Ranchers Who Fix Trout Streams
by Ted Williams
Old damage to trout habitat is being fixed by dedicated land-and-water stewards, but seldom is heard an encouraging word.
No land use in the West has been more hurtful to fish and wildlife than bad ranching. I’ve seen some of the worst. In 1994, for instance, Fly Rod & Reel sent me to southwestern New Mexico to report on the demise of the then-endangered Gila trout. I found headcuts that had unraveled mainstems and tributaries, wetlands pounded into the bowels of the earth, corpses of giant cottonwoods moldering on dry silt. Thistle, pinon, juniper, rabbitbrush, western yarrow and other plants worthless to fish, wildlife and even livestock had replaced native grasses and sedges.
On the grazing allotment of Kit Laney (later jailed for assaulting federal law-enforcement officers as the Forest Service rounded up his trespassing cattle) I waded with his cows in Black Canyon Creek, the last perennial stream in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. Where the sun hit the water, gobs of green algae bloomed around cow pies. But lots has happened since then, and this is a story about a new breed of ranchers who understand that what’s good for trout—clean water and stable vegetation—is good for livestock. Their work is a great beginning, but only a beginning. Overgrazing still blights much of the West.
Josh Osher, Montana coordinator for the Western Watersheds Project, has it exactly right when he says: “Livestock grazing degrades trout habitat in many ways, including by removing riparian vegetation, trampling of stream banks and fish eggs, and the direct input of pollutants from feces and urine. The result is increased sedimentation, bank instability, elevated temperatures and poor water quality leading to a reduction of egg survival and injury to adult fish.” And John Horning, director of Wild Earth Guardians, has it exactly right when he says: “Literally tens of thousands of miles of streams, many of them on public lands, have been grazed to the bone by cattle which have stomped, pooped and grazed the life out of fragile streams.”
So it’s clear that environmentalists have all sorts of villains to choose from. Now, if they really want improvement, they need to stop rounding up the usual suspects and shooting the good guys along with everyone else. It’s time for all who truly care about fish and wildlife to thank enlightened ranchers and promote their efforts.
Typical of the new breed is Jeff Laszlo, who owns the Granger Ranches, in Montana’s Madison Valley. In the 1950s his grandfather, following the ranching prescription of the day, ditched and drained creeks and wetlands, severely damaging what had been one of America’s best trout streams—O’Dell Spring Creek. An 8,000-acre wetland complex became parched, weed-infested wasteland. The water table dropped eight feet. Warm water and topsoil shot into the Madison River. Ten years ago Laszlo found himself in a position to set things right. Enlisting help from Partners for Fish and Wildlife—a multi-agency, multi-group program established in 1987 by the US Fish and Wildlife Service—he permanently protected his land with conservation easements and committed it to one of the biggest private stream and wetland restoration projects in history. Partners brought in heavy equipment to fill canals and redirect flow to natural streambeds. They erected fencing and planted trees. Early in the process Laszlo had a moment of panic as he walked along a repaired creek. “It had been gin clear,” he says. “But on this day it ran chocolate brown. Oh God, I thought, the project is failing. Then I realized spawning fish were stirring up the bottom in a channel that hadn’t been there a year ago.” Today what was once a desiccated morass of weeds holds native plants and year-round water. And as drought, erosion and global warming degrade the Madison, O’Dell Spring Creek infuses it with cold, clean, oxygenated water.
This is more than just restoration of a trout stream; it’s rebirth of an entire riparian ecosystem. The drained wetland had sustained only 10 bird species; the restored one sustains 100, including rarities like sora rails and trumpeter swans. The miracle on Granger Ranches has set an example followed across the West. For this work Laszlo has received the National Wetlands Award, Montana Wetland Stewardship Award and Friend of the Madison Award. “We have a responsibility to ourselves and the community to be good stewards,” he says. “Ranching and conservation can work well together.”
One might suppose that such restored biodiversity, watershed repair and guarding of the wild earth would elicit praise from groups with names like Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Western Watersheds Project and Wild Earth Guardians. It has not. All the enlightened ranchers I interviewed report that they have yet to receive one word of encouragement from these outfits. Instead they hear comments like: “Ranching is one of the most nihilistic lifestyles this planet has ever seen. Ranching should end. Good riddance.” This from CBD director Kierán Suckling to the Washington Post.
Fifth-generation rancher Jim Chilton leases a 21,500-acre grazing allotment in Arizona’s Coronado National Forest. He cares about fish and wildlife, and makes a big effort to do things right. A six-year, independent monitoring project led by range scientist Dr. Jerry Holechek defines Chilton’s stewardship as “a definite range-management success story,” noting that such “good grazing management practices can promote improvement in ecological condition in arid and semi-arid areas even when accompanied by drought . . . . Jim Chilton has used monitoring information to quickly respond to changing climatic and vegetation condition. We believe this to be an important reason for his management success.” CBD is unimpressed. And it prides itself on what it calls the “psychological warfare” it wages against public-land managers. “They feel like their careers are being mocked and destroyed—and they are,” Suckling told High Country News. “So they become much more willing to play by our rules.”
