South Dakota national forest doubles as crucial grazing grounds

(U.S. Forest Service photo)

SPEARFISH, S.D. — The Black Hills National Forest is home to great stands of ponderosa pine, plentiful numbers of wild game, and innumerable small animals, plants, birds, and insects.

But the Black Hills is also one of the most important grazing lands in the region for area ranchers. Thousands of head of cattle spend much of the year in the canyons and meadows of the Black Hills. And local ranchers depend on the Black Hills for seasonal pastures for their livestock. The relationship between the national forests and ranchers in the West has been long and profitable for both parties.

“Range condition decreases in the absence of grazing,” said Aaron Thomson, president of the Spearfish Livestock Association.

Ranchers like Thompson appreciate the availability of national forest grazing lands, and he believes it is a better alternative for summer grazing than open pasture.

“I’d rather have my cattle in 80-degree shade in the summertime than out on the open plains,” Thompson told the Black Hills Pioneer.

Grasses available in the Black Hills meadows still include some native species, but also include some “introduced” species like timothy grass, brome grass, and Kentucky blue grass, said Julie Wheeler, the zoned rangeland management specialist for the Northern Hills District of the Black Hills National Forest.

The Northern Hills Ranger District encompasses an area roughly corresponding to the forested areas of Lawrence County, and there are 36 ranchers using the forest grazing lands.

Those ranchers have to meet a certain set of criteria, Wheeler said.

Ranchers have to own the livestock they will be grazing. They must be registered landowners. They must also pay a fee for the use of land, which varies in different parts of the Black Hills according to the quality of the grass, the availability of water, the amount of access, and its proximity to the ranches surrounding the national forest.

“Fifty percent of the grazing fee receipts are returned in the form of Range Betterment Funds that are used for on-the-ground rehabilitation and ranger improvement projects in the forest or region where the fees were collected,” Wheeler said.

Water is one critical factor in the usage of the Black Hills for grazing.

“If you don’t have water, you don’t have grazing,” Wheeler said.

The Black Hills offers better, more-consistent groundwater than many prairie pastures, Thompson said.

The Black Hills has few naturally occurring lakes or ponds. Most of the watering holes in the western Black Hills have been created by small dams across streams. The ranchers also make use of water tanks fed by natural springs.

Ranchers and the Forest Service usually share the cost of construction of tanks and dams. The Forest Service usually supplies the equipment, and the ranchers supply the labor to install it.

“It’s their material. It’s our sweat,” Thompson said.

A range that has adequate water for a given number of cattle one year may not have enough water the next. Ranchers like Thompson explain that while they like the quality of the groundwater, there are challenges using what’s available.

“The big problem with water is distribution. There’s a tendency for cattle to congregate around water. That can cause overgrazing next to water,” Thompson said.

That’s especially true when it gets dry. Water has to be hauled to the water tanks when the streams dry up and springs quit running.

“Hauling water is the rancher’s responsibility,” Wheeler said. “They have the option to bring in temporary tanks.”

Temporary cross fencing, which divides the forest into separate pastures, is also used to divert cattle to alternate pastures when the rain doesn’t come. The installation of that fencing is the rancher’s responsibility although the Forest Service supplies materials, Wheeler said.

Both Wheeler and Thompson agree that fencing is an issue that requires coordination between ranchers and forest managers. Good fences are difficult to build and maintain in the steep, rough, rocky terrain that makes up much of the Black Hills National Forest.

For ranchers everywhere, fence maintenance is one of their most time-consuming jobs, and that’s especially true for those running cattle in the Black Hills. Storms and fallen trees necessitate frequent fence-fixing missions. Elk can trample and break wire and posts. Storm runoff can fill cattle guards with mud.

Wheeler pointed out that ranchers have no property rights to their Forest Service allotments.

“It’s a privilege for the permittees,” she said.

The Black Hills National Forest was set aside for multiple uses, and those uses “go on concurrently with grazing,” Wheeler said.

She identified the major uses of the Black Hills National Forest as cattle grazing, timber harvesting, mining, hunting, and recreation.

Both ranchers and forest managers must accommodate those other uses. Those multiple uses create a complex choreography that requires constant compromise between the varying interests. Under the system, nobody gets everything they want, said Thompson.

With all of those uses, people are continually using the trails that lead through the woods. Hikers, miners, campers, hikers, and hunters sometimes drive through gates and leave them open. Ranchers like Thompson say gates require constant watching.

Thompson reflected that he and his fellow stockmen deal with the problem, “Mostly by pulling our hair out.”

Thompson added, however, that he and his fellow ranchers have an ongoing dialogue with local ATV and off-road groups, and the effort has had positive results including a greater awareness of the need to close gates and the need to respect fences.

With the coming of an extensive system of fences in the Black Hills, branding isn’t as critical as it once was. But it’s still an important practice that helps to prevent cattle from one herd mixing with other herds. It also helps forest managers to identify animals that may have strayed into the wrong pastures.

Thompson said the state brand boards ride herd on the registration of the brands, but the work of keeping the herds from mixing requires alertness on the part of ranchers and range managers.

Predators are another concern for ranchers. According to Thompson, cattle are vulnerable to the vagaries of predators, and it’s a vulnerability that other users of the forest sometimes don’t understand or have much sympathy for.

But it doesn’t interfere with the relationship between managers and ranchers, according to Wheeler.

“I’m not aware of any major issue that we have when it comes to predation,” she said.

In any case, predators are usually an issue handled by state wildlife managers, requiring three-way coordination between ranchers, the Forest Service, and the state Game, Fish, and Parks Department.

Thompson believes a wildlife issue that is more problematic for ranchers than predators is elk. Large elk herds can occasionally overgraze some allotments and interfere with access to water for cattle. Ranchers aren’t free to simply drive them off, Thompson said. The migration of large deer and elk herds is one difficulty that ranchers have to tolerate as part of the bargain, he said, but those problems can usually be worked out through communication with the wildlife management personnel at the state level.

Finally, there is the issue of judging how many cattle a given section of national forest land can support. It’s a difficult problem that requires long experience in managing wooded rangeland, a lot of data, and good judgment.

The Forest Service has been in the business of range management for more than a century now, Wheeler said. So there is a hoard of grazing experience contained in the history of the Forest Service grazing activities.

That’s where good judgment comes in, Thompson said. It’s necessary in deciding which result is the reasonable and achievable objective and in deciding which result will benefit which parties.

For the Forest Service, the task of good judgment is not static. It’s changing constantly. When changes have to be made to grazing procedures and policies, they are not made lightly.

“We have to do an environmental analysis,” Wheeler said of the more extensive changes that are made.

But there are routine changes in grazing techniques that are undertaken with the cooperation, and sometimes at the behest, of the ranchers.

“We have new information and new science coming out, and it evolves,” Wheeler said.

Those changes are usually accommodated with regular communication between the Forest Service and ranchers.

“We have a pretty good relationship with the permittees we have here,” Wheeler said.

Thompson agrees with Wheeler on the quality of the relationship between the two parties.

“It’s good and getting better. It’s trending upward,” Thompson said.

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