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BLM Seeks Options for Rehabilitating Grazing Land Lost to the Soda Fire

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After the Soda Fire ripped through nearly 280,000 acres of southwest Idaho and eastern Oregon last summer, dozens of ranchers lost public grazing land for their livestock. According to Pete Torma, of the Bureau of Land Management's Owyhee Field Office, a total of 53 authorizations to graze cattle on thousands of acres were affected by the fire.

"[Those ranchers] will have to figure out other means to feed their livestock when they would normally be feeding on public lands," Torma said. 

The grazing areas will be closed for at least two years while Torma and his staff work to rehabilitate the land. BLM proposed a few strategies to the public earlier this winter, seeking public comment from ranchers and anyone else willing to offer up insight. The public comment period ended on March 3, with a disappointing outcome.

"We only got around four or five," Torma said. "We were hoping for more."

It is unusual for BLM to ask for public comments on grazing resumption objectives, but because of the scope and intensity of the Soda Fire—as well as the attention the fire attracted from the public—the agency decided to reach out.

Specifically, Torma's office was looking for feedback on rehabilitation strategies that include drill seeding to put down a cover of perennial grasses, aerial grass seeding and natural recovery through the use of herbicide treatment.

The comments Torma did receive were split. A few ranchers with permits to graze on the land said BLM shouldn't close the land for the full two years, while a few conservationists said the opposite—that the land should be closed much longer to heal from the devastating fire. 

Torma said his office will now make a decision on what strategies to use for rehabilitating the land and will start monitoring progress over the next two growing seasons, including keeping an eye on soil and climate, looking at sagebrush success and checking to see if plants are producing seed heads. 

"After the two growing seasons, we'll make a call on if the objectives have been met or not. If it hasn't been met, we'll work with those who have permits to graze on the land moving forward," Torma said.

Considering public participation, Torma said he wished there would have been more, but he held two public meetings in February that drew around 20 people to each.

"We are tasked to reach out to the public, so we're going to keep reaching out," he said. "Those who participate will participate; those who won't, won't."

Along with the grazing lands, the Soda Fire also claimed nearly 190,000 acres of sage-grouse habitat, almost 100 miles of recreational trails and 16 cultural sites.