BLM rents cattle for mine restoration

In a pioneering experiment in federal land management, a Bureau of Land Management team out of Baker City, Oregon has contracted with cattle ranchers to provide hoof action and organic matter to help restore an open-pit mine site to productivity. The hope is that 200 cows, temporary electric fencing to concentrate the animals, a water system, 130 tons of grass hay, over 40 tons of straw, and seeding with native grasses, forbs, and shrubs will create results that previous restoration efforts--including seeding--have not.

When the Minexco gold mine went bankrupt in 1986, most of the reclamation bond was spent on cyanide removal, and there was not enough money to put the topsoil back. The BLM seeded the site in 1987. With less than 10 inches of moisture a year, wind, and extremes of temperature, the bare, sterile subsoil did not sustain much plant life.

Allen Throop, who works with mine reclamation for the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI), got the idea from visiting copper mines in Arizona where intensive feeding of cattle had achieved good results in restoring tailings piles. Geologist Ralph Kuhns and lands specialist Kata Bulinski, both of the BLM's Baker office, were awarded $25,000 through the BLM Director's Field Incentive program for the project, which forms a partnership between two of the BLM's main concerns, livestock grazing and mining. DOGAMI has provided $4,000. The money is for fencing, water development, weed-free hay and straw, renting the cattle, and monitoring.

Baker cattlemen Meb and Shando Dailey, in partnership with Curt Jacobs, provided the 200 dry cows and bred heifers. On most of the 12-acre site, they fed weed-free grass hay twice daily in 1-acre pens, for four days. Then the BLM broadcast seed. The cattle spent another day trampling it into the ground before moving to the next pen.

"We want the cows to help us improve the tilth of the soil and the fertility of the site," says Bulinski. "We're looking for species density and species diversity." Hoof action has smoothed the contours in cuts and gullies, created depressions that catch water, and tilled the straw and hay into the soil. Manure and urine have been added. Microbial action can begin where it was previously nonexistent. Before the cattle were brought in, 99 percent of the ground was bare, nearly sterile subsoil.

The use of livestock has raised interest in how resource sectors can help each other. "Partnerships have the benefit of breaking down barriers," says Kuhns. Inmates from the Powder River Correctional Institute helped spread straw and put up a perimeter fence. Boy Scout Troop 444 from Baker City has gathered seeds of native plants for the reseeding. Eastern Oregon Miners and Prospectors are a partner.

Says cattleman Curt Jacobs, "the project itself is a great deal. There's something we can all learn out of it, that cattle can be used to rehabilitate waste ground."

"We've had so many people who have shared so many ideas with us," says Ralph Kuhns. "We've learned a lot about the complexities that a rancher faces."

Kata Bulinski notes that "ranchers have experience and expertise that we don't. It's been great to learn from them and with them. There are a lot of folks who are eager to share what they know and be helpful, whether or not there is any gain to them." She adds, "we're trying something that we don't know all the answers to. We're not just doing something because this is our policy. We're trying to expand our horizons. For the government to be trying something, and asking other people, to open that door--that's what makes it exciting. There's a dialogue."

"It's exciting for me to see a piece of land being restored to productivity--whether it's a fruit tree that finally has been properly pruned, or some area that's been mulched or composted, and finally has the boost it needs to bring up a good crop. That's the kind of hope I feel as I look at this site."

Meb Dailey and Curt Jacobs would like to see the technique used on weed infestations, such as medusahead rye. "It's a pilot project. There's thousands and thousands of acres out there," says Dailey.

Though the cost per acre of the project is high, "there's a learning curve," notes Bulinski. Most mechanical treatments would have been more expensive.

For more information, contact Kata Bulinski at 541-523-1325 or Ralph Kuhns at 541-523-1341. In a parallel effort, Baker County ranchers Dan Warnock, Jr. and Lyle DeFreese are using timed grazing and winter feeding to advance succession and deal with weed problems on county-owned dredge tailings in Sumpter Valley.

Update: June 1999

The 14 acres within the perimeter fence at the Minexco mine site look fairly green. This spring has been unusually cool and dry. Germination and development of many species is considerably behind the normal seasonal clock. Even so, vegetation density onsite has improved from 99 percent bare ground in August of last year to only 86 percent bare ground at this time (July 1999).

At least 40 grass, forb, and shrub species are in evidence. Some of these had been onsite before the cow-intensive reclamation effort; others were seeded in the fall by BLM and many volunteers, including Baker High School advanced biology students. The site recontouring and tilling-in of additional organic matter (straw, hay, and cow manure) had prepared a better seedbed than had existed previously on this site, with only mineral subsoil and scant precipitation. All species appear to be growing well, and deer and rabbit have continued to feed and contribute organic matter over the winter and spring.

Given the lateness of the spring this year, it is still too early to identify many of the grasses with certainty, but we are impressed with the density of the Thurber's stipa and needle-and-threadgrass. We also saw Indian ricegrass, Idaho fescue, bluebunch and western wheatgrass, smooth brome, and blue wildrye. Restoring these native bunchgrasses to the terrain, if the trend continues, will be a major achievement.

On the highwall of the mine, the slope has been gentled, with straw imbedded into terraces in spots. Here there was more vegetation than in previous years. Although the species that have invaded this steep site are mostly yellow sweetclover, cheatgrass, western wheatgrass, and Russian thistle, these pioneers may help hold the soil in place and shelter the germination and eventual survival of other species.

Weeds present include Scotch thistle, Russian thistle, and hoary cress or whitetop. In addition, there are curly-cup gumweed and salsify, which although not listed as noxious weeds are not particularly "desirable." All had been present before the cow reclamation effort. The noxious weeds will be spot sprayed to avoid damage to other developing forb and shrub populations.

Most of the broadleaved plants onsite are native forbs, some of which were handseeded during the cow-tilling, and some of which have spread naturally to the site. At this time it is too early to discern any significant differences among the variously treated plots within this demonstration area. We will continue to monitor this site for many years, and hope to be able to report increased species diversity with each report.