Meet Leah Mori: Helping Ranchers Weather Wildfire Storms in Nevada’s Sagebrush Sea
August 20, 2018
This story features Leah Mori, a soil conservation technician in Winnemucca, Nevada, who is combating the twin threats of mega-wildfires and invasive species. It’s part of SageWest’s “2018 People of the Sage: Fire & Invasives” storytelling series.
By Heather Emmons
In Nevada, many ranchers graze their cattle on a combination of public land, usually Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, and their own private land. Based on the amount of cattle they have and the amount of available forage, ranchers work with BLM to rotate grazing, or move the cattle around onto different pastures, on a schedule to allow areas to rest and recover.
However, when fires blaze across large swaths of their private and/or publicly permitted land, ranchers and the BLM must reassess after a fire, and figure out how to adjust their grazing management—or find other means to take care of their cattle.
Nevada wildfires in recent years have raged fast and furious, and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has stepped in to provide assistance, working alongside its partner agencies and ranchers. Leah Mori, a soil conservation technician in Winnemucca, Nev., has seen firsthand the devastation large wildfires can cause in sage country, and has been a key player in her area to see that ranchers get the assistance they need.
Mori’s field office area encompasses 13,819 square miles—that’s 1,400 square miles larger than the state of Maryland. Many times, for Mori, her customers graze in important sage grouse habitat, so navigating the best restorative solutions for her customers is good for the herd and the bird.
We asked Leah about her experiences in sage country, and her efforts and successes working with ranchers toward recovery after an explosive fire season a few years ago.
What is one of your first memories or experiences of sagebrush country?
My first memories . . . well, in all honesty, I’ve never known anything else. I was born in sagebrush country, and I intend on spending the rest of my life in it. I have visited other places, and there is no place that stimulates and invigorates all my senses on a daily basis like sagebrush country.
Sight: Being able to see for miles across the open landscape, or the idea of wondering what lies over the next ridge.
Smell: Breathing the crisp morning air is the freshest with the hint of sagebrush in it. The rain on the sage is the most unique, refreshing smell that is truly indescribable unless you have experienced it.
Hearing: The natural sounds in most areas of sagebrush country prove how you aren’t alone. If you close your eyes and just listen, the serenity of silence can be broken with birds singing, a coyote howling, June bugs chirping or even a mother cow bawling for her calf.
Taste: One might think taste would be a tough one to describe, but have you ever smelled something and also been able to taste it? If you smell the sage, you can almost taste it.
Touch: I have been in areas of the Great Basin that are undeveloped for miles, untouched by human hands other than the stewards that manage it. It stretches so far that it’s almost untouchable.
Can you describe your job in three sentences?
Although they are not my words, it’s the NRCS motto that resonates with me: “Helping People, Help the Land.”
Working daily with customers to preserve and conserve the land they own or operate with technical and financial assistance.
The best part of my job is the feeling of satisfaction when a project is complete, the customer is happy and there is a positive influence on our natural resources.
Can you give an example of how you are enacting sagebrush conservation by combating fire and invasives?
In 2012, when the Holloway, Long Draw, Buckskin, Long Canyon and Hansen succession of wildfires impacted our local ranchers, we (NRCS) had the ability to provide funding to preserve the private lands that were unburned through our Environmental Quality Incentive Program, or EQIP. The idea behind this was to keep the priority sage grouse habitat intact by providing cost share to follow a prescribed grazing plan. The plans required the rancher to change their grazing timing to after nesting and brood rearing, and maintain a minimum stubble height on key species.
These operations are dependent on both their BLM permits and private land for their livestock feed throughout the year. The concern was, because of the shortage of forage and required restoration following the fire, the managers were going to have to use these private parcels harder than they wanted to out of necessity to stay in business. Our proposal was to provide cost share in tradeoff for habitat maintenance. We did have some ranchers add watering facilities with their conservation plans, but all of them had prescribed grazing and upland wildlife habitat management. The plans were for three years and at the end, not only did they have the financial assistance and well managed habitat, they also had years of data collection on the key areas to reference if needed.
How would you describe the sagebrush sea to someone who has never experienced it?
To paint a picture for someone who has never experienced the sagebrush sea, I would have them imagine themselves as a pioneer traveling across the West. As you come off the Rocky Mountains and find yourself in the Great Basin, you’ll see the heart of the “sagebrush sea,” with a view of impressive blue gray sagebrush spanning all the way to the next mountains in the horizon. These are the kind of views I try to lock away in my memory.
Although I prefer to stay on land, I believe the distant miles of sagebrush and open country we have here in Nevada are similar to a sailor’s view at sea of the wide-open ocean. And the storms can be destructive on the landscape as they are at sea, but as we move forward, it’s my hope that the generations to come can experience having that same feeling of the old West settler seeing the large open sagebrush landscape vistas for the first time.
