I want to wrap up the focus we’ve had on the management of riparian vegetation the last few weeks by focusing on one last stream on Lava Lake’s property: Copper Creek. Like some of the other streams flowing through Lava Lake’s operating area, Copper Creek had been overgrazed when riparian vegetation monitoring efforts began in 2002 (see 2002 photo). Lava Lake operates its ranch on about 25,000 acres of private lands and an additional 800,000 acres of federal and state grazing allotments and leases. It would be impractical to construct exclosures or to actively restore all the stream reaches within Lava Lake’s operating area that had experienced overgrazing previously.
Lava Lake still wanted to find a way to raise grass-fed lamb on its operating area while helping the landscape to recuperate. Lava Lake hit upon a more practical approach to preventing overgrazing of riparian areas: In 2003, the ranch’s land managers worked closely with rangeland biologists and with the ranch’s sheepherders to draft and implement a multi-year grazing plan. Under the grazing plan, the sheepherders were instructed to reduce their sheep bands’ time in riparian areas, except for getting water. With the herders actively reducing time spent in riparian areas, hopefully the riparian vegetation would get a chance to recover.
Lava Lake’s riparian areas have recovered spectacularly since changes to grazing management were implemented. Ecological data collected from 2002 through 2011 show clear recovery of woody riparian plant species like willow, aspen, and cottonwood, and in stream bank species including several sedges and rushes. Copper Creek, on the Lava Lake management unit of the ranch, exhibited great riparian recovery and we documented the recovery with photos. Most of the riparian recovery we have observed at the ranch occurred due to changes in where, when, and how long sheep grazed in an area. It took a lot of planning and communication between managers and herders, but very little active stream restoration took place to accomplish such spectacular riparian recovery.