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The ideas behind a drive by some environmentalists to kick livestock off the public range may be as simplistic as their slogans, according to a range expert.

"Cow free by '93" and "No more moo by '92" are battle cries of the radical group Earth First!, which has been trying to get cows off the West's public rangeland. They cite damage to native plants as a result of grazing.But William A. Laycock, head of the range management department of the University of Wyoming, Laramie, says removing livestock might not change range much, once it has already been changed from its original condition.

Speaking at the convention of the Ecological Society of America, Laycock said taking cattle off the public range may not restore the original vegetation anytime soon - within, say, 150 years.

The convention has drawn 1,500 participants from throughout the country to the society's 75th anniversary meeting, continuing through Thursday. Scores of papers have been read in simultaneous sessions, but Laycock's report Wednesday was one of the most controversial.

He attacked one of the most basic assumptions of range management - that ranges are in excellent condition if the "climax" or original vegetation types are dominant, and are in bad condition if they are not. The theory assumes that vegetation naturally changes through the years until some optimal sort ends up on the land in a stable condition.

According to Laycock, that may be the case in the humid East. But there's not really such thing as a climax type of vegetation in the West, he said. Instead, there are several different stable conditions that may exist for the same land, depending on various factors.

Based on the scientific literature, with some of the most important information coming from Australia, he attacked the theory that range condition can return to normal relatively soon if grazing is eliminated. Instead, he said, in arid and semi-arid areas such as Utah, some plant communities will remain fairly stable even if they are not the climax types.

Throughout much of the drier parts of this region, the native plants originally formed a sagebrush-grass community, he said. Then 100 or 80 years ago, heavy overgrazing destroyed the grasses, allowing greater growth of sagebrush.

But while the sagebrush alone isn't considered a final or climax type of vegetation in the natural cycles of plant succession, it turns out to be stable with or without grazing.

Exclosures - experimental plots fenced off from grazing - show little difference between the vegetation types inside and those outside that are grazed by cattle, he said. These plots have been set up "all over Utah and Wyoming.

"In the sagebrush type, almost invariably, no matter where you look, there's no big difference in or out, or if there's a difference, there's more sagebrush."

Environmental "terrorist groups like Earth First!" and others, who "don't know anything about rangelands" would be surprised and disappointed at the result if they managed to get cattle off the public range, he said.

"The vegetation condition might not change with the livestock off of there," he said.

He cited an area of New Mexico where the native blue grama grass hasn't come back onto Indian fields that were abandoned 800 years ago.

"We don't understand very much why, yet, but these stable states seem to exist on arid and semi-arid" land, he said.

So groups such as the radical Earth First! are "barking up the wrong sagebrush," he agreed, when they insist that cattle should be removed from the public range.