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Ecology and salmon related articles

Animal Training Can
Benefit Water Quality

by Doug Warnock
Capital Press, November 21, 2014

The extended presence of livestock in riparian areas has long been a concern of regulatory agencies, environmentalists and livestock managers. Too much time spent in these areas can result in over grazing riparian vegetation, breaking down of streambanks, lowered water quality and detriment to fish habitat. The remedy customarily prescribed for this situation is to fence the streamway to exclude domestic animals from it.

This solution has two problems. First, it costs a lot of money to fence off a riparian area. Second, it often deprives the riparian zone of the benefits that can be realized from well planned grazing and stimulation of the riparian plant community. Plant communities that have no exposure to grazing animals tend to become rank and mature and don't experience the regenerative response that results from planned and properly timed plant tissue removal. Adequate recovery time is an essential component of well planned grazing, but extended rest beyond recovery time is actually harmful to plant communities.

A more effective solution to this situation is offered by BEHAVE, a research and outreach program that seeks to understand the principles of animal behavior. BEHAVE stands for Behavioral Education for Human, Animal, Vegetation and Ecosystem management. This international program is headquartered at Utah State University. BEHAVE suggests training livestock to move from riparian areas and to graze upland areas.

Riders on horseback can push animals away from streams and teach them the positive consequences of moving to palatable forage on upland areas. Animals learn that when moves coincide with an increase in nutritious forage at the new location, they benefit from the move. For this method to be successful, there needs to be palatable and nutritious forage available in the upland areas.

Once the mothers learn and adopt this practice, their offspring learn from them. Later, as the younger animals mature they tend to exhibit those habits learned from their mothers.

Livestock initially may resist being moved from the shade, water and green plants available near streams, but persistence will pay off. Patience and consistence, using low stress handling methods will have positive results. Occasionally, managers will find a particular animal that seems to be determined to remain in the riparian area in spite of all the training that is attempted. These animals should be targeted for culling.

Training animals takes time and hiring a rider or riders may seem expensive, but there are many benefits from having someone with the livestock and observing the plant use and forage consumption.

Understanding that behavior is a result of consequences allows the manager and the employees to change livestock habitat preferences and distribute the benefits of livestock grazing more uniformly across the forage base.

Doug Warnock, retired from Washington State University Extension, lives on a ranch in the Touchet River Valley where he writes about and teaches grazing management.
Animal Training Can Benefit Water Quality
Capital Press, November 21, 2014

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