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GPS takes guesswork out of rangeland brush removal

Guy Glosson picks his way carefully through a maze of mesquite, stepping gingerly to avoid prickly pear, cholla, and the occasional cow patty, while alternately ducking and dodging low-hanging limbs just beginning to show the first hints of green.

“Watch your step,” he warns. “I don't know how to get through here without picking up some thorns.”

The caution was a bit late as a few pricklies had already managed to work their way through this reporter's thin socks to find tender skin.

Glosson points out the meager vegetation striving to survive under the mesquite canopy, with some success in thin spots, less under heavy cover. He notes that opening up the canopy more will allow native grasses to flourish and provide grazing for some 600 head of cattle.

We emerge from the brush onto a swath of newly cleared rangeland where uprooted mesquite and other undesirable vegetation lies scattered like the aftermath of a hurricane. Occasional “islands” of mesquite and oak remain untouched, oases in a desert of ruin.

“It's part of the program,” Glosson explains. “We leave plenty of cover for wildlife habitat, but the cleared areas provide improved grazing for the cattle. Bobwhite quail also do better with plenty of open spaces.”

Mesquite Grove Ranch, a 33,000-acre spread near Jayton, Texas, provides grazing for 600 head of mixed-breed cattle each year and also provides habitat for whitetail deer, turkey, wild hogs, and antelope. Leased hunting has become an integral part of the operation's income.

The cleared swaths are part of a 529-acre renovation project begun this year, with help from USDA's Environmental Quality -Incentives Program (EQIP). The process has progressed at a much more rapid pace, too, because of new technology available to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Charlie Morris, Resource Team Leader/District Conservationist with NRCS stationed at Spur, says aerial photography and Global Positioning System technology, allows NRCS and Glosson, Mesquite Grove Ranch manager, to pinpoint where they'll take out the mesquite and where they'll leave those brush islands for habitat.

Glosson looks around at the mesquite canopy and explains that trying to follow the plan without precise coordinates would result in much more random removal than he's comfortable with. Also, to meet program standards and specifications for EQIP funds, the acreage must be certified and a specified amount of habitat must remain.

“We outline the areas for brush removal on a topographical map,” Morris explains. “Then we use a Terrain Navigator program to delineate selected areas onto a topographical map, complete with detailed coordinates with longitude and latitude. The heavy equipment operator uses the GPS coordinates to clean up what's needed but leaves the designated habitat areas.”

Morris says ArcView, a program NRCS uses, downloads GPS coordinates onto a computer and plots the cleared areas on aerial photography.

Buddy Watson, Soil and District Conservationist, also with NRCS, uses a four-wheeler, equipped with a GPS beacon and a hand-held monitor to check acreage for treatment.

“Saving time is the biggest advantage with GPS technology,” he says. “Checking 300 acres or a little more takes the best part of a day and then I'll spend a half-day downloading the information into ArcView.”

Morris says using traditional survey methods, rod and chain, two men would spend a week or more surveying the same acreage. “And sometimes we've just had to walk and guess. Surveys so far on Mesquite Grove Ranch show an error factor of about 1 percent. We can live with that.”

Morris says the rancher leaves more brush than would be advisable if not for EQIP mandates and the value of wildlife for the overall operation. Mesquite Grove Ranch has an 8-year contract to plan and implement the conservation program.

“Specifications call for 30 percent to 50 percent brush retention for wildlife habitat,” Watson says.

“We target mesquite and cedar,” he says.

Glosson sees a number of advantages from the program and the technology. “Without EQIP, we couldn't afford to do this,” he says. USDA cost-share on the project is 75 percent, about $450,000.

“We can't pay for those improvements with livestock, especially while we're in a 10-year drought,” Glosson says.

And the GPS takes a lot of guesswork out of implementing the plan. “We use the GPS coordinates to drive directly to the spot we want to treat,” he says.

Glosson also says the precision allows them to create a more natural habitat for wildlife, using curved borders instead of straight lines for the wildlife areas.

“Curves look more natural and provide better protection for animals,” he says. “With straight lines, a deer will be in view longer than with curves. They can slip in and out of these areas with fewer sightings.”

Morris says following an accurate map also allows equipment operators to save desirable vegetation, such as oak, and hackberry, while taking out as much mesquite and cedar as possible, within the prescribed parameters of the EQIP program.

They're taking everything out mechanically, using a special blade on a backhoe to clip the mesquite off below the ground.

“We don't burn anything but rake the brush into windrows,” Glosson says. “That also makes good habitat for quail and small mammals.”

They replant cleared areas with a mixture of native grasses to improve grazing. “Clearing these areas will make a tremendous improvement in the rangeland grazing,' Morris says.

Glosson says he's seen improvements in soil water retention just since he started removing some of the mesquite. “Springs that had been dry for several years have begun to seep again,” he says.

Morris says the NRCS uses GPS coupled with ArcView and Customer Toolkit to provide quality service to private landowners. “We're fortunate to have it available to use on this ranch. It helps with both planning and implementing a conservation program.”

Glosson says rooting mesquite out of rangeland “requires a lot of energy.” He says any tool that can make the process a bit simpler is a welcome addition.

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