Ranch Diaries: How the Triangle P grazes on tribal lands

Breaking down private leases and federal permits.


Ranch Diaries is an hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, who gives us a peek into daily life during the first year of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday.

When we’re asked what it’s like to live on an Indian reservation, Sam and I refer to the natural beauty, abundant wildlife and pros and cons of tiny living. But the longer, more complicated answer involves grazing cattle – why we’re here in the first place. Our contract with the Mescalero Apache Tribe, a sovereign nation, allows us to graze cattle on government-owned land, yet differs fundamentally from both typical federal grazing permits and private leases. While Sam and I have experience with both, a little background on each might help clarify how our situation works.

Private land leases are a flexible option for grazing cattle and generally reflect the current cattle market and regional pasture conditions. Grass and water are contracted for a fee, sometimes with care provided for the livestock. The lessor usually assumes responsibility for infrastructure repairs, fences and water systems. Often, private full-care leases collect payment for pounds of animal gain, a performance-based system that incentivizes good management. Access to the lessor’s land is at the discretion of the lessor.

  • The author holds a calf during the last Triangle P branding of the year.

  • Recent rains turned this road into a river.

  • The other side of the rain.

  • Wildflowers in the camper.

  • The lawnmower takes a break.

  • The author and her husband take a day off from the ranch to explore a fire lookout on the reservation.

Federal grazing permits are often much more complex. Grazing rights, which predate the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), are tied to privately held water rights. Grazing permits (not to be confused with rights) are tied to commensurate private land and a registered cattle brand. According to federal policy, only selling the commensurate property and/or brand and waiving the permit can transfer these permits. According to state laws in the West, grazing rights (not permits) can be transferred only with the accompanying water rights. The 1934 Taylor Grazing Act established the current system of grazing allotments managed by the USFS and BLM. The grazing fee for federal land (currently $1.35 $1.69 per animal unit per month) is set by Congress, and reflects the fact that ranchers using those lands already own the right to graze that land.

These federal permits are often contentious, as there are strong emotions on both pro-grazing and anti-grazing sides. Regardless of one’s perspective, it’s important to note that the terms “public lands” and “leases” are misleading: public access to federal lands is at the discretion of the federal government, and the grazing permits are not leases but term permits. When a rancher signs such a permit and voluntarily agrees to abide by its standards s/he gives up many of his/her private property rights.

Here on the Mescalero Apache reservation, we’re technically grazing federal trust land that’s managed on behalf of and for the benefit of the tribe by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in conjunction with the Mescalero Apache Cattle Growers. (Native American Indian tribes are authorized by Congress to enter into private leases with tribal members or outside parties on reservation trust lands. While tribal members have unlimited access to the reservation, outsiders are not allowed without permission.) We follow rangeland management practices established by the BIA and Mescalero Cattle Growers, and comply with Natural Resource Conservation Service standards for private lands. Our contract is more like a private land lease than a federal grazing permit: The BIA and the Tribe take care of fences and an extensive water system.

The Triangle P pays a monthly grazing fee per animal unit (AU), which is more than the federal grazing fee and less than full-care private lease rates, a fair market rate considering that we provide all of the care for Triangle P livestock. Our one-year contract – to graze up to 1,050 AU with an option to renew for a second year – doesn’t grant us long-term grazing rights, but we have a strong working relationship with the tribe, the BIA and the Mescalero Cattle Growers ranch manager.

Both the Mescalero Apache Tribe and Triangle P are able to benefit from a contract that has, thus far, been advantageous for both parties. The tribe receives a good return on their forage resource, which helps pay for improvements as they expand their own cattle enterprise, while we’re establishing a for-profit cattle company in a productive location.

You can see why this isn’t the first answer Sam and I respond with, but it’s important to address the details. Part of ranching means understanding how these various options work, fortifying oneself with knowledge and ultimately going forward with some mixture of good planning, faith and daring to make a go of it.

High Country News Classifieds