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Cattle part of conservation effort

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Cattle graze in the Moses Coulee Preserve.

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JAMESON LAKE — An unconventional bunch of volunteers is working to repair damaged sagelands in Moses Coulee this month.

With heavy feet and a clumsy style, about 150 cows have been enlisted to help plant native grasses in an area along Highway 2 that is overrun with invasive and harmful cheatgrass.

I know cattle aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think conservation,” said Chuck Warner, conservation director for The Nature Conservancy’s Moses Coulee Preserve. “But they have a big, soft foot that is a pretty decent tool for pushing seed into the ground in areas where we can’t bring in heavy machinery.”

This partnership between cattle and conservation is highly polarized in the broader environmental community. Many environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have national campaigns to remove livestock from nature shrub-steppe lands across the West. But the cooperative approach has been fostered by The Nature Conservancy and embraced by area cattle ranchers over the last 13 years in this desolate, glacier-cut coulee about 30 miles northeast of Wenatchee.

We’re interested in preserving pasture land,” said Paul Wittig, a third-generation cattle rancher who grazes his 200 cattle on Nature Conservancy and Bureau of Land Management property in the coulee. “My grandfather would probably be pretty surprised by the cows doing conservation. But I say anything we can do to help out with these projects, we’re willing to do if it allows us to keep grazing.”

On Wednesday, Wittig, his wife, Heidi, their son, Dustin, and three cattle dogs herded many of their cattle that had been scattered across a large area of the coulee into an 88-acre fenced enclosure along Highway 2, near the cutoff to Jameson Lake.

The site was slated for development in the 1970s as part of the Rimrock Meadows rural housing development. Warner said it has been heavily grazed by cattle over the years, allowing invasive cheatgrass to replace more sensitive native grasses. Cheatgrass carpets the ground much thicker than native grasses and dries out faster in the spring, making it fuel for damaging wildfires, Warner said.

The Nature Conservancy was interested in replanting native grasses in the area, but the dense covering of mature sage brush made it impossible to use heavy equipment to till and plant the seed.

So the organization opted to use Wittig’s cattle as a test to see how they would work.

Early last week, native grass seed was dropped from an airplane over the test area. The cows were then herded around inside the fenced area on Wednesday and remained until Sunday, hopefully pushing most of the seeds into the moist ground.

Warner likened the project to a garden, saying that if you just sprinkle seeds over the ground, some will germinate but many will not. But if you bury them in the ground, many more will survive to grow into plants.

Once the cows are finished, the second part of the study will begin. On Monday, cooked white rice coated in a native bacteria will be sprinkled over the test area from an airplane. As the rice dissolves, the bacteria will be released into the soil, Warner said. Research has found that the bacteria will naturally kill cheatgrass, which germinates earlier than the native grasses, he said.

The combined use of the cows and the bacteria should result over time in a more natural shrub steppe that is better resilient to fire, he said.

This isn’t the first time Wittig’s cows have done work for the conservation group. Not far away in the coulee are a series of marked test plots for another cheatgrass study being done by Oregon State University. Cows have been used in some of those plots over the last few years.

Nine years ago, The Nature Conservancy did another test to see whether cows could be enticed to eat sagebrush during a time of year when the normally tough plants are easier for animals to digest. The organization sprayed molasses on the brush. Unfortunately, Wittig’s cows had never eaten molasses before and weren’t easily tempted by its sweetness. After some tweaks to that study, the results were ultimately used to develop a molasses program that is now used elsewhere in the nation to control the overgrowth of sage brush.

The Nature Conservancy has been criticized for these programs,” Warner said. “There are a lot of people who don’t think cattle belong here at all.”

Cattle in shrub steppe conjures images of bare dirt and piles of manure, eroded gullies and trampled riparian areas. On it website, the Sierra Club states that “No other human activity in the West is as responsible for the decline and loss of species as livestock production.” The organization believes that 22 percent of all federally protected plant and animal species are on the Endangered Species List because of livestock impacts. It’s national campaign, Restore Our Western Wildlife Heritage, calls for the elimination of livestock from all federal lands and from native habitats — and even ending commercial livestock production in some areas.

But Warner said that historically there were wild grazers in Moses Coulee. Deer were once more prolific, and cultural studied have unearthed evidence of buffalo. Native American folklore also talks of bighorn sheep in the coulee at one time.

You can speculate that if this habitat evolved with some grazers, if you take them out altogether, there would be a shift in the vegetation,” Warner said. “We think it’s beneficial to have them.”

If it’s done carefully, cattle grazing is compatible with what we’re trying to do up here, which is to preserve and restore the native habitat.”

Wittig said The Nature Conservancy’s approach to cattle was a pleasant surprise after the organization bought up 3,500 acres in the coulee in 1999. His family has been grazing cattle in the coulee since 1925, and he hopes his children and future grandchildren will continue to do so for years to come.

Anytime a rancher hears the word ‘conservation’, it’s alarming,” he said. “Fortunately, they aren’t anti-grazing. They’ve been real good to work with over the years.”

Warner said the underlying reason for The Nature Conservancy’s interest in working with cattle ranchers is protecting natural habitats from development.

We think property being grazed is better than property concreted over,” he said. “So we want to work with ranchers to improve their bottom line and keep them in business. Ultimately, that will keep their property from being developed into other uses.”

He added that, “If it’s done carefully, cattle grazing is very compatible with that we’re trying to do here, which is preserve and restore native habitat.”

Reach Michelle McNiel at 509-664-7152 or . Follow her on Twitter at @MichelMcNielWW.