By Ann McCreary
More than 31,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service cattle grazing allotments burned in the Methow Valley last summer, adding to the extensive damage to grazing lands caused by the previous summer’s Carlton Complex Fire.
To help the burned land recover, the Methow Valley Ranger District will need to rest some areas and will not allow cattle on them for a year or two, cutting grazing capacity in the fire-affected allotments by about half.
The Methow ranger district was already resting all, or portions of, six grazing units that burned in 2014, and will need to add more acres to the pastures being rested as a result of this year’s fires.
“Three of the grazing allotments that were partially burned in the 2014 fires were impacted by fire again in 2015 – the Twisp River Fire and the Beaver Lake Fire and the Black Canyon Fire,” said Dean McFetridge, range program manager for the Methow ranger district. One allotment was not being used, he said.
The Forest Service announced this week that it will determine which areas need to be rested based on how severely the land has been damaged.
The decision to rest grazing areas on the Methow Ranger District after the Carlton Complex in 2014 affected five cattle ranchers, and they will continue to be affected in 2016 and possibly 2017, said McFetridge.
“Prior to the fires, approximately 1,000 cows with calves were permitted to graze for four months within the grazing allotments impacted by the fires. Over half of this grazing capacity has been reduced,” McFetridge said.
Allotments where grazing has been restricted are located in Upper Falls Creek, Little Bridge Creek, the entire South Summit area, much of the Beaver Creek drainage, and the Black Canyon, Squaw, McFarland and South Fork Gold Creek areas, McFetridge said.
Two consecutive years of large-scale fires in Okanogan County complicates finding alternative grazing opportunities for cattle producers who have permits to graze on Forest Service land.
The Tonasket Ranger District lost 86,000 acres of grazing lands to fire last summer. Grazing permit holders met recently with Forest Service officials in Tonasket to discuss anticipated changes to grazing opportunities.
McFetridge said grazing allotments in the Methow ranger district are divided into several separate pastures by fencing.
“The number of cattle will be reduced on some allotments, but there will be options to graze the unburned pastures with full cattle numbers under a shorter grazing season on many of the impacted allotments,” he said.
“To provide the needed rest for the burned areas, either the cattle numbers or the season of use is reduced. There are also options to install temporary fencing to keep cattle out of the burned areas, where the burned area is only a small portion of the allotment,” McFetridge said.
“Also, to offset the reduction in numbers or season, the availability of other grazing lands will continue to be explored and coordinated with the management agencies or land owners.”
Following the Carlton Complex Fire, some Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife lands were opened on a temporary basis to grazing.
There are also limited options to graze on some vacant allotments, but two of those burned in 2014 and 2015 and will not be available, McFetridge said.
Although it may appear that wildfire has destroyed all vegetation, extensive root systems can resprout if the burn was not too intense and the surface of the soil is not compacted.
“National Forest land that burned at a moderate or high intensity will take the longest to recover,” said Matt Reidy, Tonasket district ranger. “Allowing grazing before the land has had a chance to recover will increase erosion and could lead to longer term damage.”
Resting the allotments will also allow riparian areas to recover and regain vegetation that is important for stabilizing stream banks and providing shade.
Because riparian areas are easily accessed, they are often the first place to be grazed after a fire and are especially vulnerable to livestock presence during the years following wildfire until vegetation re-establishes itself, according to the Forest Service.
Range specialists will closely monitor vegetation in both the rested and grazed pastures, the Forest Service said. Ranchers who have grazing permits pay the Forest Service each year to have their livestock graze on Forest Service lands.