Grazing riparian areas can be a delicate situation. So what works and what doesn't?

In an effort to answer that question, range scientists at the University of Montana (U of M) evaluated grazing management strategies and techniques being practiced on healthy riparian systems throughout Montana.

The study, which began in 1993, included 71 healthy stream reaches on 34 Montana ranches across 27 counties.

"We evaluated healthy riparian zones (or improving ones) and tried to determine how they have been kept in, or are getting to, this condition," explains Bob Ehrhart of the Riparian and Wetland Research Program at the U of M. "This approach was used because we already have a pretty good idea of what doesn't work," he adds.

"The study focused on private lands because ranchers operating on their own lands often have more flexibility," says Ehrhart.

What Did They Find? "The only universal characteristic of the operators was that all were actively involved in managing their land and had an interest in the condition and trend of their riparian areas," says Ehrhart.

Of the 71 riparian zones analyzed, vegetation types, seasons of use and lengths of grazing periods varied greatly. Thirty-four habitat types were identified, and operators employed the full range of seasons of use as well as lengths of grazing periods, reports Ehrhart.

Many useful techniques (fencing, riders, alternate water sources, etc.) were more important to keeping the riparian zones healthy than any type of particular grazing system, adds Ehrhart.

"This suggests that what operators do to encourage livestock not to loiter in riparian zones is more important than either season of use or length of time in the pasture," says Ehrhart.

Despite the variations, two commonalties for a healthy riparian zone did exist. They were the presence of offstream/alternate water developments and operator involvement.

In short, alternate sources of water appear to be an important tool to encourage livestock to move away from the riparian area, says Ehrhart.

"Secondly, each of these operators was actively involved in the management of their property and were concerned about the land," says Ehrhart.

For example, grazing periods weren't based on rigid schedules or calendar dates. "Few of these people used specific dates. They'd say, 'It all depends on what's going on out there.' They know there is no easy way to throw your cattle on and walk away from it," says Ehrhart.

Successful operators also conducted some type of monitoring. "They made observations of the riparian area and took notes and used that information to make changes, " says Ehrhart.

None of these things is going to work everywhere, says Ehrhart. "Management, not a particular grazing system, is the key to keeping riparian areas healthy," he says.