Helena, Mont. — The thousands of cattle that ordinarily graze on federal and private land south of Big Timber should not be there next year, because they’d be too hard on the land as it rebounds from the big Derby Mountain wildfire, a federal reportsays.
Its recommendation to suspend grazing until 2008 has consequences for rancher Terry Terland, who was tending cattle burned by the fire that began with lightning Aug. 22 and spread across 207,000 acres of forest and range, 60% of it owned privately. The fire, which destroyed 26 homes, continues tosmolder.
Terland has eliminated about 20 calves burned by the fire and left unable to walk adequately, and said several more animals may have togo.
“I don’t know how so many cows survived as they did,” he said.
The 140 cow-calf pairs that Terland had before the fire are just a fraction of the cattle ordinarily put out to graze on federal or private lands in the area that burned. The impact of all that grazing would be too much for the recovering land; therefore, grazing should be deferred, concluded a federal team that spent two weeks studying effects of the fire and ways to mitigate them, then summarized findings in the report released thisweek.
Team leader Henry Shovic, soil scientist for the Gallatin National Forest, said the land stands to recoverfully.
“Many of the grasslands were singed, not so much burned,” he said Wednesday.
Deferral of federal grazing likely will be approved by the Forest Service, said Shovic, whose team included foresters, range managers and other professionals. Whether private landowners continue grazing is for each to decide, he said. What to do with livestock if the usual grazing lands areidled?
“There are a lot of people trying to figure that out,” Shovic said.
Grazing on federal lands in the study area usually involves about 5,000 animal-unit months and on the private lands, 32,000. An animal-unit month is a measurement of the food necessary to sustain one cow and calf for a month.
Terland said he is not sure grazing, managed properly on his land, would be harmful. A lot depends on how much moisture the land receives this winter and spring, hesaid.
“I really don’t know what we’ll do for next year,” the third-generation ranchersaid.
Grazing is just one aspect of the federal report on the Derby Mountain fire.
Other areas examined include the potentially explosive spread of noxious weeds; the risk of looting at teepee rings and other cultural sites exposed when the fire burned their cover; and habitat critical for wildlife.
Spread of weeds has been a long-standing concern, and after a fire the concern heightens because loss of other vegetation leaves weeds with less competition, Shovic said. The Forest Service has an aggressive weed program, said Shovic, who expects redoubled encouragement of weed control by privatelandowners.
Four cultural sites are of concern. Shovic said protective patrols during hunting season, when the number of people afield and the pillage risk both rise, have beenrecommended.