Ranch Diaries: Is ranching a form of conservation?

Our cattle can help restore wildlife habitat, reduce fire fuels and sequester carbon, when used creatively.

 

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. 

Since I’ve decided to call the American West home, and have lived in Montana, Wyoming, and now New Mexico, I’ve heard friends and neighbors rant about head-in-the-clouds environmentalists and grouse about ignorant ranchers. I’m tired of this clichéd juxtaposition. At various times, Sam and I have been involved with the Quivira Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, Wilderness Alliance, and the Audubon Society. We’ve worked with ranchers who believe wholeheartedly that the land is our most sacred resource, and I’ve chatted with conservationists responsible for wolf and jaguar reintroduction programs. I think the idea of “sides” is losing its clout, and that both parties might need to give a little in order to best care for this landscape.

 In a recent opinion piece in American Cowboy, writer Andy Rieber agrees that this age-old argument is losing relevance. She believes “the perceived divide between ranching and conservation is closing” as American ranchers gain recognition for their conservation efforts and range management. While this is encouraging news, ranchers haven’t always been good conservationists.

  • A bull elk gets a drink.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • The author was thrilled to see this cairn after she and Hoot checked several miles of fence straight up a mountain.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Fall flowers.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Miss Mayday is thriving!

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Sam catching up a wrangle horse.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • A recent rain made pulling the horse trailer an adventure.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • We narrowly missed this tarantula crossing the road.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • The author rescued this colorful beetle from a water tank.

    Laura Jean Schneider

Environmentalists have often been right about the ranching community. There’s an inherent tension between making money and caring for landscapes that support that livelihood. Sometimes the land suffers. Sometimes creatures do. I’m sure my choice to ranch for a living is unpopular with many HCN readers. Yet, I’ve seen firsthand how ranching can enhance conservation.

In 2010, Sam and I worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a local ranch, using cattle to enhance avian habitat on a private refuge. Many areas of the refuge were so thatched with successive years of grass that ground and shrub nesting birds were having difficulties. The cattle were contained in small temporary paddocks for short periods of time. They ate some and trampled much of the rest, creating access for birds. One day, while rolling up fence wire, I saw a tiny bird sitting on a new nest in a clump of rabbit brush, cattle grazing calmly all around her. I was thrilled to see how one species could help another. But it came at a price: When forced to eat less desirable grasses, the cattle didn’t do as well as they would have in a conventionally managed situation, which emphasizes feeding the best forage. This taught me that anytime you use animals as tools, it comes with a tradeoff.

Cattle can also help build soil, which is composed of many living organisms whose health goes all but overlooked in the cattle vs. cattle-free argument. Last summer, Sam and I spent several months helping out on Sam’s cousin’s ranch in Corona, New Mexico. Nancy Ranney has documented her family’s rangeland performance since they implemented more intensive management. Five years worth of her data shows that pastures managed intensively have had a 25 percent increase in soil organic carbon. According to Ranney’s blog post, “for every 1% increase of carbon stored in the soil, an additional 60,000 gallons of water per acre can be retained on the land.” This retained water provided a strong forage base even in the middle of last year’s drought.

Sam and I are trying to make Triangle P Cattle Company as sustainable and earth-friendly as possible. As Tamar Haspel wrote in a February article for the Washington Post, our cattle are able to “turn a plant that humans can’t eat into high-quality people food, which is important in places where marginal land will grow grass but not crops.” We appreciate the wildlife and leave ample forage for them too. Our general guideline for the reservation land we lease and run cattle on is to save at least 50 percent of the forage after our grazing period. We put more miles on our horses than in our truck if we possibly can, and we live a simple off-grid life in our tiny home camper.

But we still make an impact. The difference is that we have planned that impact into our management. We know the pastures where our horses are around the house will be grazed harder, and for longer durations than we would prefer because we need them close by. We know that feeding salt or supplements to the cattle will cause heavy animal impact in the immediate area. This is part of accepting that we are elements of the landscape too, and that while a no­-trace existence seems ideal, the big picture is the goal. The key, I think, is to manage cattle carefully with realistic expectations. When used as a creative land management tool — with the added benefit of producing food — our cattle can help sequester carbon, reduce fire fuels, and restore wildlife habitats. That sounds like conservation to me.

High Country News Classifieds
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE: NEAR CHRICAHUA NATIONAL PARK
    2 (20 acre sites): 110 miles from Tucson:AZ Native trees: Birder's heaven: dark skies: Creek: borders State lease & National forest: /13-16 inches of rain...
  • DIRECTOR - SONORAN DESERT INN & CONFERENCE CENTER
    The Sonoran Desert Inn & Conference Center is a non-profit lodging and event venue in Ajo, Arizona, located on the historic Curley School Campus. We...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.