Ranch Diaries: Is ranching a form of conservation?

Our cattle can help restore wildlife habitat, reduce fire fuels and sequester carbon, when used creatively.

 

Ranch Diaries is an hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, who gives us a peek into daily life during the first year of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday. 

Since I’ve decided to call the American West home, and have lived in Montana, Wyoming, and now New Mexico, I’ve heard friends and neighbors rant about head-in-the-clouds environmentalists and grouse about ignorant ranchers. I’m tired of this clichéd juxtaposition. At various times, Sam and I have been involved with the Quivira Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, Wilderness Alliance, and the Audubon Society. We’ve worked with ranchers who believe wholeheartedly that the land is our most sacred resource, and I’ve chatted with conservationists responsible for wolf and jaguar reintroduction programs. I think the idea of “sides” is losing its clout, and that both parties might need to give a little in order to best care for this landscape.

 In a recent opinion piece in American Cowboy, writer Andy Rieber agrees that this age-old argument is losing relevance. She believes “the perceived divide between ranching and conservation is closing” as American ranchers gain recognition for their conservation efforts and range management. While this is encouraging news, ranchers haven’t always been good conservationists.

  • A bull elk gets a drink.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • The author was thrilled to see this cairn after she and Hoot checked several miles of fence straight up a mountain.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Fall flowers.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Miss Mayday is thriving!

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Sam catching up a wrangle horse.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • A recent rain made pulling the horse trailer an adventure.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • We narrowly missed this tarantula crossing the road.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • The author rescued this colorful beetle from a water tank.

    Laura Jean Schneider

Environmentalists have often been right about the ranching community. There’s an inherent tension between making money and caring for landscapes that support that livelihood. Sometimes the land suffers. Sometimes creatures do. I’m sure my choice to ranch for a living is unpopular with many HCN readers. Yet, I’ve seen firsthand how ranching can enhance conservation.

In 2010, Sam and I worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a local ranch, using cattle to enhance avian habitat on a private refuge. Many areas of the refuge were so thatched with successive years of grass that ground and shrub nesting birds were having difficulties. The cattle were contained in small temporary paddocks for short periods of time. They ate some and trampled much of the rest, creating access for birds. One day, while rolling up fence wire, I saw a tiny bird sitting on a new nest in a clump of rabbit brush, cattle grazing calmly all around her. I was thrilled to see how one species could help another. But it came at a price: When forced to eat less desirable grasses, the cattle didn’t do as well as they would have in a conventionally managed situation, which emphasizes feeding the best forage. This taught me that anytime you use animals as tools, it comes with a tradeoff.

Cattle can also help build soil, which is composed of many living organisms whose health goes all but overlooked in the cattle vs. cattle-free argument. Last summer, Sam and I spent several months helping out on Sam’s cousin’s ranch in Corona, New Mexico. Nancy Ranney has documented her family’s rangeland performance since they implemented more intensive management. Five years worth of her data shows that pastures managed intensively have had a 25 percent increase in soil organic carbon. According to Ranney’s blog post, “for every 1% increase of carbon stored in the soil, an additional 60,000 gallons of water per acre can be retained on the land.” This retained water provided a strong forage base even in the middle of last year’s drought.

Sam and I are trying to make Triangle P Cattle Company as sustainable and earth-friendly as possible. As Tamar Haspel wrote in a February article for the Washington Post, our cattle are able to “turn a plant that humans can’t eat into high-quality people food, which is important in places where marginal land will grow grass but not crops.” We appreciate the wildlife and leave ample forage for them too. Our general guideline for the reservation land we lease and run cattle on is to save at least 50 percent of the forage after our grazing period. We put more miles on our horses than in our truck if we possibly can, and we live a simple off-grid life in our tiny home camper.

But we still make an impact. The difference is that we have planned that impact into our management. We know the pastures where our horses are around the house will be grazed harder, and for longer durations than we would prefer because we need them close by. We know that feeding salt or supplements to the cattle will cause heavy animal impact in the immediate area. This is part of accepting that we are elements of the landscape too, and that while a no­-trace existence seems ideal, the big picture is the goal. The key, I think, is to manage cattle carefully with realistic expectations. When used as a creative land management tool — with the added benefit of producing food — our cattle can help sequester carbon, reduce fire fuels, and restore wildlife habitats. That sounds like conservation to me.