Communication as a Key to Conservation

The following article is by Calee Lott, Sagebrush Ecosystem Alliance Coordinator, which is a position supported by the Partnering to Conserve Sagebrush Rangelands effort.

In July of last year, I took on a job in northwest Utah as the Sagebrush Ecosystem Alliance (SEA) coordinator where I get to work with conservation agencies, ranchers, and wildlife every day. This partnership focuses on implementing conservation practices to benefit rangelands, wildlife habitat, and livestock operations. The goal of the SEA partnership is to increase the conservation capacity in West Box Elder County, Utah. I get to help coordinate with Bureau of Land Management (BLM) staff, private landowners, and cooperating agencies on federal land analyses for projects on public lands. This allows us to do conservation across ownership boundaries.

Wildfires are an increasingly common occurrence in West Box Elder County. Over 100 wildfires were reported in the county between July and November last year. Wildfire can have positive and negative outcomes. At higher elevations, the fires can set back encroaching juniper and restore habitat for wildlife species. Wildfires in lower elevations can be detrimental to the fragile, arid ecosystems and can create an environment where invasive annual grasses invade. These plants can completely change the ecosystem by increasing fire frequency and drastically altering habitat for sensitive wildlife species.

  Typical fire frequency in West Box Elder ranges from 50 – 100 years in low elevation sagebrush communities. However, when fire occurs and the annual grasses move in, the fire frequency can increase to every 1 – 3 years. Photo courtesy of the Utah BLM.

Typical fire frequency in West Box Elder ranges from 50 – 100 years in low elevation sagebrush communities. However, when fire occurs and the annual grasses move in, the fire frequency can increase to every 1 – 3 years. Photo courtesy of the Utah BLM.

Last summer three wildfires burned 4,000 acres near Park Valley, Utah. This wildfire complex affected three grazing allotments, which included land managed by the State of Utah, BLM, and private ranchers. The BLM has a team known as Emergency Stabilization & Rehabilitation Unit that investigate these wildfires and they quickly got work.

I had been on the job for about a week and attended a fire meeting to discuss one of these wildfires as an opportunity for learning and networking. While participating in this meeting, I noticed there were essential stakeholders missing from these important conversations. Typical fire rehabilitation meetings should include Emergency Stabilization & Rehabilitation teams, rangeland specialists, a Utah Grazing Improvement Program Coordinator, grazing permit holders, and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources representatives. However, after doing some research, it was found that the permitees didn’t have enough notice of the meeting to attend.

There were about 15 different permit holders that were affected by the fire complex and would be impacted by the decisions being made on the ground for its restoration. There was a meeting and tour planned for the following week to discuss the fire complex and I worked closely with the Grazing Improvement Program Coordinator to notify all the permit holders.

  Calee Lott, pictured here in the center of the photo, attends a field tour in West Box Elder County, Utah. Photo by Eric Thacker.

Calee Lott, pictured here in the center of the photo, attends a field tour in West Box Elder County, Utah. Photo by Eric Thacker.

Five permittees attended and this was extremely beneficial as we began discussing seed mixes and grazing rotations. At the close of the meeting it was decided that allocated grazing permits would be reduced to about 50% on one of the allotments. Upon leaving the meeting I began calling the permittees that were not in attendance to notify them of the decisions made. Some were not supportive of the grazing rotations and reductions being proposed. As a result, I worked closely with the Salt Lake BLM Field Office Manager and Emergency Stabilization and Rehab team to discuss the grazing rotations on one of the allotments. This meeting included 12 permit holders and four BLM employees. The plan proposed by the BLM was to reduce grazing numbers and fence off the region that was burned. Together, we discussed grazing rotations extensively. Permitees said they would be willing to haul water, hire a rider to keep the cattle in areas that are used less frequently, and remove their livestock if conditions became threatening to wildlife. At the conclusion, BLM and permittees agreed on a grazing rotation that involved those measures and would not reduce cattle numbers on the range nor require build additional fence due to the prescribed grazing rotation that the ranchers agreed to implement. Additionally, permit holders assisted in developing a seed mix composed of primarily native species with some introduced species, including aerial application of forage kochia.

I have been in this job for nearly a year, and in this short amount of time, I’ve learned a great deal. Primarily, communication is essential to successful conservation on America’s public land. Communication opens pathways to implement conservation everyone can live with and it helps all parties to know each other’s priorities. Finally, collaborative conservation doesn’t happen without effective communication.

Hannah Nikonow