The Plot to Destroy Sagebrush on the Bighorn

Bighorn Mountains, eastern face, Bighorn NF, Wyoming

The Bighorn National Forest is one of the hidden gems of the West. With peaks towering to over 13,000 feet and spacious flower-studded meadows, the forest is an underappreciated scenic and wildlife haven of the West.

Because it is often overlooked, the Forest Service management capitulates to the desires of the livestock industry. As an example of this collusion, the Bighorn National Forest recently announced its intention to aeriel herbicide thousands of acres of sagebrush ostensibly to control medusahead and other “undesirable” plants like the native larkspur, but the reality is that the main purpose is to eliminate sagebrush to create more forage for livestock.

No doubt the spread of medusahead is a concern. Medusahead is an annual grass that is not palatable to livestock.

However, its spread is favored by the presence of livestock because cattle preferentially eat the native grasses, weakening their competitive ability and also by creating the open bare soil habitat that allows medusahead to establish. Medusahead has awns that stick to animal hides and thus are transported by livestock. Medusahead has shallow roots and promotes soil erosion. In areas with dense medusahead, forage for livestock can be reduced by 75% which is one reason the stockgrowers are concerned.

Cattle grazing on Big Goose Creek, Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming. Photo George Wuerthner.

The Bighorn National Forest plans to spray 5,800 acres annually and eventually “treat” 68,000 acres of mountain big sagebrush, almost half of the sagebrush habitat found on the forest.

Not surprisingly the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association supports the plan observing that killing sagebrush would provide more forage for “livestock and wildlife.” Of course, if the organization were truly concerned about forage for wildlife, it would advocate the removal of livestock that consume the bulk of available forage on the forest, not to mention the mere presence of cattle displaces other native herbivores like elk.

Sagebrush ecosystems are under duress throughout the West from multiple sources including excessive wildfires promoted by the annual cheatgrass, but also due to livestock grazing which creates ideal habitat for species like cheatgrass and medusahead. But instead of removing livestock which is the main factor that promotes the invasion by these exotic annual species, federal agencies bend themselves in twisted angles to avoid dealing with the source of the problem. Instead, they opt to treat the symptoms.

Sagebrush is an important species for a host of western wildlife from pronghorn to mule deer which consume the plant in winter to sage grouse, sage sparrows, and other birds that utilize the plant for nesting, hiding cover and food.

Pronghorn utilize sagebrush for hiding cover and winter food. Photo George Wuerthner.

The Forest Service uses out of date and archaic ideas about fire and sagebrush arguing that “fire suppression” has led to denser sagebrush stands. Mountain big sagebrush typically has a fire rotation of 50-250 years. In other words, even if fire suppression were effective (a questionable assumption for a variety of reasons) most of these sagebrush stands would not have burned in the past hundred years anyway. If a plant community has a fire rotation of say 100 years, it doesn’t mean that half of the area would have burned in 50 years. It is all or nothing.

It is analogous to 100-year floods on a river. A river that experiences 100-year floods doesn’t have half of the flood at 50 years.

There is no doubt that sagebrush stands may be denser than historical conditions, but that is less to do with “fire suppression” and more to do with livestock grazing of the grasses and forbs which cattle and sheep grazing has all but eliminated from many parts of the forest.

Livestock also damage riparian areas, compact soils, socially displace native herbivores, consume forage that would otherwise support native species, and pollute the public’s waters. For all this, the public receives a paltry $135 an Animal Unit Month or the amount of forage consumed by a cow and calf in a month.

If the Forest Service rested the area, sagebrush will naturally reduce its density due to insects and other factors. Over time, native grasses and sagebrush can out complete medusahead, but removing livestock is not an option that the Forest Service will entertain.

It is yet another example of how the federal agencies facilitate the profit margin of private industry at the expense of the public’s resources. Of the three alternatives, none propose removal of livestock grazing which would be the best way to control the spread of medusahead, not to mention it would have numerous other benefits for public resources.

The plan is opposed by four environmental organizations including Western Watersheds Project, The Council for the Bighorn Range, PEER, and FSEEE.

The forest accepted comments on its DEIS until August 9th. However, if you wanted to voice your opinion on the proposal, you can still write the Thad Berrett,

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy