Guest commentary: Cattle grazing could have mitigated the Hewlett Gulch Fire

We are the last pioneering family (McMurrys) associated with the historic Greyrock Area Grazing Allotment north of the Poudre Canyon and southwest of Livermore. This area has been recognized as cattle country since the first USGS survey conducted in the mid-1800s. That survey followed explorer John Freemont’s route down the North Fork of the Cache la Poudre River.

The original Overland Trail — a transportation route now known as US Highway 287 — came directly through the old McMurry ranch to the east, where we still have private property now primarily known as the Bonner Peak Development. All this was connected by the Overland and Cherokee trail to the north and is represented by the last ranch standing, the McMurry ranch, in association with the historical open range, which became the Greyrock Area Grazing Allotment.

Recently this area was in the news as the Hewlett Gulch Fire burned over 1,000 acres of our private property as well over 6,000 acres of the Allotment. It went up in flames like the ranch map did in the introduction of the old TV show Bonanza. The mushroom cloud was ours.

Ironically enough, the large timber stand lost on private property was Ponderosa pine. This recent fire burned basically the same area as it did in 2005 – the Picnic Rock fire — according to Forest Service spokesperson Jacque Parks. In order to keep the fire from overtaking Bonner Peak Development the authorities made the decision to back-burn riparian grasses to the west of the North Fork of the Cache la Poudre River.

As we pointed out to the Forest Service in 2005-06, fires like the Hewlett did not occur with such intensity in this historic area when cattle grazing was allowed in heavier numbers. The livestock grazing removed the fuel loads in the rugged terrain. Today, heavy fuel loads continue to be a problem and this week’s Stuart Hole fire near Halligan Reservoir is proof.

The McMurry ranch elected voluntarily to reduce its number of cattle, called “resource non-use” by the Forest Service, due to the drought conditions prior and up to 2006. In 2006, the Forest Service mandated we raise the stocking rate in order to validate the permit. We complied, but later the same year the Forest Service decided it was an administrative error to mandate the increased stocking rate. During this time, my father, a WWII veteran, became ill and passed away and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in 2006. We received permission to continue the “resource non-use” in order to complete the recovery and sold our livestock so the Forest Service could not blame our cattle or us in recovery efforts.

Years earlier, we employed scientists to study the health of our range. These agencies included the former US Soil Conservation Service (now the US Natural Resource Conservation Service), and later, a private firm, Cedar Creek and Associates. Dr. Bill Laycock, a founding member of the Range Management Society and former head of the University of Wyoming Department of Rangeland Management analyzed 15 years of baseline data gathered from those professional sources. Dr. Laycock pointed out that the Forest Service had no qualitative data to compare. In fact, the Forest Service stated that fact in a disclaimer in the introduction of their Greyrock Environmental Assessment. His conclusion: He could find no scientific basis for any claim or designation of downward trend on the Greyrock Area Grazing Allotment.

Meanwhile, in a publication (from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife) of December 15, 2010, a Section VII consultation for the Preble’s mouse habitat on the Greyrock Area Grazing Allotment concluded that there was a “nice riparian recovery.” The result was attributed to cattle “not being allowed to graze” because of Preble’s Mouse habitat management. To that conclusion, Dr. Laycock stated, “If this area were ever at risk in the first place, it would never have recovered in such a short period of time.”

Regardless, the recovery was noted. Neither the U.S. Division of Wildlife nor the Forest Service had anything to do with it — it was due to our early management action adapting to conditions of drought and fire. We maintain, from historical record and empirical data, that cattle grazing is beneficial to decreasing the uncontrollable fuel loads which leads to better habitat.

This fire was given an emergency disaster designation from the governor. The habitat we should be credited with restoring — at over $150,000 in personal loss and expenses — has just gone up in smoke.

How about helping us Governor Hickenlooper, Representative Gardner, the State Land Board, Colorado Department of Agriculture and our State Representatives including our Larimer County Commissioners? We are the true disaster victims. We understand how easy it is to blame the rancher for all the environmental problems, after all, how else could so many people cover their ashes.

Sincerely,
Murry McMurry
McMurry Cattle Co., LLC

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