Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Betting the Ranch on Rain and Regulators

by Bob Hagan

The abandoned houses are still there, strung out along the back roads where New Mexico touches the Oklahoma Panhandle. Classic images for black and white photography, sagging porches and wooden siding warped and weathered gray in the Western sun, silent windmills silhouetted against the sky, fieldstone chimneys likely to endure as long as the ruins in Chaco Canyon.

Most are relics of the Dust Bowl, others date to the “Big Dry” of the 1950s or perhaps the 1970s drought. The people are mostly gone. Harding County is least populated in the state with fewer than 800 residents; DeBaca has just 1,828 and Union 4,201.

The good news is that the grass is coming back, and the people who remain are a stubborn breed. It’s not unusual to meet a rancher whose family has been on the land three or four generations.

There are about 7,000 ranches and 18,000 farms in New Mexico. Some are big – Ted Turner’s Vermejo Park spread is 590,823 acres, or 920 square miles – but the average is only about 2,000 acres and many are considerably smaller in deeded land. Almost all depend on grazing their cows on the public lands. The majority are family-owned and operated. Three-quarters of the farms and ranches in New Mexico report annual sales of less than $100,000.

“A man has to be numb on both ends to make his living on a horse,” according to the old rodeo joke, but nobody slow-witted lasts long in the cattle business. You do have to be a mule-headed optimist with a high risk tolerance, since you’re betting your livelihood on the uncertain confluence of local weather and distant commodity markets. You breed your cows in summer, calve in the spring and ship in the fall, always guessing what the graze and beef prices will be like next year.

This year the drought is officially over, green-up left the range in most places looking better than in a long time, and ranchers are rebuilding herds in hopes of a decent monsoon.

But beyond worries over weather and market, ranchers today are set upon by bureaucrats and lawyers representing a dizzying array of state and federal agencies and advocates championing everything from the Mexican Gray Wolf to the Lesser Prairie Chicken. The feds are backpacking wolf pups into the Gila country in defiance of the state’s demand they present an actual plan before re-introducing a major predator into the local ecosystem. (Where’s the line between “not enough” and “too many”?) Up north the Forest Service is fencing off miles of stream to protect the Jumping Meadow Mouse, in violation of pastoral rights first granted by the King of Spain.

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