Healing the Land

Elk Meadow

Screenshot from the report (below) by Mark Moulton, retired from the Sawtooth National Forest. This report tracks changes through the decades of recovery of streams and meadows after livestock grazing ended, near Stanley, Idaho. Excluding livestock and then documenting the healing of the land is a vital part of our work on public lands, and this is an excellent example.

Elk Meadow Photo Point Pairs 2023.pdf

Elk Meadow, Idaho, 2023, an excellent and detailed report by Mark Moulton.

Sarah Spring

Karen Klitz photo-documented the recovery of Sarah Spring in Nevada from overgrazing by cattle, to restored native vegetation after the Bureau of Land Management fenced the spring off from cattle access. This is the kind of work that Sage Steppe Wild does: field documentation and monitoring  by expert observers of the condition of our public lands. Then we notify the government agencies of the problems.

Sarah Spring grazed by cattle in 2003. Photo by Karen Klitz.

Sarah Spring in 2003. A Nevada spring-meadow overgrazed by cattle. Photo by Karen Klitz.

Sarah Spring in 2019 after fencing the cattle out. The meadow is regrowing in an enclosure to exclude livestock. Photo by Karen Klitz.

Spring meadow and riparian recovery in 2019. Photo by Karen Klitz.

Sarah Spring 2019 at Fenceline

The cattle graze the meadow to dirt just outside of the exclosure fenceline.

Fenced exclosures that do not allow livestock grazing can reveal the baseline conditions of an ecosystem as the land is healing over time. Paired photos of grazed and ungrazed plant communities, and photos over the years after livestock are excluded, are crucial to understanding the damage that has been done to Western public lands. 

Fenceline Photos

Remarkable recovery of cool-season native perennial bunchgrasses (bluebunch wheatgrass and neede-and-thread) in an exclosure on the right. The fence was contructed in 2018. Outside the fence in the cattle-grazed rangeland the green bunchgrasses have almost been completely grazed out, and small purple-colored annual introduced cheatgrass dominates. Wells Field Office of the Bueau of Land Management, northeastern Nevada.

Hart Mountain

View across aspen and sagebrush hills in Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, southeastern Oregon.

Pronghorn antelope at Hart Mountion.

Greater sage grouse at Hart Mountain.

Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in southeastern Oregon, is a rare example of management decisions that removed domestic livestock in favor of native wildlife--pronghorn antelope, California bighorn sheep, sage grouse, redband trout and other species. The aspen groves, riparian corridors, streams, and sagebrush steppe have been allowed to heal over time, and the results are spectacular. 

Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge was established on December 20th, 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to serve “…as a range and breeding ground for the antelope and other species of wildlife....Yet cattle grazing was allowed in the refuge for decades.

Then cattle were removed in 1991. Barry Reiswig, the refuge manager at Hart Mountain who implemented a halt to grazing is to be credited with starting a vast experiment in documenting how the land heals over time. Several studies have been undertaken to document this recovery.

Andy Kerr in his Public Lands Blog relates the details of the voluntary buy-outs:

One example of a creative buyout scheme occurred in the 1990s. The US Fish and Wildlife Service had just ended grazing on Hart Mountain in Oregon. The agency was preparing to undertake a process that would likely result in the same at the nearby Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Nevada (and a tiny piece of Oregon). Grazing permittees in the refuge were feeling the pressure.

The Sheldon–Hart Mountain NWR Complex manager, the legendary Barry Reiswig, rounded up his grazing lessees and made them an offer. Half of the forage was to be left for wildlife, since it was a national wildlife refuge, after all. The Fish and Wildlife Service would monitor the coming year’s several-month grazing season, and the permittees would have to pull off their livestock once they’d consumed their half of the forage. That year, the permittees got a call just two weeks into their grazing season: the forage was half gone. “Come get your cows!”

Subsequently, all the permittees ended their operations on the refuge, concurrent with mutually agreed-upon compensation by the Conservation Fund. Some retired and some reconfigured their operations to not rely on public lands.

See Ralph Maughn's post in The Wildlife News: Hart Mountain refuge miracle: recovering cow-free for two decades.

Below are some resources about the recovery at Hart Mountain.

Batchelor et al 2015.pdf

Restoration of Riparian Areas Following the Removal of Cattle in the Northwestern Great Basin. 2015. 

Jonathan L. Batchelor, William J. Ripple, Todd M. Wilson and Luke E. Painter. Environmental Management

Rewilding a Mountain


By Balance Media, on Vimeo: The sagebrush sea is a landscape of stark beauty and captivating wildlife, yet rapid desertification and extractive industries threaten this vast basin. But at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Southeastern Oregon, a different story unfolds. New aspen explode alongside thriving creeks, migratory birds travel thousands of miles to nest in willow branches, and even the endangered sage grouse seem to be recovering in the uplands. Rewilding a Mountain unravels an unsettling controversy that challenged the core identity of the West and follows a team of scientists who ask the question: what happened here?

Greater Hart-Sheldon: Sagebrush Stronghold


Oregon Natural Desert Association has produced an excellent story map of the the wildlife connectvity corridor across the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in southeastern Oregon to the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in northern Nevada.