A leader of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association called on the federal government to do more to manage federal lands to decrease the potential for disaster during a year of extreme weather like the drought conditions of 2021.

"A significant portion of the 6 million acres burned this year are on federal land — lands that could have been better managed through the thinning of fine fuels. Federal agencies must take a lesson from livestock producers to make these landscapes resilient for long-term challenges like drought and wildfire, but also resilient for changing uses," North Dakota Stockmen’s Association Executive Vice President Julie Ellingson testified before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power on Wednesday, Oct. 6.

"To make landscapes more resilient to drought, grazing is a key part of that solution. To make these landscapes more resilient to fire, grazing again can be a tool to achieve that goal."

Ellingson said testified about how livestock producers can partner on land management.

"Ranchers make the hard decisions that need to be made for our lands — whether we hold the title to them or sign our names for them on a federal grazing permit," she said. "We take responsibility for those landscapes and treat them as our own, managing them for along-term benefit."

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Elllingson said the U.S. Forest Service manages approximately 90 million acres for the potential of livestock grazing, including both rangeland and forested lands; the Bureau of Land Management manages approximately 155 million acres for the potential of livestock grazing.

"These are lands that have been evaluated and determined that grazing would be both compatible and beneficial to the biodiversity of these landscapes. Grazing permittees make investments in these allotments, constructing watering mechanisms, fences, and other range improvements that add value. These investments make these landscapes more desirable for livestock production, certainly, but add value for wildlife, recreation, and sustainability of the land resource. These allotments are managed with the same care as private grazing pastures, and grazing permittees are the front line of defense against threats like fire, invasive species, and over- or under-utilization," she testified "Permittees regularly monitor forage and soil conditions and are on grazing allotments at regular intervals, which is certainly a closer eye than the respective federal agencies are able to do."

Ellingson outlined steps that her family has taken this year in Morton County.

"On my ranch this year, for example, we laid 5 new miles of pipeline, added 13 new water tanks, and renovated an abandoned well to make sure our cattle and the wildlife have enough to drink. We looked at our operation, identified ways we could use water more efficiently, and made those investments that will benefit us in conditions as dire as these and in the future. Our goal is to make sure our management ensures a good year this year, but good years in the future as well. We focus on sustainable, 'big-picture' management so that we can continue building on the healthy ecosystems and productive livestock year over year."

She told members of the committee should urge the Biden administration to enact management changes such as:

  • Thinning forest canopies and reducing fine fuels to better guard against wildfire risk.
  • Promptly addressing overstocked wild horse and burro Herd Management Areas.

"Conditions should not be allowed to become dire before action is taken," Ellingson said.

North Dakota drought index, 2021
North Dakota drought index, 2021

Ellingson highlighted the severity of the drought this year in North Dakota:

• The earliest onset of D4 conditions, which are the most severe.

• The largest proportion of D1, D2, D3 and D4 designations in state history.

• The highest drought severity and coverage index in state history.

The current Drought Monitor map shows that 99.8% of North Dakota is in D0-D4, with more than 58.6% of that in at least D3.

Ellingson said drought, fire, and a persistent decrease in forage availability have resulted in some producers making the difficult decision to cull their herds, reducing numbers so there is enough to forage to keep them healthy while preventing overgrazing.

North Dakota Stockmen’s Association is responsible for the state’s brand inspection program, tallying the inspections of cattle, horses, and mules in the state and at border markets.

Auction market inspections have seen a 24% increase, and those increased numbers come from cattle — many heifers and cows. The organization has documented increased marketing at all but two auction barns this year, with the largest percentage per-head market increases at a north central market in Rugby, North Dakota, at more than 62%.

"In short, we’re facing a significant forage shortage — the acres that fed our livestock last year won’t be able to feed them this year."