The Nature Conservancy demonstrates that grazing can help achieve environmental goals.

In 1993, Bob Budd made an interesting career move. He left his post as executive director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association to manage the Red Canyon Ranch in the shadow of Wyoming's Wind River Range.

Giving up a desk job for the opportunity to manage a herd of 800 cattle on a 35,000-acre sagebrush steppe might not seem that strange. Budd's new employer, however, was The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

A million-member group dedicated to “saving the last great places,” TNC is the kind of neighbor many ranchers fear. Highly publicized, multi-million-dollar land deals put landowners on edge. And, an army of interns and hydrologists, range scientists and ecologists can look like trouble.

The organization's conservationist leaning and large staff, however, could make it an important ally in the grazing debate. TNC still believes cattle should be excluded from areas it deems susceptible to damage from grazing, but cattlemen like Budd are demonstrating the importance of livestock, even on sensitive land — or, in some cases, especially on sensitive land.

“The theory we work from is that grazing is something that can be beneficial — or actually essential — to the long-term functioning of the ecosystem,” Budd says.

Grazing cattle replace vast herds of elk, wild sheep and bison that used to roam the area, he notes. They also thin out vegetation that used to be swept clean by fire.

“Disturbance is an important part of this ecosystem,” Budd notes. “These landscapes were established under a lot of confusion, a lot of change, a lot of dynamic tension. We want to maintain that.”

Wetlands, Ranch Lands

The world's largest owner of private nature sanctuaries, TNC develops its livestock management plans based on close observation of local conditions.

Craig Bienz, an ecologist who grew up on a Michigan beef and row crops operation, manages TNC's Sycan Marsh Preserve above Oregon's Klamath Basin. Bienz's mission is to sustain the extraordinary habitat value of the 30,000 acres of wetlands and surrounding woods that are home to unique wetland plant communities, redband trout and the threatened bull trout.

But, the ranch also supports 10,000 animal unit months (AUMs) and an aggressive grazing program. “Raising calves is as much a part of the process as raising fish,” he says.

“They're really good at what they're trying to accomplish,” says Gary Nolan, who spent five years managing the ZX Ranch herd that grazes Sycan Marsh on TNC lease.

Nolan says he respects Bienz's knowledge, his track record of considering grazing challenges and opportunities, and his willingness to manage marsh floodwaters to give ZX's cattle dry areas to rest. But, he recognizes that TNC and the ZX have different priorities.

When Nolan looks at grazed pastures at Sycan, he sees leftover forage. When TNC looks at the land, it sees plant communities it has sworn to protect.

Bienz points out that grazing on Sycan Marsh is a constant learning experience, blending experimentation in conservation with the terms of a 40-year contract with ZX Ranch. Stocking rates on the preserve have fluctuated from 5,000 to 17,000 AUMs and will probably continue to do so as TNC seeks optimum grazing levels to accomplish its habitat goals.

“We'd like to increase the amount of productivity per acre based on what we've learned in those pastures,” Bienz says. “We think some of those pastures can produce more. But health and productivity also relate to other species that require the vegetation, like nesting waterfowl and big game.”

They also relate to fish. Last year, Bienz hosted a group of local visitors beside a creek to demonstrate a radio-transmitter tagging program TNC is conducting with redband trout. He pointed out that the creek — also home to threatened bull trout — runs through a healthy pasture that had recently been grazed.

“We're showing people that by changing the timing and duration of livestock grazing, we can meet both grazing needs and environmental criteria,” he notes.

Look Over the Fence

Tagging fish with radiotransmitters that signal location and water temperature is pretty costly. That's just the reason ranchers could benefit from peeking over the fence at TNC projects.

Bienz's team continuously monitors stream temperature with tiny dataloggers called Hobos, and they back that up with periodic flow measurements and the radiotransmitter project. Some of the results are surprising.

“The fish are showing us there are cooler places in the river than we see from our Hobos,” he says. In a region where pitched battles over riparian grazing and in-stream water temperature are fought daily, that's an important piece of information — especially from a credible group like TNC.

In Wyoming, Budd points out that TNC designed its cow/calf operation to blend with other local operations, so information can flow across the fence.

“We didn't want to end up marketing a product that was different from what the neighbors sell,” he says. “We work in the same basic context and try a few things. If somebody wants to try some of them, we could probably show them how.”

Key Lessons

The intensely managed Red Canyon Ranch stocks more heavily than is traditional in the area. Budd aims for 1,100-lb. cows to encourage mobility.

