By Indy Burke

“I’m weary and tired. I’ve done my day’s riding. Nighttime is rolling my way. The sky’s on fire and the light’s slowly fading. Peaceful and still ends the day. And out on the trail the night birds are calling, singing their wild melody. Down in the canyon the cottonwood whispers a song of Wyoming for me.”
– Chris LeDoux

Grazing in the west has been an important way of life for well over a century, supporting families, inspiring poetry and song, and maintaining open spaces. Over recent decades, grazing has also provoked intense controversy. Differing grazing practices, variable impacts to public lands, and livestock influences on wildlife habitat trigger opposing views. Even the scientific literature is contradictory, with recent articles both demonstrating the positive effect of livestock grazing on biodiversity and landscapes, and excoriating livestock for desertification, erosion, and loss of biological diversity. How can we arrive at sound management solutions for both ranchers and wildlife when there is so much disagreement over what is happening?

“Conservation grazing” is a management tool with potential to resolve some of the conflict. This practice focuses on managing livestock to enhance wildlife habitat in western rangelands while sustaining economic production.

Some ranchers have long stewarded wildlife habitat, and particularly game species. Without using the term, progressive ranchers have implemented a number of conservation grazing strategies. For instance, some ranchers graze goats to reduce weeds. Others have enrolled in conservation easements to preserve habitat and protect ranches from estate taxes. Many ranchers have for years maintained big game habitat and benefitted from hunting revenues.

Meanwhile, changing cattle prices, drought, invasive species, threatened species, energy development, other landscape changes, and shifting government policies and incentives present challenges to ranchers who want to steward wildlife habitat. These stumbling blocks reflect many of the complex natural resources issues of the West. Such challenges include elements of our culture and tradition, public land management strategies and government policy, existing and new scientific knowledge, and uncertainties associated both with our gaps in knowledge, and our inability to predict the dynamic futures of the weather, the economy, and biology.

Scientific approaches investigate how rangeland plants, animals, and landscapes may be enhanced or negatively affected by certain types of grazing. Scientists are measuring how grazing animals interact with biodiversity and ecosystem services, such as water quality and quantity, carbon storage, and soil stability, on rangelands worldwide. Studies of grazing and biodiversity in the western United States have focused particularly on species of concern, for instance the mountain plover, sage grouse, and neotropical birds, as well as less desirable species including weeds like cheatgrass and leafy spurge. This research offers a solid foundation to inform evolving grazing management that can foster increased rangeland biodiversity.

Conservation grazing represents a scientific forefront, a prospect for alternative income for ranchers, the opportunity for wildlife managers to inspire habitat protection across large multi-ownership landscapes and regions, and win-win incentives for private land conservation. But barriers remain preventing its widespread implementation.

The first issue of Western Confluence magazine will address these challenges, bringing to light the new and developing scientific knowledge, and presenting, in an unbiased fashion, the multiple perspectives of different resource stakeholders. The magazine will be a junction where academic knowledge can meet on-the-ground natural resource management. We intend for this publication to add critical facts, data, and sound science-based information to efforts to resolve natural resource challenges in the West. Read on to learn more about innovative ways ranchers can apply scientific findings to host rangeland wildlife species, along with other exciting collaborations to maintain open space and understand resource dynamics in the west.

We look forward to hearing what you think of our new magazine. Please write to us at editor@westernconfluence.org to share your thoughts, ideas, and criticisms.