Drought cuts to the bone on Southwest range

  • Gila National Forest

    Diane Sylvain
  • Slim pickings on the Cold-Hot Springs Allotment

    Michael P. Berman
  • Gerry Engel, Forest Service District Ranger

    Michael P. Berman

RESERVE, N.M. - To hear Ed Werheim tell it, 1993 was a lifetime ago. That's when he took out a mortgage on a ranch in the mountains of southern New Mexico. The range was wet, cattle prices were high and the 57-year-old cabinet maker was looking forward to running cattle on the Gila National Forest with his wife, Barbara.

The Werheims moved up from Texas, and, from the Forest Service's point of view, proceeded to do everything right. When the agency suggested they cut the number of cattle on the 36,000-acre allotment from 250 to 125 to conserve the range, they readily agreed. When a forest fire raged across half of the allotment last year, they kept the cattle off the regenerating grass.

But larger forces were afoot. Beef prices started dropping in 1994 in response to an oversupply. The rains came unseasonably late that year, then stayed well below average until a couple of weeks ago. Werheim's cattle ate the grass near the creeks, and the distance between food and water widened. He's lost six cows to the drought, and cut his herd significantly again.

"I'm an optimistic person, but I don't feel optimistic about this situation," says Werheim. "I'm 60 years old. If we're just started on this (drought) we're going to just be devastated; the forest and the game and everything else. If it's a seven-year drought cycle, I don't think we could stick it out."

July and August are the Southwest's rainiest months, and the range generally looks its worst in June. Late last month, the Gila National Forest ran true to form: the ground was bare and the stories were chilling. There's the Arizona businessman who stocked his allotment to its full legal level last winter despite warnings that there wouldn't be enough forage on the ground to feed them. By the time a neighbor called attention to the situation in May, more than 30 cows were dead. There's the open, park-like allotment high in the ponderosas where bony cattle stagger between expensive range improvement projects. Even away from the steep, erodible slopes of the Gila, which is home to some of the West's most bitter ranching controversies (HCN, 6/24/96), the drought has been relentless.

The region's weather is highly localized - one valley may get deluged while the next one over bakes in the sun - and some New Mexicans say the drought has been around for as long as five years. Others point out that 1984-1993 was the wettest decade in the last century, so even normal weather would seem bone-dry in comparison. The National Weather Service says the drought started in Mexico in 1992, spread to southeastern New Mexico in 1994, and came north in the last year or so. It now covers most of southern California, southern Nevada, all of Arizona, half of Utah, most of Colorado and almost all of Texas and Oklahoma, according to the Service's Charlie Liles.

New Mexico State University range scientist Jerry Holechek says extended, four- to six-year droughts hit New Mexico every 40 years or so, with the last one hitting in the 1950s: "Based on climatic history, this could well be the beginning, not the end," he says. "And the ranchers seem to think it's the end."

"We've got some real problems," says Arizona State University riparian expert Bob Ohmart, who visited the Gila in late June. "I think when we start to see pictures of cows starving to death on the range the public's going to be incensed at the way it's been managed."

Critics say it isn't drought, but persistent overuse, that has damaged the range. "This is part of the West's normal wet/dry cycle," says Susan Schock, director of the Silver City-based watchdog group, Gila Watch. "We have to expect this kind of climate variation. It's hitting hard because the forest is overstocked and severely degraded from more than a century of overgrazing."

Range scientists and land managers can look at a piece of dry range and come to entirely different conclusions. Last month, a busload of them bumped up a dirt road near Reserve, disembarked to inspect the mosaic of blue grama grass stubble and bare dirt on the ground, and held forth:

"This isn't poor ranch management; it's that Mother Nature isn't cooperating," said Roger Delgado of the Forest Service.

"It's very heavily grazed," said independent range scientist Dee Galt.

And Arizona State's Ohmart called it "highly degraded. I'd put it right at destructive ... I see too many places where the water would take soil with it. I want to see grass leaves and stems that aren't tied up in a cowpie. I'd like to strap the permittee at the bottom of this wash when we have a flood event and let him take a beating."

Ranchers had removed about half of the Gila's 32,000 cattle by early July, almost entirely voluntarily. This left what was probably the lowest number of cattle in the forest's history, according to Forest Service range conservationist Chuck Sundt. Observers attributed the fact that there were still 16,000 or 17,000 cattle on the range in part to human nature: As cattle lose weight and drought continues, ranchers - not to mention range managers and scientists - find themselves on a knife-edge of doubt: What if they sell now, and then it rains?

Human nature also leads ranchers to set themselves up for disaster by overstocking during the wet cycle. "After a run of good years, there's a tendency to forget what can happen," says Holechek. And newcomers tend to be more vulnerable to drought than old-timers. About a third of the 24 ranchers on the Reserve District weren't around for the last dry cycle in the 1970s. With inflated real estate prices and a volatile beef market, public-lands ranching is not considered a profitable investment, especially if the rancher involved has mortgage payments.

