Grazing buyouts help land and ranchers

  • Paul Larmer

 

It’s springtime in the Rockies, which means blizzards, blooming fruit orchards, and lots of baby bovines in the valley-bottom pastures.

A month ago, the calves were small, dark lumps deposited on dun-colored fields; today, they are energetic youngsters, chasing each other across green grass in free-for-all games of tag. In a matter of weeks, most of the cow-calf pairs will head to the public lands, where they will fatten up on mountain grasses and streamside browse.

The migration of livestock from valley pastures to mountain meadows, from private lands to public, and back again, has been a tradition in the West for more than a century. It’s hard to imagine the day could come when this rhythm ceases.

Yet, as this issue’s cover story tells, more and more people are imagining that day, and in some cases bringing it closer. Difficult economics and increasing conflicts with other public-lands users — off-roaders, mountain bikers, hikers and the like — have convinced a small but growing number of ranchers to give up their public-land grazing permits for a one-time buyout check.

Whether this trickle of buyouts ever turns into a larger flood depends largely on the availability of money. For now, don’t look to the federal government. The prospects of getting this Congress and president to approve broad legislation funding buyouts are dimmer than dim. Site-specific bills — such as the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, which authorizes the buyout of grazing permits held by a handful of Idaho ranchers — are more likely to pass.

The ranchers’ best hope for getting a "golden saddle" lies in the growing number of conservation groups and their private funders who want to see fewer cattle on the range. Despite the misgivings of the ranching associations, ranchers should feel free to take this money. It gives them options. They can reinvest in their livestock operations by purchasing private land, or they can start up new businesses that make more sense in the rapidly evolving economy. In either case, the rural West benefits.

And so does the land. Buyouts are a tool that can restore ecosystems grazed too hard for too long. And they can relieve the pressure on wild species that are highly valued by society, yet can’t survive in the presence of cows. There is no reason why ranchers struggling to make a go of it in prime grizzly habitat, or in the path of bison migrating out of Yellowstone National Park, or along a desert stream that provides critical habitat for endangered songbirds, shouldn’t be given a generous check to permanently move their cows to greener pastures.

Decades from now, we will look back at this period of buyouts as an important and necessary step in the evolution of public-lands management.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...