Date of Award:

2012

Document Type:

Thesis

Degree Name:

Master of Science (MS)

Department:

Environment and Society

Advisor/Chair:

Frederick D. Provenza

Abstract

Disturbances such as fire and grazing can degrade landscapes, but they can also rejuvenate them. I evaluated: 1) the practicality of strategically timed (fall), high intensity browsing of sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. tridentata, ssp. wyomingensis) by cattle; 2) the foraging behavior and body weights of cattle with varying levels of experience browsing sagebrush; and 3) the ensuing responses of grasses, forbs, and sagebrush to cattle grazing. In spatially and temporally replicated trials from 2007 to 2009, fall grazing by cattle reduced the abundance of sagebrush and promoted production of grasses and forbs. The cattle used in these trials were challenged to learn to eat sagebrush in the unfamiliar circumstance of confinement in small pastures. Throughout the trials from 2007 to 2009, pregnant cows with calves (2007), bred yearling heifers (2008), and first-calf heifer/calf pairs (2009) supplemented with protein and energy – to mitigate the effects of terpenes in big sagebrush – learned to select sagebrush as a significant portion of their diet. In virtually every case, experienced animals consistently used more sagebrush and lost less weight, or actually gained more weight, than naive animals in 2008 and 2009. My research suggests grazing by cattle during fall can be effective, biologically and economically, and can lead to habitat renovation and resilience. Moreover, grazing can create locally adapted systems in ways that landscape manipulations with chemical and mechanical treatments and prescribed fire cannot. These “technological fixes” are increasingly impractical due to environmental concerns, the high costs of fossil fuels, and the need to repeat outcome-based treatments rather than incorporating process-based approaches into managing landscapes. Rather than attempting to convert sagebrush steppe landscapes to grass at extravagant costs, as we have done historically, we must now consider ways to create locally adapted herds of livestock and complementary management practices to ensure long-term health of sagebrush steppe. As many ranchers already feed hay to cows during winter, using sagebrush steppe vegetation as an additional forage resource would allow ranchers to feed roughly half the hay, which would greatly reduce winter feed costs. In addition to financial savings in hay, the secondary benefits from improving sagebrush steppe condition and productivity would result in habitat improvements for both livestock and wildlife.

Comments

This work made publicly available electronically on May 10, 2012.

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