Saturday, January 29, 2011

Where I Come From: A love of horses, wildlife, wilderness

I have been around horses since I was 12 years old.  My neighbors were always saving old mares from kill buyers at the auction and I got my start riding on many of them.  Well, that’s not right.  They bought my other neighbors pony, Chief and it was on him that I first really started riding.  But I rode their older mares too.  Such as Jade.  Sometimes, I think of her as my first horse, even though she wasn’t.  She was euthanized after she went down, could not get up, and lay in the lean-to all night.  By morning when they found her, she’d cast herself and despite our best efforts, we never could get her to her feet again.   

Soon, I had my own horse.  A freebie Arab who took a lot of work to be able to ride without him bolting.  We’d have to shove him against a fence or mount him in the stall the first few months before I could get on him without being trampled.  Then, I won a horse in an essay contest.  I had him for a while -- sold him, but not before he broke my arm when I was breaking him to saddle.  He was the first horse I broke and well, lessons learned for future training.  My next horse was a magnificent black mare, Journey.  I loved her and hated her at the same time.  She taught me so much about patience and reservation.  She died from cancer, and broke my heart.  I grieved for a year.  I now own a stubborn gray gelding QH who I have tried to sell many times, but have never been able to…someday, once I am graduated, I hope to do some barrel racing on him.  I’ve trained him for it, but because of motherhood and school, have been unable to season him.  That’s my horse story, in brief.

Now.  I have always had a passion for wilderness, wildlife, outdoors – the farther from town I am, the happier I am.  I praise cattle ranchers because they preserve these last remaining swaths of undeveloped land.  Did and does overgrazing exist?  Yes, not all ranchers are conservationists.  Do I want to help restore and reverse that?  Yes.  But, back up a bit.  I started college thinking I would go into Pre-Vet, but I’m not a chemistry person or hard science person, so I switched to Geography…I loved geography.  Places, people, wildlife, ecosystems.  It was all wrapped up together. We are a part of the landscape, an ecosystem, a global world.  Since there are not rangeland classes or equine classes at my school, I delved into that research on my own; applying all papers I could to the topic in classes.  But, what kind of job can you get with geography?  I ended up doing water quality monitoring for a small environmental firm.  It was not where I wanted to be.

Old research...

I was looking for old papers that I had written that might contain the information I need for my proposal. I have done research in the Kiger HMA in the past and hoped I could use some of it to write up my “Study Area” section form my thesis proposal on Riddle Mountain’s HMA. While I did not find what I hoped, I did find the paper I wrote to go with the poster I presented at the 2008 Symposium Of University Research and Expression (SOURCE). It was declared an outstanding award and I got a gift card and a certificate. Good times. (I hope to do another one this year :o) Anyway, took me back….still need to find info on Riddle Mountain. I wish I could get grazing history from the BLM site.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

More on sage-grouse, horses, and cattle

The greater sage-grouse once had large populations on rangelands in North America.  Then they declined in the early twentieth century following the alterations to their habitat that occurred in the shrub steppe biome. Many studies have since been conducted in order to learn about their habitat requirements and what can be done to prevent the extinction of this species.  Based on studies of sage-grouse nesting habitat, including those done by Gregg et al. (1994) and Connelly et al. (1991), it was found that sage-grouse need sagebrush and a certain height, no less than eighteen centimeters (Gregg et al., 1994) of herbaceous cover to be successful.  Despite the importance of vegetation to the greater sage-grouse’s survival, there is a dirth of literature exploring whether grazing by cattle and feral horses, two controversial ungulates on rangelands, have direct impact on sage-grouse.  A few papers synthesize effects of these grazers on the sagebrush habitat used by sage-grouse.  Beck and Mitchell (2000) hypothesize that known grazing impacts, which directly affect vegetation, might also have a direct effect on sage-grouse populations. Connelly et al. (2000) and Crawford et al. (2004) claim there is no empirical evidence to support the direct impact of grazing on sage-grouse populations.  Though my study is to examine cattle and feral horse grazing impacts in sage-grouse breeding sites, it might also provide evidence linking them to declines in population.


