Can a grazing buyout program ease life for wolves and ranchers?

A fledgling effort in New Mexico's 'Yellowstone of the South.'

  • John Horning, far left, and Bryan Bird study greater Gila bioregion land ownership maps at the WildEarth Guardians office in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The maps identify land leased by "wolf-friendly ranchers" as well as areas the group has targeted for permit retirement.

    Katharine Egli
  • Anti-wolf sentiment is still strong in parts of New Mexico, but some ranchers now see the value of working with environmentalists.

    Jay Hemphill
  • A protective cage at a school bus stop in Catron County, New Mexico, where anti-wolf sentiment – and rhetoric – runs strong.

    Jay Hemphill
  • A Mexican gray wolf in the Gila borderlands of New Mexico and Arizona.

    Mexican Wolf Interagency Field team photo courtesy USFWS
  • Tending cattle in Mexican wolf country, at the X Diamond Ranch on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, in the far northern part of the greater Gila bioregion.

    Wink Crigler, courtesy USDA
  • Terry Reidhead, at work in his lumber mill near Alpine, Arizona, says he hasn't turned a profit on his Escudilla allotment since the 1990s.

    Jay Hemphill
  • Buzz Easterling says there were Mexican wolves on the place when he bought it in the 1940s, before they were extirpated. Now he's hoping they'll come back.

    Jay Hemphill
  • Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest ranger Rick Davalos wants grass banks, rather than outright retirement of grazing leases.

    Jay Hemphill
  • Alan Tackman, on the range in the Gila National Forest, is first in line for a WildEarth Guardians grazing lease buyout. But the deal is still not done.

    Terri Tackman

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Northern Rockies ranchers "have thousands of private acres (each); here, we have hundreds," says Tackman, whose own ranch includes just 70 private acres. "And a lot of it up there is irrigated, so they can grow a lot of hay and run a lot of cattle."

The year-round presence of cattle increases the likelihood that a wolf will augment its typical elk-meat diet with livestock. It also makes for a landscape significantly shaped by cattle – a condition that, environmentalists say, keeps the Gila from realizing its wild potential.

"Our vision is to make the Gila one of the best-protected landscapes in all of North America," says John Horning, WildEarth Guardian's executive director. A slight man with arrestingly blue eyes, Horning cut his teeth as an activist here 15 years ago. The first lawsuit he ever filed, back in 1996, argued that the Forest Service failed to analyze the ecological consequences of issuing grazing permits. Over the next six years, he estimates he filed half a dozen lawsuits on the Gila and Arizona's neighboring Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.

"It came from a place of deep frustration about deep impacts on the ground," recalls Horning, sitting at the conference table in WildEarth Guardians' pueblo-revival-style office building near downtown Santa Fe. "There were places in the Gila that were … just grazed to the bone. And to add insult to injury, they were habitat for endangered fish and birds, Gila trout, Apache trout, a dozen or so endangered species. We brought a ton of litigation that was trying to remove that threat."

Horning's fight was personal: Aldo Leopold, one of his conservation idols, whose tenure as a federal forester in the Gila in the 1920s influenced his famous land ethic, convinced the federal government to create the nation's first wilderness area here – 40 years before Congress passed the Wilderness Act.

WildEarth Guardians won some battles and lost others, but "about six or seven years ago, we decided to make a strategic shift in how we would approach grazing," Horning says. "Basically, the divide we went over was recognizing that grazing, though it's a privilege on public lands, from a strategic perspective could be treated as a right, and that therefore it's compensable. And if we were to compensate ranchers (for retiring grazing permits) it would provide us common ground with them in potentially moving forward a new conservation vision for the greater Gila."

So Horning, who grew up on the edge of Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., and Bird, who has a master's in conservation biology from New Mexico State University, quietly launched a buyout program. They started by poring over detailed maps of grazing allotments – the same ones they used to plan litigation – looking for those with the best wolf habitat and connectivity to the Gila and Aldo Leopold wilderness areas. If enough of the region's 120 or so ranchers accepted buyouts, they reasoned, Mexican wolves would have hundreds of thousands of cattle-free acres to roam without getting shot or relocated, the federal government's response to serious wolf-livestock conflicts. And with about half of the 4.2 million-acre greater Gila qualifying as potential wilderness, grazing retirements could make it easier to lobby Congress for new wilderness designations, providing another layer of landscape protection. Tackman's own allotments include 19,000 acres of wilderness-quality roadless lands.

