When water quality tests in the Mink Creek watershed came back showing high levels of E. coli bacteria, Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality reported cattle as the probable cause, setting the grazing permitees up for possible problems. But were the cattle really the problem? In this two part series from the “Art of Range” podcast, you’ll meet the researchers who asked and answered this question.
The Mink Creek Watershed near Pocatello, Idaho is managed by the US Forest Service. In addition to providing grazing for several permittees, it’s also a popular recreation area for people with summer homes and campers who pull up their camp trailer and camp next to streams. So when the high bacteria reports came back, they were concerned.
“We started looking back at our rangeland monitoring and figuring out that we’re meeting all of the best management practices for livestock grazing, that would protect water quality like stubble-height standards and utilization, and bank stability,” said said Robbert Mickelsen, Natural Resources and Planning Staff Officer for the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. “We knew we didn’t have all the information to solve this problem. We reached out to the University of Idaho, and said Help!”
Enter our forensic scientists. In Part One of the podcast, you’ll meet all the scientists and find out about water quality regulations, how water quality is measured and the different risks levels that direct what kinds of actions will be taken. They talk about how they can use DNA testing to figure out if a bacteria came from a human, a cow, a dog or any type of animal. It’s great background for everything regulators consider when they talk about water quality in relationship to grazing and the kind of information you might need if your community is considering new grazing regulations in relationship to streams and ponds.
In a world where some people believe cattle are THE problem, it’s especially important to determine the source of any bacteria causing water quality problems. So, Part Two begins with a discussion of the potential regulatory actions against ranchers if the E. coli in the streams was caused by their cattle. Then the guests delve deeper into what’s required to get a good DNA analysis of the bacteria. They also talk about the importance of when they sampled and where they sampled, so they could get a good picture of what was happening overall in the watershed. Finally, they reveal the sources of the E. coli.
What’s Happening Now?
Now that the U.S. Forest Service knows more about that problem, they’re beginning to look at the next steps they can take to actually solve the problem. Had they not known the source of the bacteria, and simply gone with the assumption that cattle were causing the problem, steps they might have taken wouldn’t have addressed the real cause.
What can you do with this?
This two-part podcast is a great lesson in investigation and forensics that is more often associated with the Crime Scene Investigation TV shows than with grazing management. Any grazier who is facing questions about water quality, or additional regulations that may restrict grazing should check out these two podcasts, particularly Part Two where the researchers offer additional help.
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