Can a grazing buyout program ease life for wolves and ranchers?

A fledgling effort in New Mexico's 'Yellowstone of the South.'

  • John Horning, far left, and Bryan Bird study greater Gila bioregion land ownership maps at the WildEarth Guardians office in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The maps identify land leased by "wolf-friendly ranchers" as well as areas the group has targeted for permit retirement.

    Katharine Egli
  • Anti-wolf sentiment is still strong in parts of New Mexico, but some ranchers now see the value of working with environmentalists.

    Jay Hemphill
  • A protective cage at a school bus stop in Catron County, New Mexico, where anti-wolf sentiment – and rhetoric – runs strong.

    Jay Hemphill
  • A Mexican gray wolf in the Gila borderlands of New Mexico and Arizona.

    Mexican Wolf Interagency Field team photo courtesy USFWS
  • Tending cattle in Mexican wolf country, at the X Diamond Ranch on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, in the far northern part of the greater Gila bioregion.

    Wink Crigler, courtesy USDA
  • Terry Reidhead, at work in his lumber mill near Alpine, Arizona, says he hasn't turned a profit on his Escudilla allotment since the 1990s.

    Jay Hemphill
  • Buzz Easterling says there were Mexican wolves on the place when he bought it in the 1940s, before they were extirpated. Now he's hoping they'll come back.

    Jay Hemphill
  • Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest ranger Rick Davalos wants grass banks, rather than outright retirement of grazing leases.

    Jay Hemphill
  • Alan Tackman, on the range in the Gila National Forest, is first in line for a WildEarth Guardians grazing lease buyout. But the deal is still not done.

    Terri Tackman

Page 3

"It's very rare that you get local people buying," says Tackman, who grew up in Washington, D.C., before moving out West to work for the Forest Service, tend the family ranch and earn a law degree from the University of New Mexico. "It's mostly out-of-state people with money."

"This place is changing really rapidly, culturally and economically," adds Bird. "Land and permits are changing hands fast. The window of opportunity has never been more open."

That worries Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association. Though she says her group will not interfere with deals like Tackman's – Cowan sees buyouts as a private-property matter – it does not support permanent permit retirements and opposes the buyout bill WildEarth Guardians is pushing Congress to pass.

"If you don't have something out there grazing, keeping down fine fuels, you're just going to see more fuels contribute to the fires we've seen in the past few years. And the buyouts would accelerate that," Cowan says. "If the federal government ever decides to fund these things, we're looking at a critical impact West-wide."

Bird and Horning face plenty of hurdles beyond the ranching community, including the Forest Service itself, which sets many of its grazing policies at the local level and traditionally has been reluctant to permanently retire allotments. The Forest Service ranger overseeing Tackman's allotments approved the retirement of his grazing permit but refused to make it cattle-free forever. Retired allotments can be reopened whenever forest management plans are revised, which happens every decade or so. Only an act of Congress can permanently retire an allotment.

On the neighboring Alpine district in Arizona, ranger Rick Davalos has declined to sign off on WildEarth Guardians' proposed deal with another rancher, Terry Reidhead, even though Reidhead no longer runs cattle on Escudilla Mountain and says he hasn't turned a profit on the allotment since 1999 due to drought and competition with elk. "The direction that I would like to go in is not necessarily retiring allotments," says Davalos, "but making these allotments available as grass banks, which would give us more flexibility in managing the national forest."

Davalos says grass banks – unleased areas that could be used in an emergency – would give ranchers a place to move their cattle when wolves are on their allotments, or when drought or wildfires reduce forage. (The 2011 Wallow Fire burned 538,000 acres in the Alpine area.) Bird sympathizes with the Forest Service's desire for flexibility, but says the grass banks idea is "like a crutch. It's like, OK, we know we have too many cows on the land, and we know we have wildfires, drought, and we're just going to move cows around to perpetuate this unsustainable industry in the area."

The relationship between the Forest Service and ranchers is complicated. Forest Service district rangers often have range-management backgrounds and understand what it takes to raise cattle. But they also work for the federal government, and ranchers often disagree with the rules they impose.

"While we strive for good relationships (with the Forest Service), we don't always have good relationships," says Cowan. "It's our belief that they don't always use science when they're making their decisions." WildEarth Guardians has often made the same claim, arguing that rangers sometimes overlook the ecological impacts of livestock to avoid flak from ranchers and local politicians.

The agency responsible for the wolf recovery effort – the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – is also curiously reluctant to support buyouts. "The Fish and Wildlife Service is focused on working with ranchers and other partners to implement measures that reduce wolf-livestock conflicts and to provide fair compensation for depredations," Mexican wolf recovery coordinator Sherry Barrett wrote in an email. "Allotment ownership and/or management is not an issue with which we are involved."

In 2011, the agency set up a "Mexican Wolf /Livestock Coexistence Council" made up of ranchers (including Tackman), environmentalists, tribes and county officials. The council compensates ranchers when wolves kill livestock and is developing a plan to provide incentives for ranchers who host wolves on their lands, Barrett said. The agency is also taking steps to strengthen the Mexican wolf program, proposing new rules that would allow wolves to roam a larger area (currently, wolves that wander outside what's known as the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, which encompasses all of Apache and Gila national forests, are captured and brought back to the area or moved to a holding facility) and permit captive-raised wolves to be released on both sides of the state line. Bird and Horning say they welcome these changes, which could be adopted sometime this year, but don't believe they will ease wolf-livestock conflicts.

The lack of federal support for permanent grazing retirement has made raising money for buyouts difficult. To reassure potential donors, WildEarth Guardians has worked with New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich to introduce a bill authorizing permanent buyouts in the Gila. Horning says the bill and the pending Tackman buyout are in a chicken-and-egg conundrum: Members of Congress would like to see a consummated deal before committing to authorizing legislation, and funders want to see the legislation in place before cutting a check.

But by Thanksgiving of 2013, the bill had passed a critical hurdle, gaining approval from a key committee. That helped Horning convince a foundation to write a check. Still, the group was about $100,000 short of Tackman's price. Tackman grew increasingly frustrated: "They're losing their credibility with the Forest Service, with ranchers, and they're going to lose their credibility with Heinrich and Udall if they don't get on the horse pretty soon," he said.

Bird was all too aware of the stakes: "I know if I didn't come through for the Tackmans, my name would be mud."

As the Gila endured an eerily snowless new year, Bird remained hopeful that the program he has poured five years of his life into would soon get over the hump, largely because of the relationships he has built. "The more I go down there and work with these people, the more I realize a couple of things," he said in January. "One is that we both love this landscape dearly. Sometimes they see things a little differently in how that landscape gets utilized, but they do love it. And the other is that we're both highly principled people."

Hank Fischer, who for more than a decade has spearheaded the National Wildlife Federation's grazing buyouts around Yellowstone National Park, knows the importance of finding the common ground well. He says his earlier work running Defenders of Wildlife's predator compensation program gave him credibility with ranchers.

"I think they knew we were trying to address the problems," Fischer says. "So I think they were more receptive to a buyout than they would have been otherwise."

His advice to Bird and Horning: Build relationships, one rancher at a time. "Since these are the first ones being done down there (in the Gila), it will take some time to get that acceptance."

Undoubtedly, WildEarth Guardians' long history of tussling with ranchers and the Forest Service puts it at a disadvantage. But Horning hopes that his group's unabashed activism will eventually win some grudging respect. "We don't soft-pedal our biocentrism or our love of wolves or even our disdain for ranching," he says. "But we're trying to offer them some concession that hopefully they feel will keep them whole. And I think that kind of candor and honesty is the foundation of a good relationship."

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