On predators, ranchers and public land grazing


Jim Eischeid’s letter to HCN in the November 24th edition pointed out the irony that “the large majority of those ranchers get sweet subsidized deals on the use of the public lands for grazing, and yet they vilify the efforts to restore the wolf on those very same lands.” Eischeid then goes to the heart of the reason why public land grazing is environmentally destructive. It is the failure of ranchers to maintain the tradition of riding the range and moving the herd that results in these cattle hanging out in riparian areas where they munch willows and aspen as well as grass, deposit their waste directly into the streams and trample stream banks.

This is also true of Northern California where I live. In the old days, ranch teenagers spent months in the mountains each summer moving the herds and protecting them from predators. Often they were alone in the wilderness for weeks on end. These real cowboys developed a deep bond with the wild lands – the very bond which livestock organizations still talk about but which is increasingly rare in ranching communities. If the government agencies required range riding and other active management practices necessary for grazing to be done in an environmentally responsible manner we would not need to buy out grazing permits because many ranchers would abandon their permits as not “penciling out” – i.e. not worth the cost of management. Undoubtedly those ranch families which really cherish the Old West lifestyle would once again begin riding the range – or having the teenagers in the family take on the job.  Perhaps this would result in a new generation of ranchers who value wild lands and wild critters like those old timers who have now mostly passed on.

One of Jim Eischeid’s suggestions that would not work in Northern California, however, is replacing cattle with bison. Bison were not native here but elk where.  While they survived on the coast, elk were wiped out in most of interior Northern California during the gold rush when they were hunted to provide meat to the mining camps. It was only when the elk were wiped out that enterprising former-miners began bringing in cattle to feed the mining camps.

Elk were reintroduced to the Klamath Mountains in the 1980s and they are now flourishing in areas that are not in cattle allotments. These elk support a solid sport hunting economy.  But elk have not recolonized those parts of the Klamath Mountains where cattle grazing dominates.

Economic studies comparing the costs and benefits of cattle grazing v elk hunting in the Klamath Mountains have not been done. And I have never heard of elk ranchers running elk on the open range; I suspect that would not work well. But studies have been done demonstrating that public land cattle grazing in Klamath Country is having a significant impact on biodiversity.  A bird presence-absence study financed by the Forest Service and Partners in Flight some years ago found that certain species – one was the Willow Flycatcher – were almost always present in mountain meadows that were not grazed but were completely absent in nearby meadows that were grazed. That study was conveniently forgotten last year when the Forest Service considered whether to continue a grazing allotment in the area of the Marble Mountain Wilderness where year after year the most conflicts between recreators, cattle and the ranchers which run the cattle occur. The grazing allotment was reauthorized even though recreator-rancher conflicts have at times verged on violence.  

A voluntary buy-out program will likely prove the most effective way to end destructive public land grazing. But getting the agencies to require range riding and the other active management practices needed to protect western backcountry might provide the extra incentive needed to convince ranchers to accept buy-outs.  Requiring backcountry cattle management might also reduce opposition to grazing by recreators. I know my reaction as a backpacker has been much more positive when I hiked the one allotment in the Klamath Mountains where the rancher still rides the range and moves the cattle regularly than it is when I hike allotments where the ranchers put the cows in and then forget about them until late fall.  Finally, requiring range riding could help produce a new generation of ranchers who don’t exhibit the “sheer hate” of predators and all things wild of which Jim Eischeld writes. And that may lead in turn to the survival of public land grazing where it is ecologically appropriate and where ranchers are willing to ride the range on a regular basis.

Anonymous says:
Dec 05, 2008 05:22 PM
As usual, Felice Pace has made a cogent and substantive contribution to the conversation about public lands. Also as usual, he has offered a suggestion--ranchers and their teenage children "riding herd" on their herds--that makes a lot of community building sense. In our region of rural Wyoming there are too many young people whose idea of getting to know the land consists of bombing around in pickups full of beer (often with tragic results). Meaningful, important work on the land might result in more contempletive solutions to how the public lands are used. Nicely done, old friend.
Anonymous says:
Dec 08, 2008 08:21 AM
FP's article raises excellent points and I agree with her generally about the need for reform. But, I am afraid for the majority of the public welfare ranchers..and that is indeed what it is...the feeling of entitlement they have towards this system, and the hatred for predators is too ingrained for any compromise that relies on their dealing with the reality of biology and ecology, never mind their shrinking (less than 3%)of the national beef market.

 As a group, they remind me of the auto industry who never once moved forward with any safety or environmental protection program without being forced into by litigation. These ranchers will only change their ways when forced to by federal legislation mandating buyouts, a fair economic system for the use of the public lands, and even an exchange of bison for cattle to help restore the health of the impacted ranch lands. And the buyouts are especially important for those public lands surrounding critical habitat for large predators such wolves and bears, and for large grazing animals such as bison. Whether these are voluntary or eminent domain in nature matters little to me. Enough is enough.
Anonymous says:
Dec 08, 2008 08:23 AM
My apologies for my typing in misidentifying MR. Pace's gender...
Anonymous says:
Dec 08, 2008 08:32 PM
Be careful what you wish for. Today's ranchers would ride the range on ATVs, not horses. You can't turn back the clock.

Ranchers often get under my skin too. I just returned from a four-day backpack hunt for deer. Even though the canyon bottoms have plenty of water, we had to pack water in because the pools had all been fouled by cattle.

