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

Page 4

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.

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.