Steamboat Springs Bands of sheep and herds of cattle dot the landscape of the Routt National Forest in the summer, creating picturesque scenes that have tourists digging for their cameras. Besides being photogenic, the sheep and cattle are being managed to provide benefit to the land.
Properly managed, livestock grazing stimulates growth of desirable plant species and achieves a mix of different forbs and grasses across the landscape. Livestock grazing is also a tool to control non-native noxious weeds and other undesirable vegetation species. Goats, and to a lesser degree, sheep, sometimes selectively graze on weeds such as leafy spurge and whitetop, while horses and cattle are known to eat large numbers of Canada thistle heads while they're in the flowering stage in late July. In addition, cattle and sheep grazing enhances habitat areas for elk, deer and other wildlife species.
Livestock use has been authorized under grazing permits on the Routt National Forest since 1906. There are 125 grazing allotments on the forest, providing forage for about 13,000 cattle, 70,000 sheep and a couple hundred horses. More than 80 private individuals have permits to graze their livestock on the Routt National Forest. The Forest Service conducts extensive analysis to determine the number of livestock allowed on the forest to achieve the desirable condition for the rangelands.
Requirements to be eligible to hold Forest Service permits include ownership of the livestock to be grazed, and ownership of base property - usually a sheep or cattle ranch.
Cattle graze on the forest from early July to mid-September, while sheep generally graze the forest for about a two-month period. Livestock management requires frequent riding by livestock managers to obtain good distribution of cattle and sheep across the allotment. Allotments range from a few hundred to almost 25,000 acres, averaging about 8,000 acres in size.
Ranchers pay fees based on head months, or HMs, which is a cow or sheep grazing on the forest for one month. This fee fluctuates based on factors such as market rates and production costs. This year, ranchers are paying $1.35 for one cow or five sheep for one month. The grazing fees for all national forests and grasslands were originally set by Congress using a grazing fee formula established in the Public Rangelands Improvement Act. In recent years, the president has established the grazing fees through executive authority. Grazing fees are often debated in Congress, and they are not set by the Forest Service.
Although some people believe grazing is incompatible with wilderness areas, livestock grazing has occurred in these areas since the late 1800s, long before wilderness proclamation. The 1964 Wilderness Act established livestock grazing as an allowable use within wilderness areas, and Congress reaffirmed its intent for dual values and use in the 1980 Congressional Grazing Guidelines.
So the next time you come across a small herd of cattle and perhaps their horseback rider or a band of sheep with a herder making their way leisurely across an open hillside, get a picture of this continuing multiple use of your national forest.
Ritschard is a spokeswoman for the Routt National Forest.