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
 

GLENWOOD, NEW MEXICO

About 200 cattle graze the 28,000 acres of Alan Tackman's postcard-pretty ranch. Most of its grasslands and rocky crags lie within the Gila National Forest, and Tackman often rides his horse through the two grazing allotments he leases from the U.S. Forest Service, checking on his cattle and enjoying the view.

"It's steep, rough country," says Tackman, a burly, genial man with white hair. "I think it's beautiful, but I may be biased."

Every now and then, a calf or cow comes up missing. Harsh weather, injury or mountain lions are the usual suspects, but for the past 15 years, there has been a new one: Mexican gray wolves, reintroduced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1998. Tackman says that over the years three different packs have taken up residence on one of his allotments, and the number of surviving calves there is half that of the wolf-free allotment he leases.

"The only difference is the wolves," says Tackman, who estimates he has lost $20,000 worth of livestock – mostly calves – to the predator. "Wolves and cattle cannot co-exist."

As in other parts of the rural West, the combination of bovines and wild canines has stirred a long-simmering conflict here, deepening antipathy among ranchers, environmentalists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and impeding the Mexican wolf's recovery in its historic U.S. range. Only 83 or so wolves roam the greater Gila ecosystem – a vast tumble of mountains, canyons and forests in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona that is largely publicly owned – yet their mere existence has provoked a fierce reaction. Some ranchers and conservative county commissioners periodically demand that the federal wolf program be scrapped, warning that wolves will attack pets and children as well as livestock  (though there are no confirmed reports of Mexican wolves attacking humans). Opponents have filed several lawsuits, and more than a few wolves have been illegally shot.

Meanwhile, environmentalists, who consider the Gila the "Yellowstone of the Southwest," have used federal law to force land and wildlife agencies to better protect wolves and reduce cattle grazing. So you wouldn't expect to see Tackman sitting with environmentalist Bryan Bird in the Adobe Café in the tiny town of Reserve, N.M., on a crystalline blue-sky October day. Even more surprising, the two were openly discussing a possible deal that could aid both wolves and ranchers – and perhaps help temper the region's polarized political atmosphere.

The terms of the deal are straightforward: In exchange for giving up his federal permit to graze cattle on 25,000 acres of prime wolf habitat, Tackman will receive several hundred thousand dollars from Bird's group. (Neither party would disclose the exact amount.) Tackman is ready: "I love ranching, but I can't make a living here," he says. "I just have a permit that's rough (country) and full of wolves. At this point, I just want out."

Bird tells Tackman that there is a slight delay in getting the money together; some of the funders are hesitating because they don't trust the Forest Service to permanently retire Tackman's allotment. But rest assured, he says, WildEarth Guardians, based in Santa Fe, 270 miles northeast of here, is lining up congressional support for a bill authorizing permanent retirements in the Gila. Even before it passes, it will give donors the confidence to write checks.

As Tackman leaves the wood-paneled café, he warns Bird: "If this is not done by the first of the year, I'm done."

Bird replies: "It's gonna get done."

If only it were that simple.

WildEarth Guardians is hardly the first environmental group to dangle cash in front of ranchers. About a decade ago, activists launched the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign, an ambitious effort to boot cattle off millions of acres across the West. But they failed to convince Congress to pass across-the-board legislation authorizing buyouts. Greater success has come at the local level, in places like Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the national forests surrounding Yellowstone National Park. The National Wildlife Federation has probably been the most successful, making deals to clear livestock from more than half a million acres in the Yellowstone region, in part to protect habitat for the northern gray wolf, the Mexican wolf's larger, more ashen-hued cousin.

But, though the Gila is as wild and rugged as Yellowstone – and even more ecologically diverse, with desert grasslands giving way to ponderosa forests and spruce-thick mountaintops – it differs in many ways. For one thing, the Yellowstone bioregion is anchored by a huge and iconic national park, where livestock are verboten. The Gila, however, is managed almost entirely by the Forest Service. Its wild core consists of three wilderness areas, which are grazed by more than 60,000 cattle, domestic sheep and goats. Furthermore, ranchers in the Northern Rockies only graze livestock during the summer, while most Gila ranchers run cattle year-round.

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