Flexibility in grazing times, higher weaning weights, more animal units per month and a mutually agreeable working relationship between ranchers, riders, Forest Service and fisheries personnel, is the result of a proactive move made nine years ago by members of the Warm Springs Grazing Association.
The action recently earned the group the Montana Environmental Stewardship Award.
Six family operations 0 comprise the association that is permitted to graze nearly 1,000 cow-calf pairs on the 22,500 acre Warm Springs allot ment — located in the Upper Ruby river basin — from June to October. Riders Max and Terri Moltich are responsible for care of the cattle, as well as range and riparian manage ment.
In the late 1800s, the open range in the basin was intensively grazed by hundreds of thousands of sheep and cattle. That followed the 1860 gold rush in nearby Alder Gulch and Virginia City. By the 1900s, permits were issued under the Taylor Grazing Act. Fences were built to separate allotments and riders were employed to keep the cattle distributed.
“ My grandfather and great uncle both rode up here in the early days,” says Bruce Peterson, of Alder, presi dent of the association. “ The range has always been cared for as if it's our own. If not, we would not be in busi ness.”
Ranging in elevation from 5,9008,800 feet, the allotment — mostly open grass and shrubland with inter spersed islands of timber — is in rugged terrain sandwiched between the Ruby River on the west and the top of the Gravelly Range on the east.
Fencing and upland water 0 development included construction of reservoirs, spring development and installation of pipelines. This began in the early 1940s. Years of season-long grazing had taken its toll with uplands in fair to poor vegetation condition, so a rest-rotation system was implement ed in 1968.
The system was modified to a deferred system in 1972, and more water developments were added. By 1991, 32 stock water troughs and five miles of pipeline had been installed. Marginal springs have been developed and they continue to flow even during drought years.
“ The biggest thing with develop ment is that a lot of the country is open, and cattle need a destination, not only grass, but water,” Peterson said. The modified grazing system provided a season from June 10 to Oct. 25 and improved the health and productivity of the uplands.
In the late 19800 s, 0 resource man agement emphasis shifted from forage management to watershed manage ment with a focus on streams and riparian areas. Riparian guidelines were developed to manage livestock in relation to stream bank impact, forage utilization, browsing and stubble height. In 1990, a controversial debate between the Forest Service and the neighboring Upper Ruby grazing allot ment over management of riparian areas attracted national attention.
Although not directly involved in the debate, the ranchers knew that riparian conditions on the Warm Springs allotment could be improved. In 1991, they asked the Forest Service to explain the riparian guidelines. In their typical proactive management style, the ranchers decided to volun tarily adopt the guidelines on their allotment.
“ The first time we heard the word “ riparian” no one knew what it was, and we wondered if voluntarily adopt ing the guidelines would put us ahead or put us behind,” Peterson said. “ At first the guidelines made us nervous. The Forest Service has traditionally told us when and where we have to move our cows, but working with them under the guidelines has enabled us to move cows for a specific rea son.”
In 1992 a range 0 analysis was con ducted which found that the uplands had shown dramatic improvement since the 1960s survey. The streams, however, were a different story. Eleven streams, tributaries of the Ruby River, that drain the allotment were analyzed. Two creeks were found to be non-functioning, three were at risk, and six were functioning. Warm Springs Creek and its forks are con sidered critical habitat for fish, and White Bear Creek, has one of the few remaining 100 percent pure popula tions of west slope cutthroat trout. The ranchers decided specific action was needed.
The association hired Max and Terri Moltich as riders in 1992. Working with range technician and allotment manager Cathy WilliamsRash, the three of them came to the conclusion the Forest Service guide lines would work, but not the same in each pasture because of weather, ter rain and the way cattle work each pas ture.
“ Sometimes it doesn't work like it does in the book,” Terri said. “ Cathy implemented getting rid of dates for moving cattle from each of the pas tures; instead, moving them based on forage utilization and streambank guidelines. This allows troublesome cows to be moved ahead of the main herd. The advantage is that we are making our own dates for moving them.”
Max and Terri have set up all the transects, monitor grazing and ripari an use with photos and measurements and maintain documentation.
“ Initially everyone had a lot of mis trust,” Peterson admitted. In addition to the riders' help, District Ranger Mark Petroni of Ennis has been instru mental in building a good relationship between the Forest Service and the ranchers. “ Mark and Cathy know the ground, they came out and rode with us,” Max says, “ Mark is a great guy to work with. Everyone sits down and discusses the issue. He uses common sense as well as the manual, but when he makes a decision, he stands behind it.”
In addition to the cattle, 0 the allotment provides summer range for approximately 1,000 elk and about 300 elk winter there. Elk and cattle get along well, and often the riders will see them lying side by side in the shade. However, elk do a lot of streambank trampling. If elk wallows aren't documented before cattle are put in and after they are taken out of the pasture, the cattle get blamed.
Ranchers realize wildlife are part of the equation, “ but it can be a dou ble-edged sword,” says Dick Lueck of Sheridan. “ The elk make you look good because there is plenty of grass, but unless it is documented, they can make you look bad with the damage they do to riparian areas.”
Elaine Boken of Twin Bridges is another of the permittees. Her hus band, Mitch, was a range conserva-
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tionist in the Dillon Soil Conservation Service for many years and, before his death six years ago, is credited with playing a major role in the grazing association.
“ We were having a problem with utilization in the fall pasture,” Peterson said. “ Mitch had the scientif ic background to be able to communi cate with a range conservationist that the utility wasn't what she said, and showed her that the grass was only bent, not used.”
The amount of time 0 the cattle can stay in any of the six pastures depends on how long it takes to reach the ripar ian and upland standards. Riding, salt ing and upland water developments help pull cattle away from the stream and buy time in the pastures.
“ At first the guidelines made us nervous,” Terri Moltich said, “ But they have given us flexibility. It has enabled us to move cows for a specific reason. For example, if a few are hanging around a creek area, they can be moved to the next pasture, and leave the others until range utilization guidelines have been reached. It has minimized sickness in the cattle and eliminates eyesore cow trails.”
As a result of the grazing program, weaning weights have increased about 40 pounds per calf. “ It goes to show we were able to adopt the program with out sacrificing weight,” Peterson said. “ Everything we've done has been risky, we've broken new ground with these ideas.”
Eight years of0 following the guide lines and moving cattle at appropriate times has had dramatic results. Most of the streams are recovering, stream banks are building back, the water table is rising, and vegetation is responding with new growth of wil lows and sedges that help stabilize riparian areas.
Because of the accuracy and dependability of the monitoring infor mation, the association has shown that additional grazing capacity is available and, beginning with the 2000 grazing season, the Forest Service granted a 10 percent increase in the number of permitted cattle. “ We didn't take the increase in AUMs because of the drought,” Peterson said. “ We'll try to implement it gradually, but will wait for a normal weather pattern.”
In addition to monitoring stream bank impact, the Moltiches have iden tified the need for 26 new stock water troughs and 9.5-miles of pipeline. These improvements have been made through cost-share programs with the Forest Service.
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation will help install 10 gravity-fed water developments with 500- and 1,000-gal lon tanks because wildlife, as well as cattle, prefer to drink from the tanks rather than from ponds and streams.
In addition, the allotment is a multi ple use area and year-long recreational activities include hunting, fishing, horseback riding and camping.