Conservation in Cow Country: Guest Post by Toner Mitchell

Here’s a post by Toner Mitchell. I always like to share stories of people working together to solve problems rather than enemizing and castigating.  But who is working with recreationists to reduce their impact?  And, when is tolerance a good thing (e.g. seeing cows)? Here’s a link to this story on the TU website.

In New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains, TU and ranchers are working together to keep streams healthy and improve range productivity.

On our way to inspect his grazing allotment, Manuel Lucero and I pull over next to a tree where some campers have left their trash in a neat and organized pile of boxes and tied up plastic sacks.

Lucero notes this as a common occurrence after most summer weekends, especially on this one dirt road, perhaps the busiest thoroughfare connecting Albuquerque to its playgrounds in the Jemez Mountains.

“They actually believe they’re being responsible,” he says. “Someone else is supposed to pick up after them, and they’re trying to make it easy. Tonight, the bears will drag all this down to the creek, and the trash will eventually float into our ditches and fields.”

Manuel Lucero working on well to provide off-stream watering.

In the years I’ve known Manuel, I’ve never seen him without his black cowboy hat on. He takes guilty pleasure in watching the TV series “Yellowstone” and in dropping the occasional irreverent joke. As president of the San Diego Grazing Association, however, this rancher in his thirties is dead serious.

Manuel runs cattle on about 96,000 acres of the Santa Fe National Forest, and he embraces the responsibility of stewarding so much land.

Some of the land he grazes provides habitat for native Rio Grande cutthroat trout and several listed wildlife species, as well as water for small farming communities downstream. With these realities in mind, Trout Unlimited reached out to Manuel’s grazing association in 2015 to explore the possibility of simultaneously improving riparian habitat and range productivity.

Healthy riparian habitat means happy trout streams. And in the Jemez mountains, a recreational haven serving three of New Mexico’s largest cities, healthy riparian habitat increasingly means happy ranchers, who try to avoid conflict with other public land users when possible.

Since their partnership began, TU and the San Diego Grazing Association have joined forces on fence repairs and renovations of water lines and drinkers. We’ve shared expenses on a mobile corral, a water storage tank, and battery-powered chainsaws to clear fallen timber from fences during fire season.

Through these and other actions, this partnership has succeeded in distributing grazing pressure more evenly across the San Diego and neighboring Cebolla-San Antonio allotments.

Drinker drained by weekend campers and filled with trash; empty drinkers push cows to the creeks.

In 2021, we teamed up with the Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy on an effort to increase grazing efficiency and to discourage cows from loitering in riparian areas. The project, which included approximately $87,000.00 in funding from TNC’s Rio Grande Water Fund, entailed the drilling of two canyon-rim wells on the Cebolla-San Antonio allotment.

The wells will gravity-feed a network of drinking lines and enable the utilization of certain upland pastures with lots of clumpy tall grass. The grass in these pastures is decadent, a result of being left almost completely unbitten by elk and cattle.

With drinking capacity provided by the new wells, these under-used pastures will absorb more pressure (and manure), while enabling heavily grazed meadows to receive some rest.

Ten miles up the road, Manuel and I are parked at the upper end of a long meadow next to a fenced enclosure surrounding a locked well house with a sheet metal roof.

The well supplies drinking troughs across the Virgin, Stable, and Holiday mesas that rise above us to the south—it is essentially the nerve center of much of the San Diego allotment.

Having grazed for their allotted days, the cows have left the meadow for the mesa tops. From Memorial Day until school starts is the season of the weekender, when residents of Albuquerque seek relief from the urban heat and bustle.

Manuel points out thicker stands of forest where RVs can’t penetrate. The grass there has grown about a foot since being eaten. Elsewhere across the camping footprint, the only grass that grows is smashed into dusty ground.

“But if one cow shows up here this weekend, I’ll hear about it on Monday,” Lucero says. “I get it, campers don’t want to see cows, but cows don’t like people either. Cows are smart, but they’re also dumb. They’d rather be up top, but with people all over the mountain they get confused. Let’s be honest, people are everywhere.”

He’s not exaggerating. Scanning the sloping meadow, we see occupied, often illegal, campsites almost any place one can park a car; in ranching parlance, it’s quite a few “head” of people.

Manuel notes the irony in how, come evening, the whole canyon will smell like grilling beef and hot dogs and how the same people bashing his cows will leave their fire rings full of beer cans.

