After reading the article in the December 5 edition of the Chieftain entitled, "Ranchers in the West should call it quits," I have the following comments.

First, I find remarks by the likes of John Horning to be unsupported by facts. What are the credentials and experience of these asphalt experts in the areas of resource management?

Secondly, I refuse to allow our Wallowa County Chieftain to become a pulpit for the enviros to promote their warped agendas unchallenged. That is why I am responding.

Would you please print this article from the Western Livestock Journal. This article refers to the study that Horning was trying to discredit in the Chieftain. Let your readers be the judge; do you believe a study done by Colorado State University or the leader of a hard core environmental organization whose mission is to halt all domestic grazing on federal lands?

Long live the cowboy!

Mack Birkmaier


Environmentalists may no longer have a leg to stand on in their attempts to degrade ranching and end grazing on public lands, following the results of a recent study by wildlife biologists. These scientists have even gone as far as saying cattle ranches may be the best hope for preserving habitat for many varieties of native species.

Another conclusion drawn from their experiments is ranches could be the best way to preserve grasslands and manage the periodic fires keeping brush and cacti from taking over. These results were even surprising to the researchers who conducted the work.

As with a majority of the ecologists from which producers read opinions, Richard Knight, a professor of wildlife biology at Colorado State University (CSU), assumed grazing hurt wildlife. Knight, along with a wildlife biology graduate student and a faculty affiliate from the USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service, compared 93 sites on ranches in wildlife refuges and in subdivisions with about one house per 40 acres.

They conducted their study from May through August during 2000 and 2001 in the foothills along the front range of the Rocky Mountains, near fort Collins. The area they chose was a mix of private ranch land, public protected areas, and exurban developments commonly referred to as ranchettes. The dominant grasses included needle-and-thread, blue grama, western wheatgrass and cheat grass. There were also several shrubs and common forbs in an area of average annual precipitation of 33 to 46 centimeters.

As a comparison point, Knight and his colleagues measured the songbird, mammalian carnivore, and plant communities across the three different types of land uses. They found the ranches had just as many species of the songbirds and carnivores, in terms of occurrence and density, as the protected wildlife refuges, and more than exurban developments.

However, plant communities did differ on ranches, according to the study review. Native species of plants were more prevalent and non-native species, such as cheat grass, were less dominant on ranches than in either of the two other land-use regions. "Ranches had the healthiest grasslands, the fewest number of weeds, and the least amount of bare ground," said Knight. "Regretfully, the protected areas and the ranchettes were the weediest."

Naturally, the study also proved ranches provide a better habitat for wildlife than ranchettes. According to Knight, subdivisions grew large numbers of common species, such as robins, magpies, dogs and cats. On the other hand, ranches and refuges supported populations of lesser-known species, such as Brewer's sparrows and towhees. The study continued to say exurban developments had fewer native species and more invasive species than either the ranches or refuges. The combination of these results led the scientists to the conclusion ranches support a more desirable biodiversity than do ranchettes.

"It finally dawned on me," said Knight. "We made a mistake." Knight submitted his revelation that large, working cattle ranches are crucial puzzle pieces holding together an increasingly fragmented landscape for publication in other peer-reviewed journals such as Bio-Science, Conservation Biology, and Environmental Science and Policy.

He has also taken a position in terms of livestock grazing. Knight feels land managers could possibly benefit from livestock grazing their lands appropriately. "Those individuals who champion the end of grazing on public lands are aiding and abetting the cause of developers," said Knight.

He also commented on the arguments about subsidizing livestock grazing. "Outdoor recreation is the most subsidized use of public lands. Sadly, it is also the second leading cause for the decline of federally listed species; only water development projects trump recreation."

What most environmentalists fail to understand when it comes to public land grazing, according to Knight, is for every piece of public land grazed, there is also deeded land committed to ranching, rather than residential development. He added that private lands are best watered, occur on the most productive soils and lie at the lowest elevations.

"Given today's prices of buying private land to substitute for the loss of public grazing lands, and the folly of expecting cows and sheep to graze in the clouds during the summer months, there is not outcome but to sell the deeded land when the grazing permit is canceled," said Knight. Based on this assessment, Knight suggested anti-cow environmentalists expend their energies working with ranchers to ensure more appropriate livestock grazing.

"We need to protect ranching as a land use in the West because it actually gives us the best biological diversity of the alternative land uses, which is either protection without livestock grazing or homes," said Knight. "When it comes down to it, the bird and carnivores were as good on ranches as they were on protected areas, but the plants were better because ranchers know the difference between native species and invasives, and they know how to use cows and herbicides effectively to control weeds."

Knight feels ranchers do several important things with the most important being tying down rural landscapes and protecting native biological diversity, even more so than protected areas. "Urban people need to be reminded ranchers right now are getting compensated for about half of what they produce, and urban people are paying for about half of what they consume," said Knight. "They're getting the open space and the bio-diversity free of charge, and the rancher isn't getting a penny of compensation for it, creating an imbalance." Knight added the suggestion urban people need to wake up and realize it's time to start paying for more of what they're consuming, instead of just half.

The most recent demographic trends across the West have motivated Knight and his colleagues to distribute their findings. Across the West, developed lands have risen from almost 20 million acres in 1970 to 42 million acres when the CSU study began in 2000. The 2000 census update reported the top five fastest-growing states as Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Idaho. Coincidentally, these are the states producers most often hear about in grazing battles with federal agencies.

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