Dance with a cow, and the cow will lead

  • Cowboy with a herd of cows

    Steve Collector

In 1985, in mid-career, I went back to college. I wanted to be a range conservationist. At the time, I thought I was the only student who wanted to study range management so I could later have an excuse to chase cows on government time. Silly me. Even at granola-crunching, holistically groovy Humboldt State in Arcata, Calif., the range kids were in love with horses and cows.

During one spring break, I learned that this ambition knows no age limit when I sat in on an annual meeting of "permittees" - people who graze cows or sheep on the national forest. The keynote speaker grinned down at his audience: "I became a range conservationist because I really wanted to be a rancher, and since I couldn't buy into it or marry into it, this seemed like the next best thing." The ranchers chuckled politely. I gaped at him over my steak. I'll be dipped, I thought. He's a romantic, too.

A few years later, after my husband and I had moved to a small Idaho town, the local ranger district welcomed a new district ranger. I wasn't surprised to see him alight in full cowboy regalia from a pickup truck towing a horse trailer, with a degree in range management and quite a few years of range experience under his large silver belt buckle. I was a little startled to learn that he held grazing permits on both national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands. No one else I spoke to seemed conscious of any irony or possible conflict of interest. I mentioned it to the forest supervisor one day and was treated to the silent stare usually reserved for people who break wind in good restaurants.

Well, of course, stupid, I rebuked myself. He hired the man, after all. He must have known.

Incestuous relationships between commodity interests and federal employees are nothing new. It's almost inevitable in small Western communities where members of logging and ranching families work for federal agencies. They measure the grass, mark the timber, grade the roads, maintain the trails, keep the trucks running and fill out the forms. They know where the bodies are buried and who isn't speaking to whom, and why. But they don't make the decisions.

The upper ranks of line officers, who do, are still dominated by foresters and range cons. Although private company foresters and Forest Service foresters may stand around at the Christmas party talking about timber sales, they don't go out and log together on weekends.

Range people have a harder time keeping their jobs separate from their hobbies. On summer evenings, some can be seen tossing a loop in the roping arena beside the same rancher whose cattle were in the wrong allotment yesterday. They buy and sell cattle and horses with the people they are assigned to regulate. They dress like cowboys, walk like cowboys, and talk like cowboys. They believe that the grasses of the West should be eaten by cows.

People whose sympathies are with the plants tend to become botanists.

The first range-management plan I wrote was for an allotment held by a permittee whom I had known 20 years. He had worked with my father and I had gone to school with his kids. I flattered myself that the plan would improve conditions on some alpine meadows at the crest of the Siskiyou Mountains on California's northern border. But I had a definite sentimental interest in keeping alive his family's tradition of grazing cattle in the high country. Excluding cattle from even the most fragile portions of the allotment never crossed my mind. I ignored the concerns of the district's wildlife biologist about black bear habitat.

One day I saw an anti-cow diatribe by writer Edward Abbey tacked to a bulletin board in the district office. I stopped to read it. Soon I was literally shaking with anger. Abbey would be content, it appeared, with nothing less than the removal of all cattle from the public lands.

Who was Abbey to tell ranchers they shouldn't be doing what they had done for a hundred years? More to the point, who was Abbey to tell me that the greatest joy of my life - looking for cattle in the mountains on the back of a good horse - was wrong? I fumed for days.

Abbey seemed like a direct threat to my way of life. I had carved out a niche among a few of the small ranchers in the Siskiyous. I hadn't married it or inherited it: I had earned it. My time and the sweat, hide and shoes of my horses spent rounding up cattle in mountain meadows had bought me entry into the cattle culture. Who was Abbey to threaten something so harmless, so enjoyable?

Eventually, my search for full-time range work took me out of California to the Southwest and Great Basin, where I saw at last what Abbey meant. All the wishing in the world won't make 8 inches of precipitation a year in these high, cold deserts equal the 50 inches that fall on the Siskiyous. Yet the Great American Desert is more heavily stocked, its soils more trampled, its riparian species more threatened.

While I was slowly, painfully, learning this, one of my grandmother's sayings began replaying in my mind. "You dance with them what brung you," she used to say. So when the cow culture brings range cons into the field, they inevitably follow the culture's agenda and not the agenda of the soil, or the water, or the wildlife.

If you try to dance with a cow, the cow will lead, even when you no longer want to follow.

Louise Wagenknecht writes and ranches in Leadore, Idaho.

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