Apparently those rules include bending the truth like paper-clip wire. After CBD filed an unsuccessful appeal to cancel Chilton’s grazing permit it posted 21 photos of barren moonscapes as alleged proof that he was abusing the forest. But wide-angle photos of the same sites, procured by Chilton’s attorney, showed lush, tree-dotted grasslands surrounding moonscapes created, not by cows, but by Forest Service crews in construction of a campsite and parking lot. Chilton then took CBD to court, winning $100,000 for harm to his reputation and $500,000 in punitive damages. As far as I can determine this is the only time an NGO has been successfully sued for libel.
In western Montana’s Blackfoot River Valley the Mannix brothers, Randy, David and Brent, run a 14,000-acre ranch, leasing another 30,000 acres of federal and private range. They practice sustainable grazing, revegetate riparian habitat, fix old headcuts, fence out cattle, and give water back to the fish during dry periods, and in spring when westslope cutthroats run upstream to spawn. The trout population has boomed because of their work. The Mannix brothers are one of the main reasons a watershed-wide, cooperative recovery project called the Blackfoot Challenge has been such a success.
But the Western Watersheds Project alleges that Mannix cattle threaten creatures like bull trout, which might find their way from the Blackfoot up into Arrastra Creek. Commenting on the BLM’s environmental assessment for lease renewal for this watershed, WWP scolds the agency for not including a “no grazing” alternative, states that the Mannix brothers’ record “of following the terms and conditions of the current lease call into question whether the lease should be renewed,” and advises BLM to “consider the economic benefit of eliminating livestock grazing” such as avoiding “costs associated with . . . litigation.” There’s plenty of damage to the Arrastra Creek watershed, but mostly from predatory logging. The Nature Conservancy bought it from its abusive owner, Plum Creek Timber Company, then turned it over to the BLM. The creek doesn’t even hold water in summer, and the Mannix brothers and BLM have fenced it off. If a bull trout shows up, it faces greater danger from meteors than cows.
Via conservation easements, Pat and Sharon O’Toole have protected 2,800 acres of their Ladder Ranch in Colorado and Wyoming. With Partners for Fish and Wildlife they’re restoring Colorado River cutthroat trout to the Little Snake River system. Proliferating on the ranch are deer, elk, antelope, black bear, mountain lion, bobcat, fox, badger, bald and golden eagles, sandhill cranes and sage grouse. Pat serves as president of the Family Farm Alliance, an organization that defends not just farmers but fish and wildlife. In 2014 the O’Tooles won the Aldo Leopold Award for environmental stewardship. To fix old damage they called in Partners for Fish and Wildlife 15 years ago. Biologists collected data on flow patterns, then set about restoring stream stability and trout habitat by constructing J-hooks and wing dams, inserting boulders and woody debris, hardening irrigation diversions, planting willows, sedges and rushes, removing fish-migration barriers, narrowing channels and creating meanders.
Partners coordinator for Wyoming, Mark Hogan of the Fish and Wildlife Service, offers this: “I give the family lots of credit. They really take pride in their riparian areas. They still graze them; but they know the triggers, and when they hit one they move their livestock. The science of river restoration is fairly new, and much of it was tested successfully on the Ladder Ranch. We take lessons learned there and apply them to other projects.” From the Ladder Ranch, Partners went through the whole valley, doing similar repair work. But because the O’Tooles graze sheep in the Medicine Bow National Forest, the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (not to be confused with CBD, with which it later merged) unsuccessfully appealed to the Forest Service to cancel the lease—this on the grounds that the O’Tooles’ sheep might sicken wild ones. “For years,” asserted the alliance, “we have tried to negotiate with the rancher,” “but the clock ran out . . . . We had to file suit [against the Forest Service].” The O’Tooles say such negotiations “never took place.” When domestic sheep are allowed to mingle with wild ones they can and do transmit disease, but on the Medicine Bow that possibility is so remote that the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation, which has spent the past 14 years working with the Forest Service and the livestock industry to implement effective means of separation, intervened in the case against the alliance. A decision is pending.
“Any move you make on Forest Service, BLM or even private land they [the anti-ranching groups] intrude,” declares Pat O’Toole. “They’ll sue on any permit change. You have good agency people you should be working with spending all their time on these suits.”
And this from Sharon O’Toole: “The tactics are to demonize those who don’t agree with them. Ranching families like us are conscientious stewards, but predictably, we are already being called ‘welfare ranchers’ and ‘leeches.’ An honest dialogue is not part of the plan.”