Already this summer, an RV owner broke the lock off the wellhouse and plugged into its power source; campers drained one of his troughs and used it as a trash bin; and on any given year, hikers will invariably bathe in the troughs, oblivious to the repellant effect soap and lotion have on thirsty cows and wildlife.

People cut fences to make way for ATVs. They do donuts in the pastures.

One fine individual used a Sawzall to cut a door in a water tank critical to minimizing cattle presence in riparian areas of the Rio Cebolla. Purchased jointly by TU and the San Diego Grazing Association, this tank was rendered into a suitable dwelling for the vandal and his small herd of goats, and useless for the purpose of watering cattle and wildlife.

Vandalized water tank paid for by TU and rancher partners. Functional watering systems help keep cows out of important riparian ecosystems.

As Manuel talks, I’m impressed by a patience seeping through his frustration, a seeming acceptance of adversity as a part of the ranching life that can drive one toward improvement.

Manuel, his father Mariano, brother Michael, and the members of the association all share common ancestors who settled in the Jemez country in the late 1700s. Back then, everyone was a rancher, a farmer, a hunter, a gatherer and, most important, a neighbor or friend to native Pueblo people already occupying the valley.

Back then the land was definitely public, but in an existential sense. Multiple use was not only a matter of cooperation, but of life and death.

As part of our commitment to protecting and restoring the Rio Grande cutthroat, itself a cultural icon, TU will continue building partnerships with ranchers and other stakeholders in the Rio Grande watershed. Honoring deep-rooted practices will be key to sustaining adaptive stewardship. As Manuel Lucero says, “Our people wouldn’t have lasted this long if we couldn’t find ways of understanding different ways of living.”

20 thoughts on “Conservation in Cow Country: Guest Post by Toner Mitchell”

  1. Yeah, no.

    The Jemez River is dry at its confluence with the Rio Grande right now.

    The Jemez Pueblo considers the nearly 140-square-mile Valles Caldera National Preserve a spiritual sanctuary and part of its traditional homeland. In 2019 lawyers presented oral histories as proof of its claim to the parcel but a federal district judge dismissed them under the so-called “hearsay rule” and an appeal is pending in the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

    Indigenous history in the caldera goes back at least 11,000 years and obsidian quarried there for projectile points is found throughout the region. The ancestors of the Jemez Pueblo or Walatowa migrated into the area in the late 13th Century after Mesa Verde was laid bare.

    The Gila National Forest on the New Mexico-Arizona border has had a problem with feral cattle for years after a grazing permittee went bankrupt then left his herd and the country in the 1970s so the Forest Service is shooting the invaders from helicopters and some 67 have been put down.

    • I don’t get your point, Larry. TU and the ranchers are working together. Is your point a land claims one (land should be given back to the folks who migrated in the 13th century, and the Spanish land grants were illegal) or based on ranching practices?

      Who is to say that if the land were returned to Tribes, they would not want to graze cattle?

      • Pre-European Indigenous cultures in the Jemez raised turkeys, beans, squash and maize. That cattle have been allowed into national forests and other public ground for pennies a head is a crime that needs to end.

        The Forest Service should be moved into Interior so it will be easier to repatriate and remand some public lands to tribes.

        • I think the cattle were there before they were National Forests, and it was part of the deal that they were not kicked out.
          What makes you think repatriation would be easier if the FS were in Interior? Wouldn’t the ease of repatriation depend on the legal status which goes with the land, not the housing of the agency?

          • The feds are shooting goats in the Tetons.

            Think of it as reverse incrementalism.

            Democracy is messy business. It takes political courage to just say no to domestic livestock on public lands, pass legislation that pays reparations and some through land repatriation but that’s a trait conspicuously absent in Congress right now.

            It’s really a pain to add my log in for each comment.

          • I doubt there was any legitimate “deal” made for future grazing.
            Here is the proclamation establishing the Gila National Forest in 1899:

            Grazing wasn’t mentioned in the Organic two years prior either, but here is what the first “assessment” of the Gila said about it:
            “Grazing, the most important of the industries of this region, requires careful attention and supervision to prevent the almost inevitable result-the total destruction of the grass roots by overstocking. This destruction acts disastrously in more than one way. In an area where the roots have been entirely trampled out, the springs, which at one time flowed continuously, are practically dry, while the flood waters, no longer retained and allowed to gradually seep off, rush away in a few moments. The grass is obviously as important to the lower lands as the timber is to the mountains.”