Mega-Wildfires Rage Across Nevada’s Sagebrush Country
In the summer of 2012, several fires checkered the state, but the Holloway Fire and the Long Draw Fire were the worst many had ever seen. The Long Draw Fire started on July 8 from a lightning strike, and burned 558,198 acres over 8-9 days. The Holloway Fire started on Aug. 5 by a lightning strike, and burned 462,017 acres over 20 days.
After the fires, NRCS Nevada and Oregon held a meeting for ranchers to talk with them about what assistance NRCS could provide. Tim Dufurrena, ranch manager of Quinn River Crossing Ranch in Denio, Nev., and Chris Bengoa, ranch manager of Harry Ranch in McDermitt, Nev. attended the meeting to see what was available for their operations. Dufurrena and Bengoa both suffered great losses of range pastureland—prime sage grouse habitat—during the 2012 fire season and worked with Mori and her NRCS colleagues to come up with a plan to manage their private land in the best way possible, through prescribed grazing and facilitating practices, such as fence and watering facilities.
Dufurrena, who has been the ranch manager since 2003, and was raised in the Denio area, said the Holloway Fire was the worst fire he’d seen.
“With the sage-grouse it was going to be a long, long recovery. There’s a few coming back up there. It burned their country really hot,” said Dufurrena. “Later, the same fire came down through here (near the ranch homestead) and spread seven or eight miles one night and burned up all the chukar. Just wiped them out.”
Dufurrena had worked with NRCS before, but not for fire recovery- and not to this scale. Mori worked out a prescribed grazing plan and replacement of the needed fences.
“It was definitely a good project,” said Dufurrena, who grazes around 1800 cattle. The first year after the fire, he had to scale back his operation by one-third because of the lack of forage.
“We had to have a new fence put in to be able to implement the prescribed grazing plan—it was vital.”
The fence continues to be of use today – allowing him a lot more management flexibility in moving his cattle around. Mori, along with the NRCS State Range Specialist returned to the ranch at least three times to collect data after the NRCS contract was completed, and could see the recovery progress firsthand.
Bengoa endured a double dose of fires during 2012—first, with the Long Draw Fire, and a few weeks later with the Holloway Fire. The fires burned his spring public land allotment, forcing him to acquire two separate property leases in California to provide feed for his cattle during the two years he was unable to use that allotment. Therefore, like Dufurrena, Bengoa required a prescribed grazing plan, and his included upland wildlife management for critical sage grouse nesting and brood rearing habitat monitoring, a spring development, trough and pipeline.
“We changed some of our season of use to make it work for the sage-grouse,” said Bengoa. “And we basically follow that same strategy today.”
Bengoa, a ranch manager for 33 years, had also worked with NRCS in the past. He, too, had to make large unforeseen management changes, shipping 1,200 to 1,500 cattle to California. In addition to temporarily losing pastureland use, he had to endure the expense of leasing extra pastureland somewhere else, as well as the cost of trucking his cattle to California and back.
2018 Fire Season Shaping Up to Be Catastrophic For Ranchers and Sage Grouse
As this article was being written and the ranchers were being interviewed, Bengoa reported 5,300 acres burned again in the Long Draw Fire area that week at the end of July (2018). The Martin Fire, which started July 5 and burned 435,569 acres, desecrated another large area of prime sage-grouse habitat within a different location in Mori’s field office area.
Thirty-nine actively strutting sage grouse leks were burned during the 2018 Martin Fire. A lek is an area where sage-grouse congregate in the spring. The males choose an area where their courtship display can be easily seen by females. That’s why leks are usually found where there is less vegetation. These areas may be sparsely vegetated naturally, or due to activity by animals or humans.
Although remnant males and females may return to these leks next spring, the chances of being successful reproductively after a fire are very poor. Nest success declines due to lack of cover and increased predation following fires. The Martin Fire affected about 2,520 birds, according to the Nevada Department of Wildlife, and many died directly in the fire. This will affect sage-grouse for generations to come.
“The most challenging part of working on fire recovery is trying to work with the landowner on a contingency plan to change the livestock numbers or grazing time for each individual operation. Each operation is unique. Most times, it’s dependent on a public land permit or lease agreement on other land,” said Mori.
“The plan we agree to has to be followed by both parties. For me, earning the client’s trust to fulfill my duties and responsibilities is paramount, as well as them following the NRCS plan and specifications to fulfill their part of the deal.”
The most rewarding part?
“When it all works and both parties can see the success, no matter how big or small,” said Mori. “It’s important that we can learn from each other and evaluate the success along with the failures so we can do even better next time.”
The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.