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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By early February, Bird and Horning had put most of the money to pay Tackman in an escrow account. But another snag had emerged: Glenwood District Ranger Pat Morrison, who had agreed to sign off on the MOU, retired on Jan. 1. Debbie Cress, the new district ranger, wanted to review the deal and have her superiors in Washington take a look at it before signing off.  "I'm just getting my feet wet," Cress said. "We are looking into getting support for that (buyout)."

As this issue went to press, the deal remained in limbo awaiting Cress' decision. Bird made the five-hour trip to the Gila once again to see if he could settle things in person, but the Glenwood District is still "a wild card," he said in a Feb. 5 email.

For Alan Tackman and Terry Reidhead, the waiting game, frustrating as it's been, will be one worth winning.

"I wasn't for the wolf reintroduction," Reidhead admits. "We've been making a living off this old forest for 100 years. But it's a steep, rugged allotment and it's probably better suited for wildlife than anything. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

For Tackman, who plans to continue ranching where there are no wolves, closing the deal with Bird and saying goodbye to the lands his family's herds have grazed for four decades won't be easy.

"On a rational level, it was not difficult. On an emotional level, it's very difficult," he says. "When he gives me that check releasing me of my permit, I'm going to cry."

April Reese is a freelance writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.