Wilderness provides a ‘safe haven’ for this cowboy

  • WRANGLING FOR WILDERNESS: Cal Baird and a roping dummy at his camp on the edge of the South McCulloughs

    Matt Jenkins

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "The wild card."

When I meet Cal Baird at a truck stop about 30 miles south of Vegas, he clears a space for me in the passenger’s seat of his Ford pickup ("I don’t know how we ever got by without extended cabs — there was no place to throw all the junk back then") and drives me out to his cow camp.

Baird, who’s 60 but looks at least ten years younger, came to southern Nevada when his family moved from Phoenix in 1946; he’s been cowboying off and on for 48 years. Although he lives in Las Vegas, it’s here that Baird runs 150 head of nearly wild Mexican corriente cattle — descendants of the first cattle brought by the Spaniards to the New World — which he sells for team-roping competitions.

The camp — a trailer, tin barn and handful of corrals tucked into a fold in the South McCullough Mountains — has a commanding view of the Ivanpah Valley. It’s beautiful country, but it’s also long been something of a dumping ground. Baird tells a ’50s-vintage story of Vegas mobsters who abducted "some wise guy who was messing around with the boss’ old lady," then rented a plane, flew over the South McCulloughs, and "threw his ass out."

Even today, it’s a lawless place. It’s notorious as a spot for abandoning stolen cars. Baird’s tin barn has been shot full of holes, and the house that stood on the land was burned down just before he moved his operation out here. Thirty of Baird’s cattle have been killed by gun-toting rowdies and off-roaders, who congregate on nearby Jean Dry Lake, and the vehicles constantly eat away at the desert landscape.

"When they get out a race-course map, it looks like a bloodshot eyeball. It’s all over the place," says Baird. "And each time they do a race, the course gets wider."

So when activist Jeremy Garncarz approached Baird about signing on to a proposal to protect the South McCulloughs, "I said, ‘Hell yeah!’ At least then I’d have a safe haven for my cattle."

Baird and I talk for several hours, and spend another hour and a half chasing two of his corrientes that have wandered through an open gate. (We try first on foot, but the skittish bulls outrun us, forcing Cal and me to pile back into the truck. "This ain’t my style of cowboying, but … " Baird mutters as he shifts into low gear.)

As the setting sun turns the South McCulloughs the color of battered bronze, I ask Baird if he’s had any second thoughts about the wilderness designations. He pauses to think, and says: "For me, there’s no reason for this not to be wild." But Baird may not be here much longer. Clark County will soon buy the southern third of his grazing allotment for the Ivanpah airport; now he’s looking for land in Arizona.

Even with the wilderness, says Baird, ranching "just doesn’t work out here in this country. There’s too much development, and people just won’t let the cattle alone."

High Country News Classifieds