PORTLAND - Since 1949, Oregon State University has taught the science of being a cowboy in its Department of Rangeland Resources, a college of agriculture specialty that focuses on soils, watersheds, and the ecology of grazing.

But a lack of money - partly due to a failure to attract outside grants - has forced the school to abolish the department and major.

"It's not as simple as going out, getting on a horse and checking the cows," said Greg Addington, an associate director at the Oregon Farm Bureau.

"I don't think they spend a lot of time teaching you to rope and brand. These are high-tech cowboys."

Students in the major studied noxious weeds, the effect of grazing on watersheds and other esoteric topics related to cattle rearing, such as the amount of grass consumed by wild geese as they migrate.

Student interest has waned in recent years, the university said. The department has been instructed to present a plan to reassign faculty to other departments in the College of Agricultural Sciences. The plan is to be ready by Jan. 1.

It's unclear when the major will no longer be available.

Ranchers say it's a regrettable loss for the state; about 52 percent of Oregon's land area is public rangeland, according to the state Farm Bureau. Not all of that is grazed.

Conservationists say the program favored Oregon's $422 million beef industry.

"It wouldn't bother conservationists if the department goes away," said Andy Kerr, president of the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, an anti-grazing group.

This term, 18 undergraduates and 19 graduate students are earning degrees in rangeland studies. They will be allowed to complete their degrees.

Until it closes, OSU's program will remain the second largest in the country after Texas A&M, which has about double the faculty.

The major still will be offered at Eastern Oregon University.

Reached at his ranch in Malheur County, Oregon Cattlemen's Association president Bob Skinner said he's against ending the program.

The center has "been very good at showing the industry is compatible with clean water and sustainable rangeland," he said.

The degree also has proved useful for land management agencies.

Students with degrees in rangeland studies have been snapped up by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, and the BLM wrote a letter of support for the program to OSU, said Addington of the Farm Bureau.

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