Pondering Livestock and Wildlife

The curlews are back. The mallards are nesting. The sharptails have been dancing.

Antelope does are loners now, preparing to fawn. The mule deer does and yearlings graze in small bunches. The white tail does and yearlings camp in the bottoms.

And the cattle graze with them.

It has been printed before that livestock and wildlife are incompatible. Pontificators have stated that cows will step on bird nests. Lawsuits have been filed to remove cattle from the range so birds can live there.

The printed pages, pontificators and law suits must have forgotten to sit and watch.

At the Graham Ranch, we rotate our livestock through pastures so we always have at least three pastures that are being rested, with no livestock within those fences. The birds can choose among many locations for their nests, with or without livestock grazing nearby.

Curlews choose nest sites in pastures where the cows graze. My husband, Steve, found a mallard nest, complete with eggs and hovering hen, in the short upland grass, about a quarter of a mile from water. Canada geese and at least five species of ducks are nesting along our reservoir and ponds. The sharptail grouse return to their leks each year.

Of course, the authors of the printed pages, the pontificators and the lawsuit filers can simply discount these observations with excuses. Can you hear them?

“It’s been so wet this year that makes a difference.”

But the birds were here during the past dry years, too.

Or “The grizzlies and wolves are chasing them out of their natural habitat.”

We haven’t seen a wolf on the ranch yet, and the last known grizzly bear was here last June, along with the wildlife. But he ignored the wildlife and selected juicy ewes and lambs to sink his teeth into.

Our observations of compatible livestock and wildlife could be an anomaly, but they are not. I was involved in a study to create Canada goose habitat by using cattle to graze wetlands into suitable nesting sites. The geese flocked to the grazed areas and laid their eggs while we watched.

For a month, we documented every single nest disturbance caused by cattle. We wondered whether a cow would step on a nest, nuzzle Mother Goose, or possibly just invade a goose’s personal space with her enormous presence. Our tally for the nesting season: zero. In fact, they left a buffer of grass and forbs around each nest, never grazing closer than within a couple of feet.

Even when we watched notoriously excitable yearling heifers, we observed no disturbance. Once, a coyote slipped through the tall grass, causing the yearlings to bolt, but even then they avoided trampling the nests. The coyote, however, created a disturbance in the nest.

That goose nesting study did not focus on cattle weight gains or profitability, but we weighed the heifers and calves anyway. They beat the average rate of gain for that herd. The grazing strategy that helped wildlife helped the livestock, too.

Of course, every ranch hosts habitat for different species of wildlife and every ranch manager tweaks a livestock grazing plan, but one species does not have to lose out to another. Not only are cattle compatible with wildlife, they help create wildlife’s living spaces. And when managers target wildlife habitat as a worthy goal, their livestock tend to live better, too.

Lisa Schmidt and her husband, Steve Hutton, raise natural, grassfed beef and lamb at the Graham Ranch near Conrad.

She has two children; Will, 13, and Abby, 4.

Lisa Schmidt