Eleanor Fitzgerald, stands with her son, Joseph Utley, and her nephew Colin McKenzie, on a dusty outcrop among sage and bitterbrush. Behind them, 12 Mile Creek paints a dark green ribbon across the otherwise drab landscape.
Sights like this are rare in Oregon’s sagebrush country. Wet meadows occupy less than 2 percent of the sage-steppe region, yet provide habitat for over 350 dependent species, and support cattle grazing.
Even during the driest parts of the year, the Fitzgerald Ranch can rely on the good grass down in the meadow for their cattle. The same applies to wildlife such as the sage grouse. Sustainable livestock ranching and landscape stewardship throughout the West has kept the bird off the endangered species list, and managing precious wet areas like this are key to both the bird’s survival, and the survival of the ranch.
“The meadow is central to the operation,” says Eleanor. “It’s next to the corral and we use it for our yearlings. Your replacement heifers are your next vulnerable group, so they get the best feed that you have as well.”
It wasn’t always like this. “In mid-July, some years 12 Mile Creek used to run dry. All the lower country had no water,” says Eleanor.
Maintaining an “emerald island” in the middle of the desert is no small task. Here’s how the Fitzgeralds do it.
Unchecked, juniper trees can quickly dominate a landscape. They eliminate acres of good grazing land from production, restrict the movement of wildlife, and consume tremendous amounts of water.
The Fitzgeralds have cut down encroaching juniper on over 2,300 acres. Both cattle and wildlife have more room to roam, and native vegetation such as sagebrush is taking its place. In turn, there’s more water available across the landscape, benefiting the entire ecosystem. These aerial photos give an idea of how much work they’ve done.
Cross Fencing and Grazing Management
“We’ve been working with Max [NRCS district conservationist] for over 20 years. When we started, we only had three pastures, now we have 13. This allows us to manage our cattle more efficiently and effectively. We have happy cows!” says Eleanor.
Those pastures were established with 15 miles of fencing. Before the fences went up, the livestock roamed vast expanses of the ranch unhindered. Livestock distribution was a concern as the cattle remained on the most desirable areas and ignored places that were inconvenient to reach.
With more pastures, the Fitzgeralds can rotate cattle grazing around the ranch, making sure every acre is utilized efficiently. Rangeland health has improved, and plants can rest and recover after scheduled grazing has occurred.
Invasive Grass Treatment
Good grasses are critical to a successful ranch. Cheatgrass, medusahead, and ventenata are not good grasses. These invasive annual grasses don’t provide as much forage for cattle as native grasses, and they limit the habitat diversity wildlife need.
According to Oregon State University Extension, medusahead can reduce the number of cows a pasture can support by 50 to 80 percent.
By strategically grazing areas threatened by invasive grass, the Fitzgeralds limit their spread. They also utilize herbicides in periods when the grasses are most vulnerable. Using this combination of targeted grazing and chemical weed control is helping them win the war against invasive annual grasses.
As with everything in this dry region, much of the Fitzgeralds’ conservation work is tied to water. They’ve installed seven water control structures to manage their wet meadow and maintain existing irrigation infrastructure to utilize snowmelt and rain across pastures and near the creek. They bank that valuable water in fresh grass and can cash in when upland pastures begin to go dormant.
Their grazing strategy and timed rotations are specifically planned to improve the wet meadow habitat, enhance the hydrology of the creek, and maximize production for cattle and wildlife.
Under the Umbrella
Sage grouse are considered an umbrella species because conservation efforts that support sage grouse support the entire sage-steppe ecosystem. By managing wet meadows, combating invasive species, and grazing strategically, sage grouse and other wildlife flourish. It just so happens these practices also benefit livestock by way of higher quality food and more variety throughout the year.
The Fitzgeralds have seen gains in both how quickly their cattle put on weight and how many cattle they can support per acre, all by helping sage grouse.
“I don’t remember a whole lot of sage grouse when I was younger,” says Joseph. “After we started working with Max, you ride out here, there’s not a day you’re not going to see sage grouse.”
With the return of sage grouse, other animals have also returned to the area.
“The antelope follow the cows because they like the succulent plants. We have at least 300 antelope on the ranch,” says Eleanor. “In the winter, we have ground where they winter. There’s probably 600 or 700 down there.”
How Do They Cover All These Costs?
The practices on the Fitzgerald Ranch were cost-shared through the Sage Grouse Initiative and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The Sage Grouse Initiative is part of a larger Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) program called “Working Lands for Wildlife.” The program recognizes the important ecosystem services that private land owners provide, and assists them with improvements that work for both wildlife and livestock and agriculture production. The map below shows programs that are currently underway. Click to find your local NRCS office and ask about assistance with Conservation Planning and ideas that will work for you.