Bruneau Rancher Chris Black:

Range monitoring protects ranchers  from untimely spot visits by land managers

Bruneau rancher Chris Black, who’s spent a lifetime ranching in the Dickshooter Ridge area of the Owyhee Plateau, said it’s important for ranchers to set up their own range-monitoring systems on public lands not only because it’s a good management practice, but it also protects the rancher in the long term.

Black began managing the public lands he runs cattle on under the holistic management method espoused by Allan Savory, a wildlife biologist from Africa, in the mid-1990s. “I wanted to do things better,” he told a packed room last week at the University of Idaho Livestock Symposium in Twin Falls, an event co-sponsored by the Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission. 

Chris Black manages riparian areas carefully to preserve the streambank habitat for fish and wildlife, but he grazes the areas with cattle as well.  He takes monitoring photos on a regular basis to show how the areas are doing throughout the year.

“I wanted to manage better, and I wanted to be able to prove that things were working,” Black said. “It seemed like Holistic Management was a tool that would achieve all of those ends.”

Black has been closely monitoring riparian areas and upland rangelands for nearly 20 years. He grazes his cattle on 100,000 acres of private and public land, which includes Dickshooter Ridge in the Owyhee Plateau. About  40,000 acres of Dickshooter Ridge were protected as part of the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness several years ago.

Black said he was inspired even more to do his own range monitoring when Bureau of Land Management officials decided to come out and take photos after his cattle had heavily grazed an area. For good range health, including giving sagebrush a chance to expand, Black says, “you have to really pound an area and then get out.”

“If the BLM comes out with one-point surveys, that’s pretty spotty evidence,” Black said. “Luckily, I had been taking photo points throughout the grazing season to show them how things look over time. That saved me from a lot of grief.”

Seth McFarland has been setting up photo-monitoring points on his family ranch north of Salmon, Idaho.

Seth McFarland, a recent University of Idaho graduate in rangeland ecology and management, works on the family ranch in Carmen Creek. He has been setting up photo-monitoring points on his family’s four grazing allotments and fall riparian pasture on their private land. “I felt that this was some value that I could bring to our ranching operation with my education,” he said. “It’s important for ranchers to record the data to show trends in rangeland health.”

Sage-grouse are doing fine on Black’s private property and on BLM grazing allotments in the Owyhees, Black said. “Fish and Game says we have a strong sage-grouse population, and it’s been holding steady,” he said. “And we don’t ever get seven inches of grass in an average year. We have a lot of rock, and we don’t get that much rain.”

FWS officials said that in a recent federal court ruling regarding grazing management in the Craters of the Moon BLM allotment, a stubble-height standard of 7 inches for perennial grasses was recommended as a guideline to protect sage-grouse nesting and brood-rearing habitat. Black said that standard would be impossible to achieve in the Owyhee Plateau where he grazes cattle. FWS officials said the 7-inch reference was considered a “guideline” in the Craters area.

Black said he’s never had to monitor rangelands specifically for sage-grouse because through the holistic technique, he manages for the health of rangelands for all species, including cattle and wildlife. “You learn a lot by being out on the land.”

“What it means is that you take the whole ecosystem as a whole and you manage for everything,” Black says. “Instead of just managing for cows, or just for wildlife, you’re managing for the whole. You’re managing for the whole ecosystem’s good.”

Dickshooter Ridge, above, is part of Chris Black’s summer range on BLM land. It is also part of the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness.

Black has noticed that grazing his cattle on a 5-15 day cycle near areas where sage-grouse nest works well for sage-grouse chicks, which like to eat the insects from the cattle manure left behind. The bugs go on a 14- to 21-day cycle after the cattle move in. “The sage-grouse like to nest under the bunchgrass next to a reservoir, and there are lots of bugs for them to eat after my cattle have grazed the area,” he said.

Fish and Game employees have put radio collars on sage-grouse near Black’s property in the Owyhees to track their movements, and they’ve found that they like to use Black’s private ground “because that’s where the water is.”

Black said he’s never had any problems with wildfire on BLM grazing allotments, perhaps because he grazes the area intensively, and keeps the fuel down. “We get a lot of lightning, and we’ve had a lot of small fires over the years, but none of them seem to go anywhere,” he said.

Chris Black is the chairman of the IRRC Board of Directors. He can be reached at

Chris Black talks about holistic management on this video and feature story on Life on the Range, an educational series sponsored by the IRRC.