Connelly and Braun (1997) stated that there are three common factors contributing to habitat alteration that occur across all regions: livestock grazing, weather, and fire.  Though there is no empirical evidence to support it, grazing by domestic and feral livestock, may have a direct influence on sage-grouse populations and their breeding sites.  Since sage-grouse populations have been suffering widespread decline since early in the 20th century (Connelly and Bruan, 1997), it is important to further study the potential effects of grazing on their breeding sites.  In addition to livestock grazing and the clearing of sagebrush to make room for forage, sage-grouse habitats have also been altered by agriculture (Braun et al. 1976).
Leks, which are strutting sites where male sage-grouse attract females, are central to nesting sites (Crawford et al., 2004).  The leks are open areas surrounded by sagebrush, in which the hens find suitable habitat to create their nests.  Several studies, including one done by Gregg et al. (1994) on nest sites in Idaho and on by Connelly et al. (1991), who focused on sites in Wyoming, have found that most successful sage-grouse nests were concealed under shrubs, and a high percentage of this shrub overstory was sagebrush.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Proposal Introduction

Feral horses, cows, and the greater sage-grouse share the same habitat in many places within the shrub-steppe biome. The sage-grouse is not yet listed under the Endangered Species Act, but management practices implemented to protect them and their habitat are critical to prevent them from having to be listed.  Their population decline is largely a result of habitat loss due to the depletion of the shrub-steppe biome that the sage-grouse depend upon for survival.  Their habitat is being damaged by changes in fire regimes, invasive alien species, and the conversion of land for agricultural uses and development (Crawford et al. 2004). Although there are no empirical data to support the hypothesis, it is often suggested that overgrazing and the resulting decline in herbaceous understory have resulted in the decreasing population of sage-grouse (Wambolt et al. 2002).

Friday, January 14, 2011

Thoughts on sage-grouse, horses, and cows

As I learn about the Greater Sage-grouse and its candidacy for listing as an endangered species, I wonder what management impacts this will have on free-roaming equids – or more commonly – wild horses. Protecting the sage-grouse under the ESA will list the shrub steppe biome as "critical habitat." Management regimes will have to be altered to preserve and enhance this habitat. This will include altering livestock grazing by using adaptive management (changing duration, allotments, turn out time, and intensity) and making sure horses do not go over AML. While Animal Right's activists are pushing for a moratorium on horse round ups, the Bureau of Land Management has to maintain horse numbers in order to prevent habitat degradation.

On a side note: speaking of AR's who claim that wild horses are making their last stand on rangelands, I argue that the sage-grouse is the species really making the last stand here. If action is not taken now to protect, enhance, and preserve their habitat, which is threatened by invasive alien species (juniper and cheatgrass), development, livestock grazing, mineral and oil development, and agriculture, they will be gone – extinct in the true sense of the word. And if they are gone, then our sagebrush biome is not far behind.

When it comes to sagebrush habitat and trying to conserve it by minimizing grazing, the truth of the matter is that horses are managed minimally while cattle are managed intensively by comparison. Where cattle can be managed in a way that works around, and even can improve, sage-grouse habitat, horses are left to their own devices – to roam without fences and all year long. They can congregate in leks during the bird's breeding season and graze to their heart's content without someone coming in and moving them elsewhere.

No studies have yet been done to provide empirical data, proving that wild horses and domestic livestock have direct impact on sage-grouse populations, but there is enough data to support that they do have an influence on plant communities in the shrub steppe biome. Should the sage-grouse become listed, I do not know how management will change for wild horses, or even if it will. It might just be that the BLM will have to be quicker to gather up excess horses to prevent overpopulation in HMAs that contain sage-grouse habitat. I do not plan, with my limited knowledge on sage-grouse, among other things, to make suggestions or form theories about what will happen if the sage-grouse is placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. But I do wonder…

Monday, January 10, 2011

Thesis Interest Statement

Following is the statement I had to write for my Graduate Research class to prepare myself, and familiarize the professors with my topic, for writing my proposal. That begins this week. By this Saturday I will have a draft of the introduction to my proposal written, with the final due next Saturday. Writing this simple 200 word statement took a lot of effort. I did not realize that I had to narrow down my topic so much. I have been so used to focusing my writing on wild horses, but now I have to focus more on the sage grouse. I knew I had switched my subject from fertility control impacts on herd behavior to wild horse and cattle grazing on sage-grouse habitat, but it had not clicked with me that I now needed to switch my writing to focus on them

If anyone reading this knows about sage grouse, please make sure I am getting my facts right in the upcoming posts. While I have 5 years of built up knowledge about horses, I now quickly have to digest the information about sage grouse without much time to chew on it. ….

