Grazing a management tool on Lookout Mountain

Since 2003, the city of Spearfish has allowed grazing on Lookout Mountain as a management tool to control the spread of noxious weeds, naturally till and fertilize the soil, and create a natural firebreak from Interstate 90 that runs along the mountains west edge. This year, the grazing lease started June 15, later than previous leases, to avoid trail erosion during the wet portion of the spring. (Kaija Swisher/Black Hills Pioneer via AP)

SPEARFISH (AP) – Lookout Mountain is a multi-use area in Spearfish, and during favorable weather, multiple uses are visible every day, with hikers, mountain bikers, and others enjoying the recreational space. During certain months, cattle are also part of the mix of users on the mountain, and after re-examining this use over the last year, the Parks, Recreation, and Forestry Advisory Board made changes to the grazing lease in 2019 to better meet the management goals and accommodate users.

"Cattle are allowed to graze the entirety of the mountain, but generally are found on the west face near (Interstate) 90," Parks and Recreation Director Tyler Ehnes said. "We are using different management techniques such as water placement and mineral placement to try and get the cattle to disperse over a larger portion of the mountain."

He explained that grazing is used as a management tool on Lookout Mountain.

"Cattle help to control the spread of noxious weeds, naturally till and fertilize the soil, as well as create a natural fire break from I-90 that runs along the mountain's west edge," Ehnes said.

Grazing was first allowed on Lookout Mountain in 2003, after the city obtained the approximately 750-acre property in 2000. Conservation easements were placed on it to govern the property, and the easements state that the purpose is "to preserve and protect in perpetuity and to enhance and restore the significant relatively natural habitat and natural ecosystems" of the property, while allowing multiuse activities.

The Lookout Mountain Land Management Plan received final approval by the South Dakota Parks and Wildlife Foundation, the easement holder, in 2014, and this document clarifies the way the city of Spearfish can use and manage the property, as well as how it can designate its trail system.

The plan outlines topics including management areas in allowed/prohibited uses, precautions and warnings, establishment of a trailhead, trail identification/construction, signage, rules and regulations, grazing, fencing, weed control, forest management, erosion control, graffiti and vandalism, debris removal, wildlife habitat maintenance, and public education. Each section lays out the guidelines for the topic.

Since 2014, groups of volunteers have assisted in mapping out the more than 11 miles of trails, some of which are for hiking only, with the rest available to hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders, adding signage, and building above-ground cattle guards, or rollover gates, which are wooden structures that eliminate the need to open and close fence gates. Signs of the overall trail system have been placed at the trailhead, located to the east of Nevada Street, where users can enter the tunnel, equipped with lighting since 2016, that goes under Interstate 90 to safely access the Lookout Mountain trails.

As recreation activity increased on the mountain with the improved trail system and designated trailhead, so did conversation about whether grazing continued to be a complementary use. Ehnes said after hearing complaints about recreation users and cattle interactions, so the city started looking into the issue.

"There was talk about stopping grazing altogether, but after conversations with the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), Lawrence County Conservation District, the Park, Rec, and Forestry Advisory Board, and several others including rec users, it was decided that grazing was needed and a good tool to use to manage the mountain," Ehnes told the Black Hills Pioneer. He explained that the topic was presented to the advisory board on multiple occasions for discussion on what a new lease would look like for 2019.

"We ultimately wanted a lease that would limit interactions amongst rec users and create a better timeline for trail reclamation, while at the same time making it desirable for local cattle producers to want to lease," Ehnes said. The board decided to recommend a shorter lease, from June 15 to Sept. 15, versus the previous lease time from May 1 through Oct. 1.

"We wanted the cattle to stay off in the spring while the trails are wet and subject to erosion," Ehnes said. "The shorter timeline also helps to limit rec user/ cattle interaction because we see a much higher use of mountain bikers during the spring when the trails in the hills are still covered in snow. We are allowing more cattle during that shorter time, which is in agreeance with a land management study that was conducted in 2015. In addition, we made the lease a three-year lease versus a one-year in hopes to get lessees more vested in the mountain and help with some of the issues we face."

The Spearfish City Council June 3 unanimously approved a resolution of intent to lease a portion of Lookout Mountain to Rhett Scoggin. The lease states that approximately 756.61 acres are included in the lease, which has a term of three grazing seasons, with a two-year extension option. The property may be grazed from June 15-Sept. 15 each year, and up to 50 cow/calf pairs and 30 yearlings are allowed, with a payment of $61 per cow/calf pair and $21 per yearling to be paid to the city per month.

Ehnes said that overall, the interactions between rec users and the cattle are "very few in comparison to the amount of people that use the mountain."

"Most interactions have been when a user gets between a cow and her calf," he said. "I recommend being cognizant of your surroundings, and if you find yourself in an area with the cattle, be slightly more cautious or back out and use another part of the mountain."

Ehnes added that dogs off leashes are more of an issue than the user/cattle interaction and generally a cause for such interactions.

"Most people don't realize that Lookout Mountain is not designated an off-leash area," he said. "Dogs are supposed to be on a leash and are subject to the city's leash laws. A large reason for this is due to off-leash dogs chasing and agitating the cattle. I receive more complaints from people in regards to off-leash dogs than I do for cattle interactions."

Ehnes added that in the event that an off-leash dog were to create an incident with the cattle or other users, the owner of the dog would be at fault.

"Grazing will be part of Lookout Mountain for the foreseeable future," Ehnes said. "Respect the cattle and other users, and interactions will be minimal."

Further information on Lookout Mountain, including the management plan can be found here .


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