- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2016

MARSING, Idaho (AP) - Small, green blades of grass are sprouting next to bundles of buttercup flowers in some areas of Owyhee County, near Jordan Valley. A contrasting scene to what the hills looked like directly after the Soda Fire last summer, black and scorched.

Ed Wilsey, owner of Wilsey Ranch outside Marsing, said that over the past few months he’s watched the Bureau of Land Management seed the land through aerial tactics and drill seeding.

“I have to give them credit because they seeded fast,” Wilsey said. “Now we just have to hope Mother Nature brings us enough rain.”

While most of the grass seen growing near Wilsey’s ranch was established grass that survived the fire, a mix of rain and sun could help the diverse grass seed the BLM placed sprout within the next month.

The BLM created an extensive rehabilitation plan to help growth of sage brush and grass in Owyhee County, but months after the fire, ranchers are skeptical about the BLM’s chance of success.

During a meeting between Idaho and Oregon BLM officials and local ranchers affected by the fire, the BLM asked ranchers, who used the burned public land to graze cattle, to sign agreements saying they will stay off the land for at least two years. If ranchers did not sign the contracts, the BLM said it could suspend ranchers’ grazing rights.

“We need to get cows out there,” Wilsey said. “Cows will help get the seed in the ground. Just by walking, they dig and create a better land.”

Resting land for two years after a natural disaster is basic protocol. The Soda Fire ended more than six months ago, and many local ranchers are paying high costs per day to keep their cattle off the ground.

THE PLAN

According to BLM documents, on Oct. 16 the BLM made the decision to implement emergency stabilization and rehabilitation projects and land treatments “necessary to reduce the immediate risk of erosion or damage due to the Soda Fire.”

The plan, which can be found on the BLM’s website, states the land in Owyhee County must be stabilized immediately. An Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation team of more than 40 natural resource specialists assessed damage and threats to life, property and resources on BLM managed lands in Idaho and Oregon.

In the plan, the BLM recognized four significant threats to the land: expansion of invasive plant species; habitat recovery for threatened species; increased runoff, erosion potential and resulting flooding; and loss of cultural resources.

The BLM plan is to plant desirable grasses and shrubs in the area.

“This will not only combat invasive weeds, it will assist the area in recovering back to sagebrush steppe,” the plan stated. “Which will in turn attract native wildlife, such as greater sage-grouse, deer, elk and hundreds of other sagebrush steppe species.”

The BLM also stated in the plan that fire lines, fuel breaks and other fire preventative methods will be sought to help keep the burned acres safe while sage brush is re-established. According to the BLM, it takes decades for sage brush and its coexisting wildlife to re-establish.

“We plan to implement fuel breaks as we work on rehabilitation plans,” the BLM wrote, “so we can improve the odds that this area will make a full recovery.”

According to the plan, almost 180,000 acres of BLM land burned in Idaho during the Soda Fire. Another 100,000 acres of privately owned land was burned as well.

In fiscal year 2015, the BLM plans to spend $10.8 million on the emergency stabilization portion of the rehabilitation. In 2016, the BLM estimates spending $18.9 million on emergency stabilization.

In the written agreement presented to ranchers during the meeting on Feb. 18, ranchers would have to stay off specific parts of the BLM land for at least two years or until certain objectives are met. BLM officials said in the meeting that ranchers would not have access to land after two years if plan objectives were not met, but they seemed positive that would not be an issue.

The objectives are broken into four sections: drill seeding, aerial grass seeding, natural recovery and other treatments.

Tony Richards, a rancher near Reynolds Creek, spoke up during the meeting saying he was concerned about the objectives.

“We could be off anywhere from six to eight years on parts of our allotment,” Richards said.

Richards and others at the meeting, including Owyhee County Commissioner Kelly Aberasturi, said land owners should not sign the agreement until it states only a two-year figure.

During the meeting, Peter Torma, a BLM range land management specialist, said the objectives are not meant to be unattainable.

“We’re not trying to get cows back in a hurry, but we are not trying to preclude them,” Torma said. “We’re trying to identify a path that we feel is actually going to keep us moving in the right direction.”

According to the agreement, the earliest that ranchers could start grazing on public land would be in the year 2018. Many land allotments will be closed until 2019 because the BLM will perform drill seeding in the fall of 2016.

Other BLM officials during the meeting asked ranchers and farmers to look at the “bigger picture” when it comes to the health of the land, stating the plan could create a long-lasting future and protection from other natural disasters.

COSTS TO RANCHERS

At Wilsey’s ranch, it’s hard to tell where the fire burned. New grass is growing on the hills, both seeded and grass that survived the disaster. He said the BLM provided him with enough seed to start growth on his private land, and they aerial-seeded the land around him.

Overall, the success of the grass is a mix of good luck and diligent effort.

“We were lucky we had a wet season,” Wilsey said. “They really did work hard out there, but now we have to hope the seeds germinate. But I have a lot of faith in what they did this fall.”

If Wilsey and other ranchers agree to stay off the land for two years or more while BLM objectives are met, it could cost the ranchers millions.

February and March is calving season for cattle ranchers, and Wilsey already has 60 new head of cattle walking around on his land. Many of Wilsey’s neighbors are feeding hay to their cattle, which is a much higher cost than grazing. Wilsey and others have taken some of their herds and moved them to other ranches to feed.

Wilsey said the cows are used to walking and grazing. Because of this, the animals he chose to keep on site are eating less hay, hoping to start eating the new grass on the other side of the electric fence. Lines of hay sit untouched by hundreds of cows and the new calves.

To keep a cow on another ranch costs $2.50 per day, and Wilsey has 180 cows. To keep a yearling on the ranch costs $1.80 per day, and the Wilsey ranch has sent 150 yearlings. So it is costing Wilsey $720 per day to keep his cows on another ranch to graze.

“The best method is to let the cows graze,” Wilsey said.

The beef from the Wilsey ranch is sold at the Boise Farmers Market, the Boise Co-op and many other local markets in the Treasure Valley. He said raising the price of his beef would not help cover costs because his competitors would beat him with lower prices.

It’s the high costs to ranchers like Wilsey that have Owyhee County Commissioners concerned. During the meeting on Feb. 18, commissioner Jerry Hoagland commented that the loss of revenue to ranchers will hurt his county’s economy.

“That’s affecting us beside you,” he said. “Now you’ve got to increase more money to go out and find pasture somewhere else. You can’t survive in that, which means a loss to us.”

Wilsey said he and his wife, Debbie, are playing the waiting game in hopes the seeds germinate and BLM will open its land up soon.

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Information from: Idaho Press-Tribune, http://www.idahopress.com

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