Tentative Title: Effects of feral horse and cattle grazing on Greater Sage-grouse Habitat in Southeastern, Oregon

Feral horses, cows, and the Greater sage-grouse share the same habitat in many places of the shrub-steppe. Horses on public lands are federally protected under the Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971 to be managed as an "integral part of the natural system." There is still little known about their interactions with some native wildlife. The lands they roam are also mandated for multiple uses by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. This includes the highly controversial use of livestock grazing. Then there is the Greater sage-grouse, a declining species on the rangelands these large omnivores use.

Sage-grouse need large swaths of sagebrush habitat for forage and nesting sites. Though there is no empirical data to support it, it is concluded that grazing has an impact. In order to minimize this, it must be determined which grazer is doing more damage.  Between horses and cattle, this is a highly controversial topic.

By conducting vegetation surveys throughout the summer, I aim to fill a data gap and answer this question:  Is it feral horses or cows that have more impact on sage-grouse habitat on Riddle Mountain in southeastern Oregon?

.....My thesis proposal will build from this. And, subsequently, my proposal will be the foundation on which I will build my thesis!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Trip to Burns, Oregon

December 27, 2010 – My trip to Burns, Oregon started out at 5:00 AM after a struggle to find three hours of sleep.  My family and I decided it was best to travel from Stanwood, Washington (a small town in the northwest portion of the state) to my home in Ellensburg the night before.  Starting from my apartment would shave 3 hours off a trip to southeast Oregon.  As it was, the google maps route took my Dad and I (Mom stayed at my apartment with Saige) down 395, a beautiful and scenic route over 3, or 4 (maybe 5?) passes starting with Battle Mountain.  Needless to say, it was a long, snowy drive.  We finally arrived at Burns around one in the afternoon.  I contacted Bill Anderson, District Rangeland Specialist, but when he did not answer, Dad and I drove straight to the Burns/Hines Wild Horse Corrals. 
There we saw a lot of beautiful, colorful horses.  I have a feeling my Dad was cutting out particular beauties and wishing he could take one home.  There was a buckskin stud that had caught the attention of both Dad and I.  I believe I took several pictures of him.  They were all fuzzy with their winter coats and quite healthy looking animals.  After we had wandered around a bit until our toes were frozen, Dad and I hopped in the car for the short trek to the district office.  Once there, I made contact with Bill Anderson and we had a sit down chat.
I learned a lot of helpful things.  It may have seemed silly to drive over six hours for a half hour conversation, but I gained so much more meeting Bill face to face.  Most importantly, I changed my thesis topic, once again.  He started talking about how expensive and time consuming a study on herd behavior would be.  It would likely involve radio collars to track the horses via GPS and more time than I could put in during one summer.  Upon asking what studies I could do over one summer, we settled on sage grouse habitat in the Riddle Mountain area.   It is very exciting for me to be able to look at this HMA where the unique Kiger's are since it was my Dad's Kiger stud that first interested me in free-roaming horses.

The horses here use the same habitat on ridges that the sage grouse also inhabit.  My study will look into who is doing the damage to these ridges, horses or cows?  Since sage grouse are a declining species, it is an important study to understand what grazing animal is doing the damage so that overgrazing can be prevented by controlling population.
Beginning this summer, my plan is to be up on Riddle Mountain the first or second week of June.  This is when grasses are ripening and horses have moved up onto the ridges.  I will do vegetation surveys and use cages to determine amount of use.  (I am not entirely knowledgeable about how my study and methods will unfold at this point.)  Since the cattle are then turned out in July sometime, about 900 head, I will return during this month and repeat the same methods I did in June.  I will return again in August/September.  This will give me three weeks of data and a chance to see just horse use and then combined horse use with livestock use.
Another awesome part of my graduate research is that I will get to be an observer to the Kiger horse gather in September!  Because I will be conducting studies in the area throughout the summer, Bill said this will ensure that I will get a ticket to be able to watch.  I might even be able to get closer than the public and also observe on non-public viewing days.  My Dad tells me to take pictures and watch for nice looking Kigers.  He wants to adopt one, of course.
Things are finally coming together for my thesis.  I am so excited to get a move on it.  But, now I have a lot of research ahead of me concerning rangeland vegetation and sage grouse.

Here is the link to the photos I took during my trip.  I think the link should work....