In northeastern Arizona, Wink Crigler is restoring brown and rainbow trout to the Little Colorado River. So healthy is the aquatic and terrestrial habitat of her X Diamond Ranch that the National Audubon Society named it one of the group’s “Important Bird Areas.” For her work for fish and wildlife Crigler has been honored by the Arizona Game and Fish Department with its Award of Excellence, the Forest Service with its Outstanding Rangeland Management External Partner Award, and the Society for Range Management with its Range Manager of the Year Award.
But on her grazing lease in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest there might be endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mice, which depend on riparian habitat. With fencing, ranchers and the Forest Service are ensuring that cattle and mice can co-exist. Still, Wild Earth Guardians vows to sue.
Overgrazing has taken a hideous toll on fish and wildlife in Nevada. But here and there damage is being repaired by ranchers who care. Among the leaders are Jon Griggs of the Maggie Creek Ranch, Mitch Heguy of the Heguy Ranch and Dan Gralian of the T Lazy S Ranch, all in the northeast corner of the state. They’ve sought and received stream-restoration help from the BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, Nevada Department of Wildlife, Trout Unlimited and the Newmont Mining Corporation. Thanks to their efforts, federally threatened Lahontan cutthroats (once thought extinct) are surging back in Beaver, Coyote and Maggie creeks; and Susie Creek is a strong candidate for reintroduction.
For stream repair and good grazing Gralian received the state’s Outstanding Rancher Award; Griggs has been nominated for the Environmental Stewardship Award sponsored by the Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service and various livestock organizations. And BLM fisheries biologist Carol Evans, who works closely with ranchers on Lahontan recovery, describes Heguy as “heroic.”
Not only has the Western Watersheds Project declined to encourage such watershed repair, it has worked against it. When I asked Evans if she’d had any contact with the group she responded as follows: “For a couple decades they litigated just about every grazing decision we did, including the ones that had conservation prescriptions. That pretty much paralyzed us. Freedom of Information Act requests kept us at the copier day and night.” The Western Watersheds Project is less about watersheds than its name implies. Evidence of priorities includes frequent intervention in support of litigants seeking to evict livestock in order to further infest the West with feral horses, far more damaging to watersheds per hoof than cows.
Resources First Foundation is one group that does encourage watershed repair; and assisting ranchers in restoration of native ecosystems is a big part of its mission. President and founder Amos Eno is a nationally recognized authority on fish and wildlife conservation. Earlier, he worked at the Interior Department, crafting amendments to strengthen the Endangered Species Act, then went on to direct the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Ranchers, including Sharon O’Toole, serve on his board. “Obscene,” is how Eno defines the amount of money anti-ranching groups extract from the public via never-ending petitions and lawsuits to list as endangered any handy species or subspecies, regardless of known status. Required responses to these actions overwhelm the Interior Department, which is strapped for money and manpower anyway. But that’s the whole idea. If the Interior Department doesn’t respond to a petition in 90 days, the groups can sue and collect attorney fees from the Justice Department. And they get to raid Interior Department funds when the agency can’t keep up with the steady blitz of Freedom of Information Act requests.
Jamie Clark, who ran the Fish and Wildlife Service during the Clinton administration and now directs Defenders of Wildlife, told me this: “Citizens need to be able to petition for species in trouble, but this has become an industry.” Wildlifers like Eno and Clark understand that sustainable grazing isn’t just OK, but an essential tool for fish and wildlife management. Recently I stopped by the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge, in Woodworth, North Dakota. Prairie plants evolved with bison, and their absence has compromised habitat throughout the West. So the refuge has invited ranchers in to graze cattle—this to the horror of visiting birders, until refuge manager Neil Shook sets them right. In a section that hadn’t been grazed for half a century, Shook and I walked over a thick, spongy matt of plant litter rank with such weeds as silverberry, buckbrush, Kentucky bluegrass, smooth broom and Canada thistle. But where cattle grazed we encountered firm prairie soil and a profusion of natives like blanket flower, purple coneflower, yellow coneflower, purple prairie clover, prairie smoke, green needle and little bluestem.
The anti-livestock faction is unable or unwilling to recognize that the only problem with ranching is that it hasn’t always been done right and that even when done wrong it can save land from development. For example, now that the Forest Service has revoked Kit Laney’s grazing privileges, the Aldo Leopold Wilderness is healing, and Black Canyon Creek again supports Gila trout. As ranchers like those profiled above keep demonstrating, you can restore ditched, drained, cow-nuked land and water to healthy fish-and-wildlife habitat. You can’t do so with strip malls and strip mines. Ridding the West of livestock is as politically impossible as it is ecologically undesirable. No way is it going to happen. Groups committed to that goal have a “Taliban mindset,” as one high-ranking Interior official aptly puts it. They have a right to their opinions; they have a right to call conservationists “welfare ranchers” and “leeches”; they even have a right to drive ranchers out of business by suing the feds. What they don’t have a right to do is call themselves “environmentalists.”
--from Fly Rod & Reel