            (This article had me thinking about the idea, sometimes mocked here, that humans should be excluded from national forests.)

  2. Right or wrong, neighboring Jemez and Santa Clara pueblos graze cattle adjacent to SFNF and the Valles Caldera, or so I’ve been told by people on the ground. Tribes in NM and in neighboring states are also working hard to develop functional and adaptive cattle ranching systems. Regardless of how they cultivated food supplies in the distant past, they are doing it currently in the interest of food security. So it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine a repatriation scenario in which grazing (on the Valles Caldera) figured significantly. As for the Gila feral cattle situation, I’d take the “democracy in action” talk more seriously if helicopters were also deployed against feral animals with long and flowing tails whose teeth can bite grass down to the dirt.

  3. It is ironic indeed that in a country that exports more weapons of mass destruction than all others combined and relentlessly hunts nearly anything that moves, in parts of the Mountain West and even in bright red Wyoming Equus ferus is still seen as a pet.

    In an era when western states are scrambling to preserve habitat for bison, wapiti, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, deer, the threatened greater sage grouse and all the other wildlife at risk to the Republican Party how is running nurseries for introduced species like feral horses and burros either conservative or sustainable?

  4. It seems a great sign of success these days is to secure a socially acceptable white collar career (technology! administration! state or federal service!) then use that as a platform to rain down on the out of fashion industries of the lower and middle class (fisheries! forestry! ranching!). I sincerely hope we’ve got a lot of vegetarians on this blog, because if these ranching practices are objectionable to you I can guarantee you won’t like those practiced by the Brazilians. Or for that matter, Canadian forestry practices.

    • PS: The ranchers lost their lawsuit. Jarita Mesa Livestock Grazing Ass’n v. United States Forest Serv., 301 F. Supp. 3d 1010 (2017 Dist. NM).

  5. The leases being pioneered by Audubon and Trout Unlimited share the same ethos as this Indigenous worldview—an ecological approach to water management that emphasizes interdependence. They may be the first step toward a more expansive system. And if the concept is successful and expands to other parts of the state, it has the potential not only to aid New Mexico’s diverse ecosystems but also its human communities.

    It is a pain to enter log-in for every comment.

  6. ping.

    We’ve been lucky so far as smoke from the now 22,000+ acre Cerro Pelado Fire in the Jemez Mountains has yet to move into our space despite the most active portion of the wildfire is only about twenty miles from the ranch.

    The blaze is moving in burn scars from the 2019 Conejos Fire, the 2017 Cajete Fire, the 2013 Thompson Ridge Fire and the 2011 Las Conchas Fire. There are numerous slash piles along currently-closed NM4 in the higher elevations and places where low intensity fire has been recently introduced. The most visible portion from Red Rock Road is burning ponderosa pine (in an area called Ponderosa, no less) in steep terrain in the most western areas of the fire.

    Los Alamos National Laboratory is not being threatened at this time although many locations within LANL are experiencing smoke and nearby Bandelier National Monument is closed.

    Red flag conditions with strong winds and low relative humidities are testing resilience throughout the Santa Fe National Forest.

    Want to fix the Santa Fe National Forest? Ban cattle and reintroduce bison.

    • Larry: When you say the fire is currently burning in the scars from 2011, 2013, 2017 and 2019 fires — what are the fuels from those earlier events? Grasses, shrubs, snags, new plantations?

      There is a reason these older burns fuel newer fires, but some of those reasons can be managed if they are better known.

  7. Apparently, the State of New Mexico has only been keeping wildfire size statistics since 1990. The 2000 Cerro Grande was a prescribed fire that got away and the Cerro Pelado Fire is burning in some of that scar, too.

    Already in 2014 grasses in the Las Conchas burn scar were prolific and conditions were very dry. Fire managers have climate change guns to their heads so it’s usually damned if you do and damned if you don’t conduct controlled burns when it’s safe.

    The native bison, elk and deer have been hunted to near extinction in most of the Southwest or killed in collisions with motor vehicles and the Forest Service is scrambling to clear fuels Indigenous used to do every year.

    Cattle up there are browsing on aspen shoots because the fine, flashy fuels and creosote are the other choices.

    • Jim Furnish: “I get that BHNF may have been over a barrel with Trump and Sonny Perdue at USDA … but now?? Stop the madness.”

      It’s probably a straight line from Sonny Perdue to current wildfires and conditions on the Santa Fe National Forest.


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