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


About 200 cattle graze the 28,000 acres of Alan Tackman's postcard-pretty ranch. Most of its grasslands and rocky crags lie within the Gila National Forest, and Tackman often rides his horse through the two grazing allotments he leases from the U.S. Forest Service, checking on his cattle and enjoying the view.

"It's steep, rough country," says Tackman, a burly, genial man with white hair. "I think it's beautiful, but I may be biased."

Every now and then, a calf or cow comes up missing. Harsh weather, injury or mountain lions are the usual suspects, but for the past 15 years, there has been a new one: Mexican gray wolves, reintroduced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1998. Tackman says that over the years three different packs have taken up residence on one of his allotments, and the number of surviving calves there is half that of the wolf-free allotment he leases.

"The only difference is the wolves," says Tackman, who estimates he has lost $20,000 worth of livestock – mostly calves – to the predator. "Wolves and cattle cannot co-exist."

As in other parts of the rural West, the combination of bovines and wild canines has stirred a long-simmering conflict here, deepening antipathy among ranchers, environmentalists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and impeding the Mexican wolf's recovery in its historic U.S. range. Only 83 or so wolves roam the greater Gila ecosystem – a vast tumble of mountains, canyons and forests in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona that is largely publicly owned – yet their mere existence has provoked a fierce reaction. Some ranchers and conservative county commissioners periodically demand that the federal wolf program be scrapped, warning that wolves will attack pets and children as well as livestock  (though there are no confirmed reports of Mexican wolves attacking humans). Opponents have filed several lawsuits, and more than a few wolves have been illegally shot.

Meanwhile, environmentalists, who consider the Gila the "Yellowstone of the Southwest," have used federal law to force land and wildlife agencies to better protect wolves and reduce cattle grazing. So you wouldn't expect to see Tackman sitting with environmentalist Bryan Bird in the Adobe Café in the tiny town of Reserve, N.M., on a crystalline blue-sky October day. Even more surprising, the two were openly discussing a possible deal that could aid both wolves and ranchers – and perhaps help temper the region's polarized political atmosphere.

The terms of the deal are straightforward: In exchange for giving up his federal permit to graze cattle on 25,000 acres of prime wolf habitat, Tackman will receive several hundred thousand dollars from Bird's group. (Neither party would disclose the exact amount.) Tackman is ready: "I love ranching, but I can't make a living here," he says. "I just have a permit that's rough (country) and full of wolves. At this point, I just want out."

Bird tells Tackman that there is a slight delay in getting the money together; some of the funders are hesitating because they don't trust the Forest Service to permanently retire Tackman's allotment. But rest assured, he says, WildEarth Guardians, based in Santa Fe, 270 miles northeast of here, is lining up congressional support for a bill authorizing permanent retirements in the Gila. Even before it passes, it will give donors the confidence to write checks.

As Tackman leaves the wood-paneled café, he warns Bird: "If this is not done by the first of the year, I'm done."

Bird replies: "It's gonna get done."

If only it were that simple.

WildEarth Guardians is hardly the first environmental group to dangle cash in front of ranchers. About a decade ago, activists launched the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, an ambitious effort to boot cattle off millions of acres across the West. But they failed to convince Congress to pass across-the-board legislation authorizing buyouts. Greater success has come at the local level, in places like Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the national forests surrounding Yellowstone National Park. The National Wildlife Federation has probably been the most successful, making deals to clear livestock from more than half a million acres in the Yellowstone region, in part to protect habitat for the northern gray wolf, the Mexican wolf's larger, more ashen-hued cousin.

But, though the Gila is as wild and rugged as Yellowstone – and even more ecologically diverse, with desert grasslands giving way to ponderosa forests and spruce-thick mountaintops – it differs in many ways. For one thing, the Yellowstone bioregion is anchored by a huge and iconic national park, where livestock are verboten. The Gila, however, is managed almost entirely by the Forest Service. Its wild core consists of three wilderness areas, which are grazed by more than 60,000 cattle, domestic sheep and goats. Furthermore, ranchers in the Northern Rockies only graze livestock during the summer, while most Gila ranchers run cattle year-round.

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.