What really gets my blood up are the ranchers who graze on public lands but won't let the public in. Some roads leading to National Forest or BLM lands cross private stretches where ranchers put up locked gates. Some charge entry fees to pass through to the Federal lands, others contract with hunting guides to provide exclusive access. Still others simply shut out everybody except family and friends, effectively turning public land that should be accessible to all into their own private preserves. Granting of access to Federal lands should be a contract requirement in all Federal grazing leases, but neither the Forest Service nor the BLM is willing to take that step. They're too much in the hip pockets of the ranching industry.

But ranchers also do a lot of good things. It's a lot easier to buy out a grazing lease than to buy out a subdivision. On cattle ranches I've hunted deer, elk, antelope, quail and other game. I've never hunted anything in a subdivision. Some will argue that's a false choice, but I don't believe it is.

At least here in Arizona, Coues whitetail deer and elk are plentiful in the places where cattle graze. Some ranchers will point out that many elk wouldn't make it through the winter without a little pilfering from the feed put out for cows.

The key is agreeing that we all need to share the land that belongs to all of us, and that means shared access as well. I don't think the answer is putting them out of business.
Anonymous says:
Dec 08, 2008 09:28 PM
Just to hate a predator of course is unacceptable; on the other hand to have the wolf forced upon Wyoming is unacceptable. All of the numbers have been met and we still have the damn thing listed. If elk management were allowed the elk numbers would be in line with habitat. I am amused by the States in the Northeast who have a big whitetail problem; why not introduce the wolf in Mass, NY, RI, VT to name a few. One more thought, the worst ranch is better for habitat than the best subdivision.
Anonymous says:
Dec 10, 2008 04:59 PM
The so-called ranching cultures seem the same in Wyoming (Dave Throgmorthon's comment) as in Idaho.

The ranch kids won't work. To the extent they do, they'll saddle up a horse and "help" drive the stock from pasture to pasture, or from the home ranch to Daddy's public lands allotment -- if it's not too far, and doesn't take too long. Even if Daddy doesn't have center pivots, they won't irrigate anymore. It's apparently beneath them: a job only fit for a "Mezkin". Most will only help with the haying, winter feeding, or what little farming happens until they're old enough to get a driver's license and drive legally on public roads. As Throgmorthon says, all they want to do is ride around in their big 4-wheel drive pickups, spewing Bud Lite cans along the road shoulders, and most likely burning fuel out of Daddy's bulk tanks on the ranch. (And if it's diesel, I'll bet it's NOT taxed, highway-grade, low-sulfur diesel, either !)
Anonymous says:
Dec 10, 2008 05:19 PM
Don Cuin says, "If elk management were allowed the elk numbers would be in line with habitat." Good point. If Wyoming closed it's idiotic and counterproductive elk feeding grounds, elk numbers very likely wouldn't be out of line with what the habitat can carry !

Or maybe he's talking about YNP. In that case, if the park boundaries weren't arbitrary lines drawn on a map, and if they followed some ecological logic, and large predators were allowed ot operate unmolested, again, elk (and wolf) numbers would soom reach an equilibrium with the land's carrying capacity.

As for the hoary old chestnut about reintroducing wolves to New York and New England: Why not ? Adirondack State Park is something like six million acres (almost three times the size of Yellowstone), is relatively thinly populated, and has a good prey base. If wolves can make it in northern MI, WI, and MN with minimal conflicts with humans, I see no reason why they couldn't in NY and ME, either.
Anonymous says:
Dec 14, 2008 09:18 AM
Mr. Cuin, there are MANY of us here in the eastern states that want to see the wolf reintroduced here, so there's no need to sound so self-righteous about it. You make it sound as if the wolf is being forced on you by people who don't want the wolf in their backyard: that's far from the truth. The wolf is being protected now where it ALREADY EXISTS. If it's allowed to extend its range as it normally would (if you people don't kill them all), it will find its way out here. Don't you realize that the coyote has already filled its niche in our ecosystem? I live in the Mid-Atlantic states, where we not only have non-native coyotes, but now have a resurgent cougar population. WE WANT THEM HERE. Our lands and woods are overrun with deer populations in particular because there are no predators; consider yourselves lucky that you're able to restore some balance or maintain one. Our local newspaper printed an article from the early 1930s which noted that a RARE sighting of a white-tailed deer occurred about 10 miles from here, which is funny, because now they literally find their way into this city. They're everywhere. I know very few hunters, most of them farmers, who DON'T want wolves and cougars here and protected. So stop griping.
Anonymous says:
Dec 14, 2008 09:37 PM
I truly believe you are a slim minority in your neck of the woods in your opinion of wolves being allowed in the Northeast. I can just imagine the hue and cry when wolves tear apart a group of welfare deer in the backyard of a community. With all of the private land in the NE I seriously doubt that the introduction will ever happen. We on the otherhand we have armchair QBs attempting to run a very good ( no through a selective court running) game managment system. The Fed set a goal for the wolf numbers to meet that has been meet before delisting and the state has met that over and over again. We are forced to have folks 9such as yourself) who have no stake in our state wanting to absentee manage our lands and game managment. As a hunter and sportsmnan I want to keep the public lands public; I just want the Feds to keep their word. If elk hunting would have been allowed in YNP we would not need the damn things. If I take my lion dogs out on a lion hunt and one of your lovely wolves attacks my dogs as it is I just have to sit and watch. If we take away all grazing allotments who will take up the financial slack? No I will not keep quiet!
Anonymous says:
Dec 10, 2008 11:05 PM
First, re Larry Audsley —
Ranchers/farmers in Texas do it to county roads, too. Same mentality. It’s called eco-terrorism if they threaten you.

Don Cuin –
Nobody’s “forcing” the wolf in, just restoring it rightfully to where it was forced out.