From the pages of
Pinedale Roundup
Volume 104, Number 22 - May 31, 2007
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Steve Laster stretched out a measuring tape from two poles to create a mini-transect. This tool allows him to measure, among other things, the percentage of grass to sage before and after a treatment.
Out with a BLM rangeland specialist

by Julia Stuble

“I love this sagebrush country,” mused BLM rangeland specialist Steve Laster as he strode down a sage-covered hillside. It was late April, and the early spring had arrived in the region, complete with budding grasses, small wildflowers like phlox and buttercups, along with herds of antelope.

Laster had driven me up to the Soda Lake area, to examine a sagebrush enhancement project done three years ago. Leaning out the truck window before we started the hike, he gestured to a far hillside.

“I don’t know if you can see the difference in sagebrush here, and across that fence,” he asked. I squinted at the hill, and saw the usually indistinguishable sagebrush was indeed different this time. Across the fence, the sagebrush was dead, and gray as though it were still winter. Nearer to the truck, the brush was vibrant and green in the burgeoning spring.

Across the fence, Laster explained, the sage had been dosed with Spike, a chemical treatment that targets the brush and kills it. “The idea was not to kill everything, but to leave some patches, to leave a mosaic pattern in the landscape of dead and live sagebrush,” he said.

How would killing sagebrush help the rangeland communities? As we walked, the answer manifested itself. Amid the treated, and now dead, sagebrush, clumps of grass reached hungrily and healthily for the sun. But as we stepped across an untreated hill, the decadent sagebrush blocked out the sun as it crept with twisted limbs across the ground. Less grass grew there, as the sage sucked much of the water out of the ground before the grasses could access it, Laster said.

The first thing this pin touches is recorded as the basal cover, whether it is dirt, rock, grass, sage or forbs.
Echoing the BLM mandate, Laster explained, “We design rangeland projects for multiple benefits, for wildlife and livestock.” In this area, which is a grazing allotment but also important habitat for deer and antelope, grasses had been depleted in riparian and open areas, because the grasses amid the thick sage were harder to access for the animals, fewer, and of poorer quality.

Laster spelled out several objectives for this spike-treated area, including improving forage production and improving grazing habitats and allow them time to rejuvenate. We had reached the side of a glacial feature called a kettle, or pothole - an open area in the sage covered with short, green grasses and forbs (flowering plants). It was sunk into the landscape, and showed signs of cattle use.

“Cows look for the easiest place to grab a bite,” Laster explained, and rather than search for grass in the dense, sagebrush upland, had congregated in this glacial remnant, where grass was readily accessible. “The level of grazing here has caused a change in vegetation composition from grasses to forbs,” Laster said, gesturing at the flowering plants.

We followed an animal trail away from the pothole, and ran straight down to a meadow. This drainage, lush with water, grasses, and forbs, was also a favorite spot for the grazers. To alleviate this pressure, Laster had called in the Spike, an aerial sprayed pellet dropped in the fall, to disseminate its chemicals through winter and kill the sagebrush in the spring.

“The idea of the Spike treatment was to pull animals off this area and onto the uplands,” Laster pointed to the meadow. “The grass is so good here it’s hard to get cattle to graze on the surrounding hills.” The Spike treatment freed water for grasses on the sage hills, increasing the production, and improving the cattle distribution over the landscape.

Several entities have to come together to enable a project like this, Laster emphasized. “This project was made possible with money from grazing fees and the cooperation of the rancher. BLM policy requires a recovery period of no grazing following a project like this, and without the rancher’s cooperation it would not have been possible.” We continued walking across the meadow, and ran into moose pellets. Adding that to the list of elk, antelope and deer sign, as well as grouse droppings, Laster commented, “It’s good to see all kinds of species are using this area.”

On cue, two sandhill cranes flew in the distance, and wary antelope eyed us from hillsides. Laster’s dachshund bounded across the hills as ground squirrels chattered. It was indeed a wildlife haven, with the pond stocked with geese and ducks as well. The mosaic pattern, a random pattern of puzzle pieces, treated and untreated, created diverse habitats. One benefit is it increases the amount of edge habitat, between sagebrush and meadow, which sage-grouse rely on.

Watching where I stepped, I noticed lots of grouse sign. They were obviously hanging out on this borderland. “Diversity in habitat types is key to healthy rangelands. We want a mosaic of habitats on a landscape scale, with a diversity of species and landscape types,” Laster commented, noting that adequate funding is definitely available.

“Today there are literally millions of dollars available for rangeland enhancement and if we can combing creative thinking with the ranchers’ cooperation, then the sky’s the limit to the amount and types of projects.” Walking across a sedge meadow dotted with willows and hummocks, surrounded by the treated and untreated sage, Laster kept his eyes to the ground for a certain forb.

After a bit of searching, he knelt down in the muddy earth to point it out. A rare plant, belonging to the genus Antennaria, Laster hypothesized this was an example of the balance and trickiness of rangeland projects.

The plant sent out shoots that arched up, then over into the ground, where it grew into a new plant. Laster’s theory is this is an adaptation to grazing, meaning that the plant may need an environment of short grasses for its survival. Pulling the cows off this meadow may be detrimental to the plant.

“It’s tricky as a manager, when there’s so many values we’re managing for,” he acknowledged. “We have to look at the big picture, and think on a landscape scale.”

Hiking back to the truck, Laster inquisitively stopped to examine brush, animal sign, boulders, and emphasizing how curiosity and experience go hand in hand when a rangeland specialist evaluates an area. His ability to walk almost straight to the rare Antennaria highlighted his intimate knowledge of this landscape, and he portrayed an almost paternal sensitivity to the project area. “There is some rationale and methodology to this,” he explained when, back at the truck, he dumped out an army satchel of tools, which clattered to the ground. Pounding two stakes into the ground, he ran a tape measure between the two, in a small sample of a typical 100-foot transect of the habitat.

He then demonstrated how, walking along it, a manager can measure various values, or attributes, such as percentage of sagebrush, or bare ground, or grasses along the line. Then, every two feet or whatever the chosen distance, he laid down a rectangle made of rebars. Called a Daubenmire frame, it was painted in graduations to analyze the percentage of various species it encompassed.

Finally, using a thin stake, Laster walked along the line, pushing it straight down at specified intervals. The first thing it touched, a rock or grass, revealed the composition of the basal cover.

These tests were run before and after a vegetation treatment, and at random and specific areas, and multiple times. After a Spike treatment, Laster said, he expected results showing lower percentages of living sage and more grass, as compared to before. Laster was proud of this project, and the herds of antelope and deer munching on its results, as far as we could see confirmed his conclusion that it was “very successful.”

Photo credits:  Julia Stuble, Julia Stuble

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