Back in 1994, the Columbian white-tailed deer faced an uncertain future. They'd been listed as a threatened species since 1978, and their numbers were declining in the face of challenges ranging from farming, logging, and hunting to commercial and residential development.
In hopes of providing the White-tailed deer a secure habitat to rebuild their numbers, the BLM acquired 6,500 acres of grasslands and woodlands near Roseburg, Ore. But even with this new preserve, the deer had a hard time reaching the most nutritious green grass that would best help them thrive and multiply.
Soon the question became how the BLM could help deer get at the best new grasses and clover. Initially, the BLM used hands-on techniques such as prescribed burns, mowing, seeding, fertilizing, and establishing forage plots. But by 2003, the BLM came up with a new strategy. A natural strategy. "We decided to bring local cattle into the area because they eat the part of grass that is called the 'thatch.' The thatch consists of grass that is dead or lower in nutrition, like the older leaf blades and stems. When it accumulates, it can stifle new growth," said Allie Barner, BLM soil scientist. "When cows eat away the thatch, it speeds up the growth of new grasses and vegetation that are more nutritious for the white-tailed deer."
When the BLM first met with local ranchers to talk about a cattle grazing project in the area, there wasn't a great deal of initial interest. The ranchers were concerned that any habitat-driven grazing plan might restrict grazing for livestock and have an impact on their animals. And so the idea of "green grazing" took a backseat to the more labor-intensive (and expensive) applications such as burning, mowing, and seeding White-tail forage. As with many other innovations, time and circumstances had to catch up with a bold idea.
A Second Look
But by 2011, high management costs and continuing concerns about a lack of available forage habitat for the deer led the BLM to relook at the cattle grazing strategy. Also, some of the techniques like burning and mowing weren't feasible in all areas. Thus the BLM reached out again to explore options with local ranchers and members of the grazing community.
In taking a collaborative approach, the BLM was successful in reaching an agreement this time. And a 60-acre test grazing site was established with the assistance of the Sandberg Family Ranch and the Jefferson Conservation Crew.
The Sandberg family was a natural partner. They have a livestock operation located across Oregon's North Umpqua River and had been actively involved with the BLM's public outreach on grazing. This partnership brought the Sandberg family's extensive experience – as well as actual cattle – to serve as part of the test grazing project.
Oregon's award-winning Jefferson Conservation Crew was then brought in to assist in building out the 60-acre test area with an electrified fence. And so 2012 brought great promise for the deer as their cow benefactors were turned out into the area.
Foraging for Success
Will the grazing help provide healthy forage for the white-tailed deer? So far, so good. But of course, only time will tell. "Our primary goal with grazing implementation is to really increase our production of high quality forage for the Columbian white-tailed deer," said Max Yager, Swiftwater field manager. "The Roseburg BLM intends to monitor the grazing impacts within the test plot."
So for now the hope is that the BLM's plan will provide a four-to-six-inch stubble height of new grass for the Columbian white-tailed deer to eat. This better access to high quality forage should allow them to flourish and increase their numbers. Test grazing will determine further opportunities to be evaluated. If the project is deemed a success, cattle will be returned to this area. And, no doubt, the deer will be glad to welcome them home.
For more on grazing gone green plus maps of the area at the North Bank Habitat Homepage go to http://www.blm.gov/or/districts/roseburg/north_bank.php.
Story by: Allison "Chip" Clough III, BLM; photo one by Cheyne Rossbach, BLM; photo two by John Craig, BLM
Dec. 12, 2012