The cattle are moved every 15-20 days, though some larger pastures can support up to 45 days in the spring. A rider moving up the creek at watering time scatters the cattle away from the bottoms, he says. Most of the rest of the driving is calm and steady, more a matter of showing the cattle where the good pasture is.

Budd explains that areas are grazed at different times of year each season and chewed down to levels appropriate for the time of year. Cattle on a springtime pasture can eat up to 80% of the browse, he says, while late summer grazing might be kept to 30% to allow the plants to go into the winter with less stress. Rest — at least once every eight years — is another critical part of the range management program.

There Is Common Ground

Perhaps the biggest lesson lies in the idea that one of the nation's top conservation groups is in the cattle business and is learning how to make it work.

“I think there's membership in The Nature Conservancy that absolutely hates livestock,” notes Nolan. “But it doesn't have to be livestock versus them. This is living proof that the two can coexist. I think there's mutual ground if you remain open-minded.”

Bienz sums up his philosophy. “We can manage all our natural resource issues in a manner that sustains the viability of native species and meets the economic needs of sustainable agriculture, and we can demonstrate that,” he says. “We're trying to make sure that people can continue with their grazing programs and still be financially solvent.”

Steve Werblow is a freelance agricultural writer based in Ashland, OR.


Range And Marsh Lessons

Managers of The Nature Conservancy's ranches at Sycan Marsh, OR, and Red Canyon Ranch, WY, are exploring tactics that combine habitat conservation and sustainable ranching. Some of the basic tenets include:

  • Consider the resources and resource needs of each pasture. Know what grows there, when it grows and when it needs to rest. Consider what wildlife use the area. Seek outside help, if necessary, to figure out how you can meet environmental and livestock goals.

  • Don't graze a pasture at the same time of year two seasons in a row.

  • Graze a pasture to the desired level, then urge the cattle to the next site.

  • Keep cattle from lounging in the creek after watering. Try riding up the creek just before the cows settle down.

  • Use multiple sources of water, or salt blocks placed away from creeks or ponds to lure cattle away from riparian areas.


Cattle And Orchids

Rancher Bob Budd of Red Canyon Ranch in Lander, WY, manages 800 cattle on a spread that is the last home of Barnaby's clover and habitat for several other rare plants.

It sounds like every rancher's nightmare — but Budd and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) are finding that grazing actually aids the species.

“With bladderpods and phloxes, grazing can help because it opens them up to light,” he notes. “And Barnaby's clover is not affected by grazing as far as we can tell. Its greatest threat is roads and houses.”

TNC learned an important lesson about endangered species when it fenced off one of the last four populations of the Canelo Hills ladies' tresses orchid on an Arizona ranch in the 1970s. Protected from grazing cattle, spikerush flourished and choked out all but one of the orchid plants.

TNC land managers burned the meadow, beating back the spikerush and saving the orchids.

They also learned that the cow may be less of a threat — and more of a habitat enhancement tool — than they originally suspected.


An Easement Is An Easement

Dozens of organizations like The Nature Conservancy fund and steward conservation easements. Critics of such arrangements call them shams for government land ownership. They say it’s a conspiracy between governments that make conservation easements possible and environmental groups that purchase or sponsor them.

There are some observers, however, who offer assessments a bit more pragmatic.

“Legally speaking, a conservation easement is a servitude imposed as a burden on the land,” says Ray Hunkins, a lawyer and rancher from Wheatland, WY. “And, they are as varied as the land itself.”

The key is in how the easement is written. Like any good business arrangement, you should know what you are signing and who’s represented on the other side, says rancher Don Heitschmidt, Forgan, OK.

Heitschmidt has signed a lot of easements — mostly for oil and gas rights-of-way. But he says an easement is an easement and can encumber the land and its owners for perpetuity.

“There’s no way I’d ever sign a conservation easement that would jeopardize my private ownership and my ability to manage my land,” explains Heitschmidt.

Conservation easements can be narrow or broad, general or specific. “But they all provide for and create a ‘dominate estate’ to which the land and its use is subservient,” adds Hunkins.

“They all have their limitations,”says Fagan. “You have to know what you are getting and what you are giving up — and you better darn well know who you’re dealing with.”

Hunkins echoes this caution.

“There is no substitute for careful review of the document creating the easement,”he says. “It’s essential to understand the terms of the easement so that you understand the normal usage rights which have been affected by the easement.”

— By Clint Peck