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.
The 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.
The 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.