About a decade ago, I shared with a colleague that I would be heading down to Catron County, N.M.—one of the strongholds of the Sagebrush Rebellion with its anti-public lands and endangered species fervor. I was going to meet with a notorious public lands rancher to discuss the concept of voluntary grazing permit retirement. He looked at me wide-eyed and said “aren’t you scared?” Then he added: “Do you have a gun?”
I didn’t really understand the fear that informed this issue. I think, in large part, because I have a trusting nature. Sure, I knew that more than a few ranchers had a violent history—towards the land, its native inhabitants and its wildlife. And while much of that is based on facts, I know that a good bit of it is based on myth.
The wolf too has been mythologized as a symbol of fear since ancient times. Despite growing knowledge of how wolves have been misunderstood, much of that fear remains. In our campaign to protect wolves, the fear of even exploring common ground with our adversaries has been, at times, an obstacle to progress.
To be honest, I wasn’t the slightest bit fearful of meeting the rancher to discuss the idea of paying him to permanently relinquish his grazing permit on the Gila National Forest. I was, however, filled with doubt about whether or not paying ranchers for something they don’t own was the right thing to do.
That’s because, if you know me well, you know there’s one thing that drives me crazy: it’s when ranchers, the media or politicians call public land grazing a right. It’s not. It’s a privilege—and always has been. Every single court in the land, including the U.S. Supreme Court (numerous times), has held that grazing on public lands is a privilege. And like any other privilege, if you abuse it, it can—and should be—taken away. Frustratingly, in the case of public lands, ranchers too often have abused the privilege and faced no repercussions.
So how did a dyed-in-the-wool public lands grazing activist with a long history of trying to kick ranchers off our public lands (to protect endangered trout, willow flycatchers and wolves) come to embrace paying ranchers for something they don’t own?
Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, my path to reconciliation with public lands ranchers—if not ranching—has its origins in our bare-knuckled, legal advocacy.
Twenty years ago, in the spring of 1998, WildEarth Guardians won a major Endangered Species Act lawsuit that halted cattle grazing along 300+ miles of streams and rivers throughout the Greater Gila Bioregion. It was thrilling to win so big on behalf of so many endangered species that depend on the Gila River and its headwater streams, like the Tularosa, the San Francisco and the Blue.
Our legal victory sent a powerful signal to ranchers that they were not above the law and it did allow many beautiful streams to begin to heal after nearly a century of abuse. And heal they have.
And yet our lawsuit didn’t move the needle enough in resolving the meta-conflict, between the wolf, wilderness advocates and ranchers. In fact, not surprisingly, it escalated a cultural conflict that was already pretty intense.
But our legal victory also hastened an intergenerational trend of old-time ranch families getting out of public lands ranching. Simply put, their kids weren’t interested for a host of social, cultural and economic reasons. Instead of handing off the ranch to the next generation, more and more ranchers were selling their private lands—and the public land permits that are attached to them—to newcomers who stepped into a conflict-laden landscape.
It was with this insight, about the broader generational shift going on in the western public lands livestock industry, combined with the long shadow of climate change, as well as new insight about the limitations of legal advocacy, that led me—and WildEarth Guardians—to embrace what was once unthinkable: paying a rancher once to never again graze their cattle on our public lands.
Since that time I’ve become more committed to the belief that voluntary public land grazing permit retirements—and the one-time financial payments to ranchers that are vital to this strategy’s successful execution—are absolutely the right thing to do.
It may not be the right thing philosophically or ideologically. But I have no doubt that payments of around $10 an acre are not only ecologically important and politically pragmatic—they’re also the just thing to do. That’s because many ranchers are caught between a rock and a hard place. At one time society wanted beef from its public land. Today, society increasingly wants wolves, clean water and abundant recreational opportunities. Those values are much easier to deliver without managing conflict over where and when cows should graze.
I did meet with that rancher who stirred those intense feelings of fear. He obviously did not shoot me (or, I should say, he obviously did not kill me, but he did not shoot me either). Nor did I bring a gun or another colleague. A few years after that initial meeting, in 2014, he became the first rancher in the Greater Gila to voluntarily relinquish his public lands grazing permit in exchange for a one-time financial payment.
Today, that allotment sits vacant and wolves from the Dark Canyon Pack roam free without the potential repercussions of predating on livestock. More importantly, that deal has inspired other ranchers to come forward, overcoming their own fears, to engage WildEarth Guardians’ staff in an effort to reach similar, just and equitable agreements.
We are optimistic that in the coming months we will finalize two additional agreements that are likewise equitable and just for the ranchers who are transitioning out of ranching in the Gila. We still have much work before us to build on this fragile common ground.
Our hope and belief is that we are creating a Greater Gila that can be a sanctuary for wolves—and other endangered wildlife. We also believe we are creating new opportunities for people to envision a future that is beyond the wolf-cattle conflict. A future beyond the rancher-environmentalist conflict. A future beyond fear.