permits to their members to allow their cattle to graze. Cattle belonging to members of the Spring Creek Grazing Association use portions of the Thunder Basin National Grassland in northeastern Wyoming. In April, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department was awarded $150,000 in grant funds by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to help the association make rangeland improvements that benefit owners of working lands while conserving local wildlife.
“We are encouraged by the support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the opportunity to collaborate with the grazing association to improve range conditions and wildlife habitat,” says the project’s lead, Todd Caltrider with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “By improving grazing distribution with rangeland grazing infrastructure, we can better manage cattle to get the wildlife habitat value that we would like to see on the landscape.”
This practice, called “rotational grazing,” takes its cues from history by mimicking how the land was used by roaming bison. The bison would arrive, graze the grass, then move on. Their nomadic nature and foraging patterns resulted in a diversity of grass heights across the prairie, providing a variety of habitats for many grassland species. The period of rest the grass received between grazing events gave it time to recuperate, which is essential in order to maintain strong root systems underground; something the Dust Bowl taught us is necessary to sustain a healthy soils.
Curious cattle. Photo by Krista Lundgren/USFWS
“If you can manage a site that will allow plants time to rest and recover, you can improve the health of the rangeland, have more production, and increase carrying capacity for both wildlife and livestock. It’s a win-win for the producers and wildlife,” says Mark, who is also member of the project team.
Improving the availability of water is another key to any habitat improvement project, because whether you’re a herd of mule deer or a herd of cattle, you need water. “By adding livestock watering systems and cross-fencing, landowners can better implement a rest rotation grazing system that allows for better control of rangeland utilization,” Todd says. This also relieves pressure on the natural gulches where rainwater collects, giving them a chance to recover and regrow grass.
That bodes well for one of Wyoming’s most celebrated species, the greater sage-grouse. Often found on private lands during the summer, grouse appear at grassy gulches to drink, nest, feast on bugs and raise their young. “This is in our sage-grouse core area. It’s been identified as prime sage-grouse habitat, so that makes it a priority area for us,” Todd says.
A greater sage-grouse lek in the Thunder Basin National Grassland. Photo by Christi Painter/Forest Service
In addition, the team will be assessing portions of the 150 miles of Dust Bowl era woven wire and barbed wire fencing. “They’re a barrier to big game migration and a threat to greater sage-grouse,” Mark says. New, wildlife-friendly fences that big game can slide under or leap over will be built in more preferable locations for the ranchers. Plus, if the biologists spot a patch of troublesome cheatgrass along the way, they’ll treat it.
Mark views the project as an opportunity to benefit wildlife and to build trust within a community. “This is important for us and really exciting,” he says. “The grazing association has not worked with such a broad coalition of conservation partners, especially wildlife agencies and non-governmental organizations, so we need to pull it off right.”
“There’s definitely a need for this project and I’m excited to see the changes in the ecosystem,” Todd says. “I’ve been working with Mark about three years and his experience with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has been helpful, because this grant is different from what Wyoming Game and Fish typically works with.”
The Dust Bowl was time in American history that forced us to not only accept failure, but to collaborate, innovate, and rely on science to guide us toward greener pastures. When we take the time to respect the land, its creatures, and to learn from our mistakes, together we build a better future for wildlife and people alike.
A portion of the project site. Photo courtesy of Todd Caltrider/Wyoming Game and Fish Department
JENNIFER STRICKLAND, External Affairs, Mountain-Prairie Region
The Northern Great Plains Program was launched by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in 2013. Major funding partners include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, a private foundation, and BNSF Railways. The program seeks to conserve, restore and improve one million grassland acres by 2026. Learn more at http://www.nfwf.org/greatplains/Pages/home.aspx.