Ranchers say they can graze away wildfires. Environmentalists beg to differ.

Dufurrena Holloway fire Maggie Creek 2012

Carolyn Dufurrena

In a new proposal, the Bureau of Land Management is giving Nevada ranchers more time on federal land to graze away the grasses that fuel wildfires. It may make things worse.

Eight years ago, lightning struck a remote corner of northwest Nevada, and started a fire that tore through canyons and ridges at a brisk clip. Rancher Carolyn Dufurrena watched in horror as it devoured dry brush and bunchgrass. Three weeks later, after the Holloway Fire scorched over 462,000 acres, her family, which had been ranching in that area for four generations, had lost about 95 percent of the grass they needed to feed their cattle and sheep. 

“When you have a few dry years, that grass becomes tinder,” said Dufurrena, who previously wrote about the fire for Range magazine. She suspects that if her livestock had been allowed to eat more of it, the fire would have slowed down. “If the cattle could get to it at the right time of year, and really hit it, they would make it much less of an issue.”

Dufurrena is one of roughly 16,000 ranchers that raise livestock on public lands. Even though, during the Obama administration, the amount of grass they’re allowed to forage actually went up, it’s been decreasing overall since the 1950s. And that, ranchers say, has caused a huge problem. For years, they’ve asked the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency that regulates those lands, for longer grazing seasons. This would open these lands up beyond the traditional spring and summer months, for livestock to eat the leftover grass that can be fuel for ever-nastier wildfires. 

The main offender is an invasive species called cheatgrass—a finely textured, highly flammable annual grass that grows between native shrubs and takes over native sagebrush ecosystems.

Under the Trump administration, the ranchers’ pleas have been heard. Last month, BLM unveiled a proposal for “targeted grazing” permits to chew some of that forage into fuel breaks—strips of barren land that slow down a rampaging wildfire. The main offender, the agency says, is an invasive species called cheatgrass—a highly flammable annual grass that grows between native shrubs and takes over native sagebrush ecosystems. 

Ranchers say it’s a long time coming, and they need more latitude to take care of the land they use. But some ecologists say a plan to let animals loose on 24 million acres of fragile sagebrush in Nevada’s Great Basin will actually make things worse. In the short term, cattle may chew away that tinder. Over time, all that added trampling will degrade the soils, and in turn, encourage the growth of those flammable weeds—in short, making the problem of the fires even worse.

[Never miss a story about environmental impact with our 2x-weekly newsletter.]

Livestock have grazed on public lands since the homestead era. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Taylor Grazing Act, which put that land in regulated districts and allotments. Ever since, ranchers who owned adjacent property have applied for renewable 10-year grazing permits, and paid rock-bottom prices to let their cows and sheep graze on vast landscapes for a few months every spring and summer. Any longer, the thinking goes, and the soils will deteriorate, the waters foul, and the native birds and wildlife disappear.

Thousands of acres of land destroyed by the Hogan Wildfire, land turned black with thick smoke rising up from between two charred hills.

The Hogan Wildfire started southeast of Wells, NV, burning from July 1 to July 19, 2018 and scorching over 10,000 acres of land in its wake.

Flickr/ BLM Nevada

Today, BLM administers nearly 18,000 permits and leases to ranchers to run livestock—mostly cattle and sheep—on 155 million acres of public land, according to its website. Those permits can cover huge swaths of land, with pastures that go on for hundreds of thousands of acres. But these ranges can be difficult to graze, so they aren’t bursting with cattle. Livestock raised on federal land accounts for around $2.6 billion in economic output, according to a Department of Interior report, representing only a tiny sliver of the meat industry.

Naturally, private enterprises on public lands spark fierce debates. In the arid landscapes of Nevada, conservationists would like to see the land support growth of the natural sagebrush steppe ecosystem, and native birds like the sage-grouse. Animal rights groups want to protect the wild horse population. And ranchers want to use the land to raise cattle. Their ability to do that hinges on stopping wildfires—which aren’t new to the Great Basin, but over the last five decades, have grown stronger and more frequent.