Through letters, phone calls and face-to-face meetings, Bird and Horning made their pitch, focusing on ranchers who, like Tackman, were ready to get out of the business. (Tackman has tried to sell his permit twice before, once to The Conservation Fund and once to a neighbor.) Over the past several years, a dozen or so ranchers have expressed interest, but progress remains slow. Late last fall, Tackman's deal was still the only one that was a signature and a check away from happening; two others stood waiting in the wings. And Horning and Bird continued to meet resistance from ranchers, Forest Service officials and even the potential donors who were underwriting the buyouts.

"The big challenge is getting enough ranchers," Bird says. "I've gotta get 10 at least. But they want to see others doing it (before they'll commit). They don't want to be the first to go."

Even if it weren't run by a hard-hitting environmental group, a grazing buyout program in the Gila would likely encounter resistance. For the past four decades, Catron County, which includes much of the Gila ecosystem in New Mexico but has fewer than 4,000 residents, has figured prominently in the rural West's so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a loosely organized movement that resists environmental regulation and federal authority over public lands. In the early 1990s, fourth-generation rancher Kit Laney refused a Forest Service order to remove his cattle from the Diamond Bar allotment in the Gila and Aldo Leopold wildernesses, warning that if federal agents tried to remove them, Catron County supporters would greet them with guns. In November 2004, Laney was sentenced to five months in prison after pleading guilty to assaulting a Forest Service official and obstructing a court order.

Many locals opposed the Mexican wolf reintroduction program even before the U.S. Fish and Wildflife Service transported seven from a breeding facility in Mexico and released them into Arizona's Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in 1998. (Back then, New Mexico barred the release of wolves in the state, although the animals often migrate from Arizona.) Since then, the program has remained entangled in controversy. Catron County officials have gone so far as to build "wolf-proof" cages around school bus stops, ostensibly to protect children. Illegal killings of wolves – 46 so far, with four prosecutions – as well as legal killings by federal wildlife agents have helped keep the predator's population below the government's goal of 100 individuals despite periodic reintroduction of more wolves. Just last fall, someone shot a young male wolf with an arrow in Catron County.

But despite popular perception, the Gila's ranchers are not a social or economic monoculture, and with the average age of permit-holders at 66, an increasing number are seeking greener pastures. According to an analysis of Forest Service data by WildEarth Guardians, more than 1.5 million leased acres in the Gila region – about 45 percent of all permitted acres – changed ownership between 2005 and 2012. About 27 percent of the permittees now live outside of New Mexico. Recent permit buyers include a lawyer from Texas, a North Carolina eye doctor and a California businessman.

