The fight this year in the Idaho Legislature over bighorn sheep demonstrated to me that Idaho and the West need a new vision for the future of public lands ranching in the state.
This session returned ranchers and lawmakers to “ghost-dancing,” a term I first heard from Luther Probst, of the Sonoran Institute in the early 1990s. It’s a play on the ghost dancing society among Indians in the late 1900s, which said that ghost dancing would make Indians invincible and drive the white men away.
Modern rancher ghost dancers think they can pass state laws and drive the environmentalists away. No need to change is necessary.
I have now covered the issue for a generation. I knew the old bulls who had the power to ignore the rising concerns over water quality and fish and wildlife habitat. I watched their sons and daughters take over amidst growing uncertainty over environmental regulation at the same time consolidation of beef and lamb markets reduced their economic options.
Some of them have adjusted very successfully, working collaboratively with environmentalists and others to meet the water and wildlife concerns. Still others have found ways to add value to their products by exploiting the growing “buy local” movement or green marketing their shifting practices like selling “predatory friendly wool.”
Still others added value to their operations by diversifying into dude ranching operations or selling access for hunters, anglers, hikers horsemen and cross country skiers. And others have loped off pieces of their land for real estate development, a practice most ranchers themselves consider an objectionable last resort.
The Western Watersheds Project and some other environmental groups’ vision for the future of public lands ranching is that it will end. They see few redeeming characteristics and believe eventually economics will solve their problem.
But ranchers have the continuing cultural ties that Americans have to cowboys working on their side. When public lands ranching opponents seek to kill the cowboy so to speak, they find a lot of push back, especially in western states among people who may never have even been on a ranch.
I visited a couple of weeks ago with the Idaho Conservation League’s Linn Kincannon, who has working public land grazing issues since the 1980s. She told me a supporter of the Idaho Conservation League proposed a new idea to keep ranchers riding the range - with a new mission.
Today, ranchers lease public lands, called allotments, for a small monthly fee and graze their sheep and cows on allotments across the west, she said.
“Ranchers often know every inch of their allotments and spend more time on them than the public or land managers do.,” Kincannon said. “Most have a love of the land they graze and value the freedom to roam.”
But after more than 100 years of grazing, many national forests and public lands have lost native plants that feed wildlife, streams have lost trees and bushes that shade the water for fish, and water quality has declined, she said. The supporter told her of a plan to improve conditions for the future, but keep ranchers in place to make the politics of change a little easier.
Instead of using the land for grazing, livestock would be removed and ranchers paid to restore lost values. Experts at the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management would help, and the rancher would retain the allotment, Kincannon explained.
The agencies would save money since they would no longer be planning and doing the environmental analysis for livestock grazing on the allotment. That money could be paid to the ranchers instead, to free them from uncertain weather and cattle markets.
Kincannon’s supporter’s idea is novel but I know that most ranchers would reject it outright. I doubt many would be willing to give up their herds though I’m sure they might be willing to dramatically reduce their grazing on public land if the incentives are good enough.
The fact is the ranch manager is already replacing the family rancher as the manager of hundreds of thousands of acres of ranchlands across the West already. Their absentee owners already want them to protect the blue ribbon trout streams that run through their private lands and the wildlife habitat that makes their ranch attractive.
Public land managers and policymakers can devise a new model for grazing allotments that would pay ranchers for essentially becoming rangers who patrol these lands and who create ecological services like land restoration and water quality improvement. I first heard this idea from Karl Hess Jr., a New Mexican who sought market solutions to environmental problems.
This approach wouldn’t have to mean removing cattle or even sheep.
In some areas grazing itself can provide ecological services by controlling invasive species and reducing fuels in heavily degraded areas that carry wildfires into important sagebrush steppe habitat.
What I like about the idea Kincannon brought me is that it doesn’t seek to eliminate or denigrate the ranching culture and lifestyle, only to modify it for a new age. This is a good time for ranchers and others to begin having this discussion built on the collaborative efforts that are growing up across the West.