It’s springtime in the Rockies, which means blizzards, blooming fruit orchards, and lots of baby bovines in the valley-bottom pastures.
A month ago, the calves were
small, dark lumps deposited on dun-colored fields; today, they are
energetic youngsters, chasing each other across green grass in
free-for-all games of tag. In a matter of weeks, most of the
cow-calf pairs will head to the public lands, where they will
fatten up on mountain grasses and streamside browse.
migration of livestock from valley pastures to mountain meadows,
from private lands to public, and back again, has been a tradition
in the West for more than a century. It’s hard to imagine the
day could come when this rhythm ceases.
Yet, as this
issue’s cover story tells, more and more people are imagining
that day, and in some cases bringing it closer. Difficult economics
and increasing conflicts with other public-lands users —
off-roaders, mountain bikers, hikers and the like — have
convinced a small but growing number of ranchers to give up their
public-land grazing permits for a one-time buyout check.
Whether this trickle of buyouts ever turns into a larger flood
depends largely on the availability of money. For now, don’t
look to the federal government. The prospects of getting this
Congress and president to approve broad legislation funding buyouts
are dimmer than dim. Site-specific bills — such as the
Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, which
authorizes the buyout of grazing permits held by a handful of Idaho
ranchers — are more likely to pass.
ranchers’ best hope for getting a "golden saddle" lies in the
growing number of conservation groups and their private funders who
want to see fewer cattle on the range. Despite the misgivings of
the ranching associations, ranchers should feel free to take this
money. It gives them options. They can reinvest in their livestock
operations by purchasing private land, or they can start up new
businesses that make more sense in the rapidly evolving economy. In
either case, the rural West benefits.
And so does the
land. Buyouts are a tool that can restore ecosystems grazed too
hard for too long. And they can relieve the pressure on wild
species that are highly valued by society, yet can’t survive
in the presence of cows. There is no reason why ranchers struggling
to make a go of it in prime grizzly habitat, or in the path of
bison migrating out of Yellowstone National Park, or along a desert
stream that provides critical habitat for endangered songbirds,
shouldn’t be given a generous check to permanently move their
cows to greener pastures.
Decades from now, we will look
back at this period of buyouts as an important and necessary step
in the evolution of public-lands management.