Robert Luce
Robert Luce Subscriber
Feb 18, 2014 03:39 PM
Bruce Babbitt, former Secretary of the Interior, an Arizona Rancher," once said, "Livestock grazing is the most damaging use of public land." I come a farm/ranch background and was a wildlife biologist in Wyoming for 30 years, and I agree with his statement in general, but I believe the issue is not livestock grazing, rather poor management of livestock, especially on public lands. Considering that public lands contribute less than 3% of beef produced in the US, the financial cost to the American taxpayer to subsidize the livestock management program on BLM and National Forest lands is astronomical compared to the gain. If a way can be found to retire public lands grazing, wolves and other wildlife, and wilderness values and recreation, will all benefit considerably. If this is done on a "willing seller-willing buyer" basis it is a win-win situation. WildEarth Guardians is on the right track.
Dale Lockwood
Dale Lockwood Subscriber
Feb 24, 2014 09:17 PM
Considering its public land and grazing fees don't even cover costs it is like paying ransom money. The government should not pay one penny.
If a private group wants to do it,they can do what they want.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Feb 25, 2014 04:13 PM
Anything to reduce mans impact , and to many cattle, on far to many acres, is a significant impact. If this Thus reduces the number of cows on our public land land , It's a positive compromise and a win for wildlife and nature in general.
don bertolette
don bertolette Subscriber
Feb 25, 2014 04:22 PM
It's probably proper for me to mention that I've:
1)worked for USFS, BLM, and NPS
2)been a Sierra Club Member
in the Southwest or Northwest for much of my adult life, and am currently retired.
In the context of this HCN issue (February 2014) featuring collaborative efforts, I should also say that I was a participant in what became known as the Flagstaff Plan, where issues over forests and fire had conflicting public perceptions. Perhaps not much different than this particular issue over range and fire, (notice I'm not saying wolf!) and it's own conflicting public perceptions.
I say range and fire, because it's my perception that pre-settlement fire-adapted grasslands did just fine with the natural wildfire regime that had existed for many centuries. Despite the rancher's contention that grazing consuming fine fuels was a good thing, I'd suggest that only reflects the range's current unhealthy response to a deeply disturbed history of grazing. Grasslands NEED natural wildfire in a high frequency, low intensity regime, very much like that of the ponderosa pine forests that often share the same ecosystems through out the Southwest. The fact that aspens and willows being unnaturally consumed is an indicator that the prior natural predator/prey relationship has been disturbed, and this disturbance was the unnatural intervention by ranchers and federal/state/local land managers in a centuries long wolf reduction program (reduction can't be the right word, extinction would be accurate functionally, but wrong here in the context of everybody getting along).
From my perspective, restoration is the solution, and collaboration is the tools to enable such a solution. Long may all the stakeholders strive for a win-win process.
charlie jankiewicz
charlie jankiewicz
Feb 25, 2014 06:36 PM
University of Arizona (Range Science) 74 Range Conservationist - Carson, Cibola, Kaibad, Santa Fe, NF's,Ranger - Manti-LaSal, Resource Staff Officer, Santa Fe NF - 34 years retired USDA Forest Service
Couple of short thoughts
Get 'her done Bird and Horning
Caren Cowan talking about Science amounts to a teetotaler talking about fine whiskey
When willing party's want to retire a permit the Forest Service should assist. Every allotment retired would implement that old FS slogan "Caring for the Land and Serving the People"
Charles Fox
Charles Fox Subscriber
Feb 28, 2014 10:25 AM
Page 3: Mexican wolf recovery coordinator Sherry Barrett wrote in an email. "Allotment ownership and/or management is not an issue with which we are involved."

That's exactly why the lethal structural conflict between native carnivores and private cattle persists and why the Mexican wolf recovery program is so slow and ineffective.

By pretending that land use is not an issue the USFWS is jeopardizing the survival of the species it is charged with recovering. That attitude really needs to change.

We are extremely fortunate that WildEarth Guardians is taking on such a critical and neglected component of actually securing conflict-free habitat for wolves.
Patrick Alexander
Patrick Alexander Subscriber
May 07, 2014 05:38 PM
"If you don't have something out there grazing, keeping down fine fuels, you're just going to see more fuels contribute to the fires we've seen in the past few years. And the buyouts would accelerate that," Cowan says.

Bullshit. In the areas we're talking about, cattle grazing shifts an ecosystem toward woody plants. It reduces the ground cover of perennial grasses and forbs, reduces fire frequency, and allows trees to grow at higher density. Now, you can look at that reduction in fire frequency and say, "Aha! Less fire danger!" However, grass fires aren't the problem. Our choices here are: more frequent, low-intensity fires fueled primarily by an herbaceous understory in relatively open woodland or less frequent high-intensity crown fires in dense forest. Guess which kind of fire is more likely to burn your house down, or kill a firefighter, or lead to massive post-fire erosion.

There are many other factors at play here, as well. However, cattle grazing is one of the factors pushing us toward infrequent but massive, high-intensity crown fires. For this guy to push continued grazing as a fire safety measure proves he is ignorant, dishonest, or both.