Those fires are fueled by cheatgrass, which grows where land has been trampled and overgrazed. BLM estimates that over five million acres of western lands are at least 15 percent covered by cheatgrass, which doubles the risk of ignition. After wildfires recede, cheatgrass is often quick to reemerge in the scorched landscape, crowding out slower-growing native vegetation like the sagebrush. That, in turn, encourages more fire, and the cycle continues. Over time, native perennials disappear from the seedbank, and the natural ecosystem is lost, forever. 

BLM estimates that over five million acres of western lands are at least 15 percent covered by cheatgrass, which doubles the risk of ignition.

“It looks like gasoline, is what we call it in the firefighting field,” said J.J. Goicoechea, a Eureka, Nevada, county commissioner who ranches federal land in the BLM’s Elko and Ely districts. Four years ago, he set his cattle on cheatgrass that sprung up after the Diamond Fire. “They cleaned it up phenomenally. And it hasn’t burned since.”

The bureau’s plan to let ranchers clean up cheatgrass follows years of moves by the Trump administration to loosen restrictions on grazing. Three years ago, the BLM piloted a program to give ranchers an “unprecedented level of flexibility in the management of livestock,” partially in response to wildfires. In January, the agency announced the most sweeping revisions to the permitting process since the George W. Bush administration—whose efforts were blocked in federal court by environmentalists.

Under this latest proposal, which follows a recent Department of Interior order, ranchers could apply for “targeted and prescribed livestock grazing” permits on over 24 million acres in five Nevada districts. Permittees would set their livestock on a specific piece of land for a few extra weeks or months, chewing the invasive species into a fuel break. That could happen in the spring, when cheatgrass is coming up, or in the fall and early winter months, after the season traditionally ends. 

According to Barry Perryman, a University of Nevada rangeland ecologist whose research is cited in the proposal, ranchers in other states have successfully managed cheatgrass during this “dormant season.” The question, he said, is whether that technique can improve the landscape, writ large. Theoretically, Perryman said, cutting out a strip of cheatgrass around five miles long and an eighth-mile wide could stop the spread of fire, and keep other sagebrush habitat intact.

Three men on horseback with a sheepdog herd cattle in an open field of cheatgrass.

Years after a massive wildfire, Dufurrena and other ranchers have their cattle graze acres of cheatgrass.

Carolyn Dufurrena

“We’re trying to see what kind of real, on-the-ground applications are possible and useful when it comes to managing land,” he said. “It has the potential to cause a lot of good ecological change.” 

Environmentalists disagree. Paul Ruprecht of Western Watersheds, a nonprofit conservation group, says cows and sheep trample the soil, and stomp out the native grasses that fight off invasives. Grazing cheatgrass might work immediately, but in the long-term, he said, it will further damage the ecosystem—a short-sighted, counterproductive approach. 

Nor will fuel breaks succeed in stopping rangeland fires like the Holloway, he added. BLM previously rejected requests for targeted grazing to stop wildfires in Idaho in 2013 and 2015, due to a dearth of evidence. In 2018, a U.S. Geological Survey report said that only “anecdotal reporting” could confirm that fuel breaks worked, which underscored “the difficulty in accurately assessing” their effectiveness in the sagebrush ecosystem.

“Fuel is not really the driver of these big range fires. It’s climatic conditions, like really hot temperatures, wind in particular, low relative humidity. Nothing really stops these big fires that jump interstates,” Ruprecht said. 

In 2018, a US Geological Survey report said that only “anecdotal reporting” could confirm that fuel breaks worked, which underscored “the difficulty in accurately assessing” their effectiveness in the sagebrush ecosystem.

Jesse Miller, a Stanford University ecologist, shares those concerns. In a three-year study of sagebrush steppe in southwest Idaho, he and two other researchers found that cheatgrass spread where cattle had grazed more intensely. That’s because cattle had stomped out the lichens, mosses and bunchgrasses that otherwise hold it back, he said. To stop wildfires, he said BLM should focus more on promoting native grasses and sagebrush, rather than chewing away tinder. 

“Any sagebrush steppe ecologist can tell you that cheatgrass follows the cows,” he said. “I’m not going to say that I’m 100 percent against cows everywhere. But this is a really sensitive ecosystem. And it’s using a really broad brush where you need a much finer technique.”

The Bureau of Land Management is taking public comment on the proposal through midnight on Thursday, and plans to release a final report in August.

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.