Kiowa National Grassland Integrated Resource Management

Posted: Apr 1, 2005
Written by: 
Joshua Zaffos

The Kiowa National Grassland occupies 136,505 acres in northeastern New Mexico and is directly adjacent to the 93,323-acre Rita Blanca National Grassland in Texas and Oklahoma. The federal lands of the Kiowa are interspersed with private and state parcels in a checkerboard pattern.

Objective: To manage the grazing lands for greater productivity and healthier forage.

Participants: US Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, State Wildlife Agencies, Quail Unlimited, the Clayton Livestock Research Center, local counties, local ranchers.

History: The Dust Bowl and "the Dirty '30s" blasted homesteaders in northeastern New Mexico and left a barren landscape. In response, President Roosevelt's New Deal offered to buy busted homesteads and help resettle willing families. Only one of every four families accepted the deal. The Soil Conservation Service managed these government-acquired lands and worked with the remaining landowners to reseed the public and private range. By 1960, grazing had replaced farming as the dominant land use and Congress created the Kiowa and Rita Blanca national grasslands under the management of the Forest Service.

Map courtesy of USDA Forest Service
The forbs and wild grasses that livestock find most nourishing recovered slowly on the grasslands. Wildlife like deer and upland birds suffered in the degraded environment. Beginning in the 1980s, the Forest Service and the Soil Conservation Service (renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service in 1994) coordinated efforts with ranchers - and shared the costs - to improve the range, protect water resources, and restore wildlife habitat through integrated resource management.

This agency-driven approach involves considering management of all resources on public and private lands as a single objective. Ranchers and agencies meet and develop comprehensive water programs where water is piped to several small areas to diminish impacts along creeks. Ranchers also implement "time-controlled" grazing where herds are rotated through pastures based on grassland health. Through integrated management, the partners meet each year to evaluate the results and update grazing plans.

The Forest Service subtracts costs of public lands improvements from future grazing fees. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has utilized the Great Plains Conservation Program, and now the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), for cost-share projects on private land. EQIP is a voluntary Farm Bill program: Farmers and ranchers can choose to take conservation measures such as riparian fencing and installation of water systems, and then receive up to 75 percent of the costs from the federal government through NRCS.

Accomplishments: To convince private landowners to work cooperatively, the Forest Service and the NRCS needed to overcome a stubborn pride among homestead families that refused government assistance during the Dust Bowl. But the mixed ownership of the grasslands made the collaborative efforts essential.

"It's hard to put a long-term management plan on half a ranch," says Mike Delano, NRCS district conservationist. Delano estimates that integrated resource management is in place on half of the public grasslands in his district.

Pronghorn on the grassland
Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service

Richard Shaw, a third-generation rancher, remembers his father wrestling with the decision in 1981, before agreeing to give integrated management a shot. The family used to run just 70 cows on 5,000 acres of private land and another 5,000 acres of public land for 10 months of the year. Now, Shaw has doubled the size of his herd and usually leaves his cattle out year-round. "I've seen a tremendous recovery of those old fields in the process," says Shaw, chair of the Mesa Soil and Water Conservation District.

Other ranchers have reported restoration - on public and private lands - of native forbs and wild-grasses, which have resulted in higher conception and birth rates for cattle, as well as higher weaning rates. Cottonwoods and willows have returned along creek banks, and deer, pronghorn, scaled quail, and prairie chicken populations have increased.

Challenges/constraints: Many ranchers who didn't need financial assistance to make improvements haven't drafted cooperative plans with the Forest Service and the NRCS. Most of these ranchers still use conventional grazing techniques that are less likely to restore environmental quality.

Meanwhile, new resource challenges have cropped up. Salt cedar and Russian olive have invaded the watershed of the Canadian River, which marks the western border of the public grasslands. The Canadian River Riparian Restoration Project includes the soil and water conservation districts, the counties, the state and the federal agencies as well as "excellent participation" from private landowners, says project manager Jack Chatfield. Congress is now considering legislation to give federal money for the project.

Fire suppression and grazing practices have also triggered an increase in piñon-juniper forests that crowd out grasses. Ranchers can use cost-share money through EQIP to control brush, something they couldn't do under the previous program. A fuelwood cutting program on the grasslands is also addressing this issue.

Integrated management is an implicit scheme these days on the Kiowa National Grassland. But the collaborative, working partnership forged on the Kiowa has demonstrated the importance and effectiveness of cooperation among public and private neighbors.

For more information see:

Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands

Univ. of Michigan Profile
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