While the dry conditions and wildfires of summer 2012 are now in the memory books for western ranchers, the devastating aftermath continues, especially in regions where ranchers depend on public lands grazing. Many ranges burned, forcing cattle removal, either to private pastures traditionally saved for winter grazing and/or into summer hayfields. That left many ranchers with no alternative but to reduce cattle numbers or purchase expensive winter feed.

That was last year. The net effect for 2013 public lands graziers is that options are bleak. After all, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service policy is to rest burned ranges for two years before allowing them to be grazed again.

Few western states untouched

Sam Mori, a rancher near Tuscarora, NV, says conditions last summer were the driest he’d seen in 55 years.

“The lack of water controlled what we did, more than the feed situation. We managed until Aug. 6, when a fire broke out in our allotment. It didn’t affect us as much for that grazing season as it will for the next two years, as BLM will now make us rest it,” Mori says. “We hope we can grit our teeth and make it through.”

Aside from the forage lost, hundreds of miles of fence were burned, which is costly to replace and will make it difficult to manage cattle.

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Fires in southeastern Oregon burned more than 1 million acres, leaving thousands of cattle with no place to go this spring. Fred Wilkinson runs cattle in southern Oregon where the Holloway Fire burned 500,000 acres.

“Back in 1982-83, BLM restricted grazing in the Trout Creek Mountains. We could only graze for short periods. After a few years, BLM wanted more restrictions. Vegetation and brush became so thick you couldn’t ride down the canyon. I told them that someday they’d have a big fire and burn it all,” he says.

“The fire started more than 30 miles from us, burned to within 10 miles of our ranch and claimed more than half our grazing allotment. Some ranchers didn’t have any grazing left. Current federal policy says we can’t graze for two years, meaning it will come back thick, and may burn again,” he explains.

Wilkinson says the fire burned for 11 days. “In 70 years, I’d never seen anything like it, and all these big fires resulted from not grazing enough. Years ago, we had a lot of small fires but we could put them out within 24 hours. Before the restrictions of the 1980s, the management was such that if fire did get going, it would run into grazed areas and quit burning, or was easy to put out,” he says.

But Wilkinson says there was so much fuel available this time around that the fires couldn’t be extinguished. “They spent millions of dollars (and reduced grazing) trying to protect cutthroat trout; suddenly, they had nothing but dead trout floating on top of the water.”

The donated hay and money some ranchers received was a help, but the future is the big question mark. More flexibility in grazing management is the first step in helping prevent these kinds of fires, he adds.