According to NMSU rangeland expert Derek Bailey, overgrazing and 20th century fire-suppression strategies have laid the groundwork for some of today's "catastrophic" wildfires. In some areas, the grasses that fueled normal and periodic low-intensity surface fires in the past have been replaced by densely packed trees and brush that fuel the raging prairie and forest fires seen in recent years, including record-setting 2011 fires in the Southwest.

Bailey is a professor in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences and the director of NMSU's Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center north of Las Cruces. He and other investigators are halfway through a three-year study that, among other things, is investigating the possibility that implementing a targeted grazing strategy for range cattle can significantly reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires in certain ecosystems.

Titled "Integrated Approaches for Targeting Cattle Grazing to Improve Ecosystem Services," the project also includes NMSU professor and agricultural economist Allen Torell; Larry D. Howery, a professor and rangeland Extension specialist at the University of Arizona; and Maria Fernandez-Gimenez, an associate professor and expert in the ecological and social dimensions of rangelands at Colorado State University.

The project is funded by a $363,000 grant from the USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.

The study is based on the premise that cattle tend to graze unevenly. Their natural tendency is to stay close to water sources, which can lead to deterioration of riparian plant life while leaving an abundance of forage material in more rugged areas or areas away from water. In some cases, the neglected forage exacerbates fire danger.