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Managing Forest Service grazing allotments: A challenge ‘staying ahead of change...’

Steve Hiebert pictured at McComas Meadows.

Steve Hiebert
Steve Hiebert pictured at McComas Meadows.

— “I have been interested in range and range management since high school,” said Steve Hiebert, recently retired range management specialist for the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests.

Raised in Pullman, Wash., the heart of wheat country, Hiebert always wanted to work in the outdoors.

“I spent time on the farm helping neighbors with sheep and cattle operations such as haying and harvesting, Hiebert said. “I liked the people and wanted my own farm or ranch; little did I know that would eventually be 600,000 acres of allotments on the Nez Perce-Clearwater NFs!”

Hiebert attended North Idaho College and the University of Idaho, while beginning his career with the Forest Service; working in fire, silviculture, tree improvement, timber, and wildlife.

“My first job with the FS was as a firefighter for the now long-gone Magee Hotshots,” Hiebert recalled. “I remember the crew was flown in to Grangeville in a DC-3 in 1973 to work on the Cougar Creek fire – I was 18 years old. Wow, quite an experience!”

Grazing is one method in agriculture where domestic livestock are used to convert grass and other forages into meat, milk, and numerous other products.

The building of cattle and sheep empires in the early 1800s, on unclaimed public domain lands with free forage, caused many rangelands to become overgrazed, overstocked, and overcrowded; creating a need for better grazing management.

The Forest Service became the pioneer grazing control agency when Congress transferred the forest reserves from the Secretary of the Interior to the Secretary of Agriculture in 1905.

In 1906 to 1907, the Forest Service established a system of range regulation with limits on herd sizes, grazing seasons, areas of use, and also began charging grazing fees. Range management specialists were needed to oversee these regulations.

Homesteaders were granted permits to graze their livestock on adjoining federal lands. Some of these permits have continued down through generations.

Hiebert said, “My job duties included developing Allotment Operating Instructions (AOIs), monitoring grazing programs, developing annual operating plans, assessing long term condition and trends of rangelands, inspecting existing range improvements, developing and implementing new improvements, such as troughs, fences, and corrals.”

An AUM (animal unit month) or HM (head month) is the use of public lands by one cow and her calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats for a month.

Three factors go into calculating the annual grazing fee: current private grazing land lease rates, beef cattle prices, and the cost of livestock production.

Authorized permits are required for livestock production use on national forest system lands.

The Forest Service administers approximately 6,500 permits. Hiebert oversaw 26 of these grazing permits covering four ranger districts – Salmon River, Red River, Moose Creek and Lochsa.

Types of permits include: term permits, which can be issued for up to 10 years with priority for renewal at the end of the term; on-and-off grazing permits, which contain specific provisions on range only part of which is under Forest Service control (i.e. Forest Service land fenced in with private property or vice-versa); temporary grazing permits, for grazing livestock temporarily and without priority for reissuance.

Permittees and range management personnel work together to attain good management practices, benefiting all forest users.

Throughout his career, Hiebert has seen many changes including the onset of computers with databases, GIS (Geographic Information System), word processers, increased communications with cell phones, iPads, and GPS (Global Positioning System); however, Hiebert says the best management comes with one-on-one interaction with Forest users.

“It’s a challenging program staying ahead of change in grazing management. There has been increased interest from the public in the management of other resources, such as recreation and wildlife,” Hiebert continued, “The invasive species program has increased in size and funding.”

The effect of environmental issues has seen cattle grazing permits dwindle in Idaho County alone.

“Domestic sheep grazing has declined to zero on the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests,” said Hiebert, “mostly due to the concerns over disease transfer from domestic sheep to bighorn sheep.”

Permittees like consistency and constant change in Forest Service personnel makes it hard to establish strong working relationships.

Hiebert’s favorite part of the job, “was working with ranchers, developing employee skills, staying out of the office and working in one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, places on planet earth.”

Hiebert looks forward to spending more time in this area with his wife, Suzi, their son, two daughters, and five grandchildren.

Shelley Neal is a resident of Lucile.


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