By Lisa Jones
RESERVE, N.M. - To hear
Ed Werheim tell it, 1993 was a lifetime ago. That's when he took
out a mortgage on a ranch in the mountains of southern New Mexico.
The range was wet, cattle prices were high and the 57-year-old
cabinet maker was looking forward to running cattle on the Gila
National Forest with his wife, Barbara.
Werheims moved up from Texas, and, from the Forest Service's point
of view, proceeded to do everything right. When the agency
suggested they cut the number of cattle on the 36,000-acre
allotment from 250 to 125 to conserve the range, they readily
agreed. When a forest fire raged across half of the allotment last
year, they kept the cattle off the regenerating grass.
But larger forces were afoot. Beef prices
started dropping in 1994 in response to an oversupply. The rains
came unseasonably late that year, then stayed well below average
until a couple of weeks ago. Werheim's cattle ate the grass near
the creeks, and the distance between food and water widened. He's
lost six cows to the drought, and cut his herd significantly
"I'm an optimistic person, but I don't
feel optimistic about this situation," says Werheim. "I'm 60 years
old. If we're just started on this (drought) we're going to just be
devastated; the forest and the game and everything else. If it's a
seven-year drought cycle, I don't think we could stick it out."
July and August are the Southwest's rainiest
months, and the range generally looks its worst in June. Late last
month, the Gila National Forest ran true to form: the ground was
bare and the stories were chilling. There's the Arizona businessman
who stocked his allotment to its full legal level last winter
despite warnings that there wouldn't be enough forage on the ground
to feed them. By the time a neighbor called attention to the
situation in May, more than 30 cows were dead. There's the open,
park-like allotment high in the ponderosas where bony cattle
stagger between expensive range improvement projects. Even away
from the steep, erodible slopes of the Gila, which is home to some
of the West's most bitter ranching controversies (HCN, 6/24/96),
the drought has been relentless.
weather is highly localized - one valley may get deluged while the
next one over bakes in the sun - and some New Mexicans say the
drought has been around for as long as five years. Others point out
that 1984-1993 was the wettest decade in the last century, so even
normal weather would seem bone-dry in comparison. The National
Weather Service says the drought started in Mexico in 1992, spread
to southeastern New Mexico in 1994, and came north in the last year
or so. It now covers most of southern California, southern Nevada,
all of Arizona, half of Utah, most of Colorado and almost all of
Texas and Oklahoma, according to the Service's Charlie Liles.
New Mexico State University range scientist
Jerry Holechek says extended, four- to six-year droughts hit New
Mexico every 40 years or so, with the last one hitting in the
1950s: "Based on climatic history, this could well be the
beginning, not the end," he says. "And the ranchers seem to think
it's the end."
"We've got some real problems,"
says Arizona State University riparian expert Bob Ohmart, who
visited the Gila in late June. "I think when we start to see
pictures of cows starving to death on the range the public's going
to be incensed at the way it's been managed."
Critics say it isn't drought, but persistent
overuse, that has damaged the range. "This is part of the West's
normal wet/dry cycle," says Susan Schock, director of the Silver
City-based watchdog group, Gila Watch. "We have to expect this kind
of climate variation. It's hitting hard because the forest is
overstocked and severely degraded from more than a century of
Range scientists and land managers
can look at a piece of dry range and come to entirely different
conclusions. Last month, a busload of them bumped up a dirt road
near Reserve, disembarked to inspect the mosaic of blue grama grass
stubble and bare dirt on the ground, and held
"This isn't poor ranch management; it's
that Mother Nature isn't cooperating," said Roger Delgado of the
"It's very heavily grazed," said
independent range scientist Dee Galt.
State's Ohmart called it "highly degraded. I'd put it right at
destructive ... I see too many places where the water would take
soil with it. I want to see grass leaves and stems that aren't tied
up in a cowpie. I'd like to strap the permittee at the bottom of
this wash when we have a flood event and let him take a beating."
Ranchers had removed about half of the Gila's
32,000 cattle by early July, almost entirely voluntarily. This left
what was probably the lowest number of cattle in the forest's
history, according to Forest Service range conservationist Chuck
Sundt. Observers attributed the fact that there were still 16,000
or 17,000 cattle on the range in part to human nature: As cattle
lose weight and drought continues, ranchers - not to mention range
managers and scientists - find themselves on a knife-edge of doubt:
What if they sell now, and then it rains?
nature also leads ranchers to set themselves up for disaster by
overstocking during the wet cycle. "After a run of good years,
there's a tendency to forget what can happen," says Holechek. And
newcomers tend to be more vulnerable to drought than old-timers.
About a third of the 24 ranchers on the Reserve District weren't
around for the last dry cycle in the 1970s. With inflated real
estate prices and a volatile beef market, public-lands ranching is
not considered a profitable investment, especially if the rancher
involved has mortgage payments.
