Searching for grass in a magic valley

  • Coyote

    Michael H. Francis

In 1980 I was laboring in southern Idaho for the Bureau of Land Management, doing hot, dusty work that belied the local name for the Snake River bottomlands: the Magic Valley. My job was to look for grass, find how much was there and report to my superiors. Then they could determine whether or not too many cattle were grazing on public land.

Ranchers continually told me there was more grass out there than when daddy or granddaddy first settled up and improved on the land. Improved is slang, not for any improvements the land might appreciate but for putting up buildings, fences, corrals and water ditches. In this way wild land is made better as a wild horse is made better by breaking it.

Some ranchers told me they had photos to prove their claims, though they were never able to find any pictures when I was around. If there was more grass now than previously, then all there could have been in those early days was rocks, rocks and sagebrush. Normally, all I could find was a small patch of needlegrass or crested wheatgrass (an exotic, planted grass from the Russian steppe) growing up through the sage where the probing bovine muzzles couldn't reach.

I routinely recommended cutting grazing permits; the Bureau of Large Mistakes routinely upped or maintained the number of permissible grazers. Cutting the number of cow-calf units, I was told, was equivalent to cutting the rancher's throat.

To accomplish my work, I was given a set of aerial photos, USGS topographical maps (15-foot quads), clipboard, U.S. Government Skilcraft pencil, data sheets and a four-wheel-drive Ford or Chevrolet truck.

In the 4WD Ford or Chevy truck I drove around southern Idaho in my quest for grass. At the end of the day I would return home with sore arms and shoulders from clutching the steering wheel as I bounced over rocks, ruts and "roads." Every evening I needed a wedge to unclench my teeth. I never understood the mentality that classified off-road driving as recreation.

Part of my inventory area consisted of lava buttes dissected by ephemeral streams. To get on top of the buttes required driving up the stream course to where the road ended. From there, I would pack my clipboard, pencil and data sheets, along with lunch and canteen, and start to scramble.

The climbing was never difficult, but it could be dangerous. It was basic bouldering except the lava blocks were big, most had sharp edges and some were loose. All were hot from the 100+ degree afternoon sun. I wore out gloves and boots that season - all ripped to shreds.

If I'd fallen or slipped I wouldn't have been missed until Friday when I didn't show up at the office. No one would bother looking for me until Monday, the next working day, so I tended to be conservative.

Climbing can be fun under the right conditions, but in Idaho I never had the luxury. It's always hot, and shade is uncommon in the lower elevations of the Magic Valley. It is called that, I think, because it casts a spell upon all who live there. It takes a hex to live through the heat of summer and then suffer the frigid winters.

Every evening I'd freeze a couple of liter-bottles of water. By 9 a.m. they were thawed; by 10 they were warm. On particularly warm days I took long lunches and dozed in the shadow of my truck, waiting for the sun to drop a little towards the horizon. It was too warm to read and too hot to get good data. Or care. I'd get home every evening as the sun was disappearing.

One afternoon when I climbed a butte in search of grass, it was uniquely warm and the climb was correspondingly higher and longer. Sweat dripped and ran down to the tip of my nose and took off like a ski jumper to splash on the thirsty ground. The rocks seemed sharper, blacker and looser the higher I got. And the farther up I went, the greater became my irritation with the whole process.

Reaching the top of the buttes was always like climbing over a fence. I swung my leg over the edge and pulled my body up and over. I ended up lying face down on the rough rock. There I caught my breath and waited for what little breeze might come up to cool me off.

I dozed, then felt a warm, dog-like breath on my ear. Now, who would bring their mutt up here? Opening my eyes, and turning my face, I was eyeball to eyeball with a full-grown German shepherd - I thought. It licked, twice, the sweat from my face, whined, and then walked off a step or so.

I've never been a dog expert. Add to that a bit of disorientation. It took me a good 20 seconds to realize I was face to face with a coyote. Up close they do look like shepherds. You try it sometime. Only from 100 yards do they have that familiar, peculiar coyote look.

It whined again and loped off. It stopped one more time, turned, and looked at me. It seemed to shrug its shoulders, then walked off. "Crazy human," it could have said, "what are you doing up here?"

Peter Stekel is a writer in Seattle, Washington.