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Guest Opinions

Oil and Gas Reclamation and Grazing

Reclamation and livestock have been around for some time, and more often than not, they occupy the same areas. Minerals are often extracted from public lands, which is also where a large amount of grazing takes place on a permitted basis. 

While oil and gas development has a good-sized footprint, it usually isn’t large enough to keep an area from being utilized by grazing permittees. It can make things much more complicated for both sides when grazing and development attempt to occupy the same area. 

As development progresses, successful reclamation of disturbed areas can become an issue. There is a wide array of factors that contribute to the success of reclamation and one of those can be management of grazing. Weather is a variable we have no control over, and it affects reclamation work in many of the same ways that it affects a cattle operation. Oil and gas companies pray for rain, so their planting germinates. Ranchers want it to rain for crops and feed for cattle. So, when we have a year that is drier than we consider “normal,” it is no surprise that cows end up on reclaimed lands that are available to graze. 

Understandably, this may be a source of frustration to reclamation companies. On the other hand, those same companies can find themselves where they need grazing at times. It often comes down to an issue of whether or not to fence off their reclamation and whether or not grazing is an asset or a detriment to achieving successful reclamation. 

As with any tool, fencing comes with some positive and some negative impacts to the resource. In the case of reclamation, fencing serves as a way for companies to protect their investment. Duration of fencing and fence type become key parts of the puzzle. In many cases, there is no need for a fence, and the reclamation is strong enough to persist and thrive without the elimination of grazing.

Permanent fences provide the most protection but also limit use of these areas to a degree that can be detrimental to the reclamation effort. A permanent fence that stands for more than three or four years allows the grass community to become so predominant that it will choke out the forb and shrub components of a site, which are vital to successful reclamation. In these cases, oil and gas operators often want the area to be grazed to knock down some of the grass and allow the forbs and shrubs room to thrive. 

This may seem easily achieved by taking down the fence, but it is not that simple. 

Removing the fence could result in these areas becoming over utilized and may set the reclamation process backward, rather than helping it forward. The issue of duration arises again and with it comes the issue of when to utilize that area. 

The next logical option may be electric fences, but they need to be checked more often and keeping the fence “hot,” or electrified, isn’t always that easy. Electric fences can be finicky and flimsy. They ground out on vegetation and then get pushed over, leaving nothing but a tangled mess. 

The easiest solution in this case may be simply adding a gate to the permanent fence around the reclamation. This provides a way to have reclamation utilized, increasing forb and shrub numbers and still retaining the ability to protect the reclamation if it needs to be. 

Another solution may be partially fencing an area to limit utilization of the entire site. There are a number of other simple tools that can be used. Salt, mineral and water can all attract animals to areas while discouraging use of another. A rider that stays with the cattle would also aid in distribution and utilization of areas and allow oil and gas operators and ranchers to co-mingle in a fashion that is conducive to success on both sides. 

In reality, reclamation and grazing do occupy the same areas, and the issue is not whether they can co-exist, it is how they can best co-exist. Reclamation stands separate from ranching, even though the two practices have many commonalities. Quite simply, they are in a position to benefit one another, and through some clever management of each situation and a little planning, the two uses can serve as tools to one another.  

The proper management of these areas not only allows ranching practices to continue in these areas while development occurs but can improve the entire system for wild ungulates, insects, birds, mammals, reptiles and the plants in the area.