"I think you'd
have better odds in Las Vegas," says a New Mexico banker who lends
money to ranchers. "When you get a guy who's been in ranching 65
years, he's seen it all. You can imagine how devastating (this
drought) could be to someone who thinks ranching would be a good
Gerry Engel, the Gila National
Forest District Ranger in Silver City, is woefully familiar with
the perils of ranching in an area that's prone to drought. One of
the ranchers on his district is Roy Walker, an Arizona businessman
he considers "a hard guy to discourage." When Walker started
ranching a hilly area called the Cold-Hot Springs Allotment last
winter, "we said we'd have difficulties managing it," says Engel.
But Walker wanted to go with the full permitted number - 265
cattle. "We'd had some rain in the 1995 rainy season; the grass
crop didn't look that bad," says Engel. "He decided he wanted to
By May, at least 30 cows had died. In
a report, Holechek attributed the deaths to "almost complete lack
of non-poisonous forage," and called the situation a "complete
Engel says he didn't think
the problems would develop on the Walkers' allotment as quickly as
they did. He and his range staff were embroiled in a far worse
situation: After three years of urging, another rancher still
hadn't gotten his cattle out of the badly degraded Gila River.
Engel finally ordered all of those cattle
As for the Cold-Hot Springs Allotment,
Engel considers its conditions "below average," but by no means the
worst on the forest. If conditions don't improve, he says he'll
instruct Walker to reduce his cattle numbers.
Engel, like other Forest Service workers, walks
a fine line. On one hand, he works for the federal government near
the eye of the anti-federal hurricane - Catron County, the
birthplace of the counties movement, is the next county over. It's
home to Kit and Sherry Laney, who have left 700 cattle on the range
since March in open defiance of a Forest Service order to remove
them. On the other hand, he is subjected to steady criticism from
environmentalists: "When a ranger has to be told by neighbors that
cows are dropping dead and he still doesn't take action it doesn't
instill a lot of confidence," says Schock.
if he'd take the Walker ranch if it were given to him, Engel
paused. Then he said, "If you told me you'd give me this ranch, but
I couldn't have any other source of income, I wouldn't take it."
He isn't alone.
to chase me to give me a forest allotment," said one BLM rancher.
"They don't produce anything."
Can rain cure a drought?
late June, it started to rain. It rained so hard between Deming and
Silver City that traffic slowed, crawled, and finally stopped on
the shoulder. It rained so hard in Glenwood that toads hopped among
the parked cars, house cats trotting behind
"June wasn't such a dry month after all,"
the Silver City newspaper announced, noting that a total of 2.31
inches fell at the Albuquerque International Airport - 1.75 inches
more than average. The Cattleman's Livestock Auction outside the
town of Belen filled slowly with livestock under cloudy skies.
Farther north, the washes under the highway between Albuquerque and
Santa Fe ran fast and red and muddy.
Engel reported it was raining "like a son-of-a-gun; we're starting
to worry about floods." But Liles of the National Weather Service
pointed out that rain doesn't mean the absence of drought: "I
wouldn't want to say that the drought is over anywhere," he said.
"It's not unusual to get some heavy rainfall, rainy periods during
droughts. You have to get past the drought to look back and really
see if it has ended."
And it remains to be seen
whether the rain will help the range or simply wash away the
topsoil. "We've probably lost about half our perennial grasses,"
says Chuck Oliver, a Forest Service range conservationist based in
Reserve. Writes Holechek: "If the drought persists through the
summer of 1996 ... this could reduce long-term grazing capacity to
50-60 percent of predrought levels."
the Forest Service could react to this possibility by allowing
fewer cows on the range. "If we don't feel (the range) can
accommodate what they want, we can cut the numbers," he says. "We
need the data to do it, but we can do it." Reserve District Ranger
Mike Gardner agrees: "Unless something's changed in the law, I'll
protect the forest. That's not a threat or anything. That's just
doing my job." But with Republican Sen. Pete Domenici's current
attempt to strengthen the ranchers' position with a new grazing
bill - not to mention the precedent set by the Laneys - it's
unclear what will happen.
Schock is not
optimistic. Gila Watch and the Albuquerque-based Public Lands
Action Network are calling for the resignation of Gila Forest
Supervisor Abel Camarena for his agency's "negligence." Schock sees
this year's problems as part of the steady degradation of the area
that's occurred since Anglo settlement.
see cows being taken off preventively," she says. "The ranchers
here overgrazed even during the wet cycle. The train wreck is
happening right now that forest mismanagement has set up, and what
we're seeing is even more pushes for legislative solutions. We're
not seeing people being told, "You've gotta bite the bullets and
take your losses." "'''"
Lisa Jones is project writer
at High Country News.