Is it time to consider a new cowboy for the 21st Century?
Is this the moment for ranchers and conservationists to seek a new direction?
The Society of Range Management is commemorating a century of their science, which like forestry and other early conservation studies was devoted to maximizing resources for human use. Western rangelands then were suitable for only raising livestock.
The best science, a term we love today, in the terms of range, was the classification of rangelands based on livestock carrying capacities, amount and type of forage available, and climatic and other conditions that affect their value to ranchers.
Rangelands are no longer viewed only as a source of livestock feed. Other ecological services, wildlife, water, biodiversity, renewable energy and open space even carbon sequestration are now valued.
If range management is changing maybe ranching can change to. Maybe it’s time to turn ranchers into rangers.
Increasingly, range managers are seeking to manage for resilience at a time of rapid changes from global warming, invasive species and development. Unfortunately, on public land, these new imperatives run into a grazing permit system developed in the 1930s, new legal challenges based on the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act and changing economics that favor neither the public nor the 27,000 ranchers whose wealth and credit is tied to the federal rangeland.
Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, House Republicans and a few Democrats think extending the terms for grazing permits from 10 to 20 years is the answer. Some environmentalists like Jon Marvel think buying out grazing permits is the answer.
Imagine if the permits were changed to meet the tougher new guidelines and standards that many range managers believe are necessary, especially with more drought and hot temperatures reducing productivity. But in exchange, ranchers were given credits or even payments for ecological services they provide including monitoring, fire fighting, stream restoration, game protection and even fuel reduction.
You might see more ranchers running a herd of goats because they are more effective for mowing down cheatgrass. And some cattle ranchers may shift from cow and calf operations to yearlings in some areas to make it easier to regulate their numbers up and down as conditions dictate.
Financial institutions and universities would need to be involved in reworking these permits so they meet the needs of the public and the ranchers. I’ve seen ranchers dramatically improve fish and wildlife habitat on their own lands in part because they benefit directly through payments from hunters and anglers.
Many do it just because it’s the right thing to do, the cowboy way if you will. The 21st Century public lands rancher can take the on the role of the ranger, remain free but still tied to the land like the men and women who rode it before them.