"I think you'd have better odds in Las Vegas," says a New Mexico banker who lends money to ranchers. "When you get a guy who's been in ranching 65 years, he's seen it all. You can imagine how devastating (this drought) could be to someone who thinks ranching would be a good lifestyle."

Gerry Engel, the Gila National Forest District Ranger in Silver City, is woefully familiar with the perils of ranching in an area that's prone to drought. One of the ranchers on his district is Roy Walker, an Arizona businessman he considers "a hard guy to discourage." When Walker started ranching a hilly area called the Cold-Hot Springs Allotment last winter, "we said we'd have difficulties managing it," says Engel. But Walker wanted to go with the full permitted number - 265 cattle. "We'd had some rain in the 1995 rainy season; the grass crop didn't look that bad," says Engel. "He decided he wanted to stock up."

By May, at least 30 cows had died. In a report, Holechek attributed the deaths to "almost complete lack of non-poisonous forage," and called the situation a "complete management failure."

Engel says he didn't think the problems would develop on the Walkers' allotment as quickly as they did. He and his range staff were embroiled in a far worse situation: After three years of urging, another rancher still hadn't gotten his cattle out of the badly degraded Gila River. Engel finally ordered all of those cattle removed.

As for the Cold-Hot Springs Allotment, Engel considers its conditions "below average," but by no means the worst on the forest. If conditions don't improve, he says he'll instruct Walker to reduce his cattle numbers.

Engel, like other Forest Service workers, walks a fine line. On one hand, he works for the federal government near the eye of the anti-federal hurricane - Catron County, the birthplace of the counties movement, is the next county over. It's home to Kit and Sherry Laney, who have left 700 cattle on the range since March in open defiance of a Forest Service order to remove them. On the other hand, he is subjected to steady criticism from environmentalists: "When a ranger has to be told by neighbors that cows are dropping dead and he still doesn't take action it doesn't instill a lot of confidence," says Schock.

Asked if he'd take the Walker ranch if it were given to him, Engel paused. Then he said, "If you told me you'd give me this ranch, but I couldn't have any other source of income, I wouldn't take it."

He isn't alone.

"You'd have to chase me to give me a forest allotment," said one BLM rancher. "They don't produce anything."

Can rain cure a drought?

In late June, it started to rain. It rained so hard between Deming and Silver City that traffic slowed, crawled, and finally stopped on the shoulder. It rained so hard in Glenwood that toads hopped among the parked cars, house cats trotting behind them.

"June wasn't such a dry month after all," the Silver City newspaper announced, noting that a total of 2.31 inches fell at the Albuquerque International Airport - 1.75 inches more than average. The Cattleman's Livestock Auction outside the town of Belen filled slowly with livestock under cloudy skies. Farther north, the washes under the highway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe ran fast and red and muddy.

By mid-July, Engel reported it was raining "like a son-of-a-gun; we're starting to worry about floods." But Liles of the National Weather Service pointed out that rain doesn't mean the absence of drought: "I wouldn't want to say that the drought is over anywhere," he said. "It's not unusual to get some heavy rainfall, rainy periods during droughts. You have to get past the drought to look back and really see if it has ended."

And it remains to be seen whether the rain will help the range or simply wash away the topsoil. "We've probably lost about half our perennial grasses," says Chuck Oliver, a Forest Service range conservationist based in Reserve. Writes Holechek: "If the drought persists through the summer of 1996 ... this could reduce long-term grazing capacity to 50-60 percent of predrought levels."

Engel says the Forest Service could react to this possibility by allowing fewer cows on the range. "If we don't feel (the range) can accommodate what they want, we can cut the numbers," he says. "We need the data to do it, but we can do it." Reserve District Ranger Mike Gardner agrees: "Unless something's changed in the law, I'll protect the forest. That's not a threat or anything. That's just doing my job." But with Republican Sen. Pete Domenici's current attempt to strengthen the ranchers' position with a new grazing bill - not to mention the precedent set by the Laneys - it's unclear what will happen.

Schock is not optimistic. Gila Watch and the Albuquerque-based Public Lands Action Network are calling for the resignation of Gila Forest Supervisor Abel Camarena for his agency's "negligence." Schock sees this year's problems as part of the steady degradation of the area that's occurred since Anglo settlement.

"I don't see cows being taken off preventively," she says. "The ranchers here overgrazed even during the wet cycle. The train wreck is happening right now that forest mismanagement has set up, and what we're seeing is even more pushes for legislative solutions. We're not seeing people being told, 'You've gotta bite the bullets and take your losses.' "

Lisa Jones is project writer at High Country News.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- The art of control

- Droughts come, droughts go

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