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‘We are not all Cliven Bundys’: Rich County ranchers partner with BLM to revolutionize grazing

First Published      Last Updated Aug 29 2016 10:49 pm

Critics call the proposal “another shell game,” but many ranchers, county officials and the federal government appear to be in rare agreement.

Randolph • It is often said good fences make for good neighbors.

In one large northern Utah grazing district, fences are expected to play a key role in transforming the way public lands are managed. Cattle and sheep operators in Rich County may soon pool their herds for the summer grazing season in the hills rising west of Randolph under an idea hatched by rancher Alvin Shaul and his neighbors.

As a young man, after his dad sold the family ranch, Shaul went to work for Deseret Land and Livestock, which runs a cattle operation just south of Randolph on a large tract of private land. Deseret used a rotational system of pastures that left the range in better shape while producing lots of fat calves.

He and his wife went into business for themselves in the early 1970s. "I started with one cow and kept building. Eighty acres came for sale in Randolph and I bought it," said Shaul, who grazes 250 cows in the New Canyon allotment he shares with a dozen other ranchers.

Shaul is now putting into practice what he learned at Deseret, and he has the backing of his fellow ranchers, the Rich County Commission and the federal agencies that administer the Three Creeks region where 29 ranchers run livestock from May 15 to Sept. 15.

At the request of county commissioners, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service are poised to consolidate 10 grazing allotments into one 135,000-acre management unit. After five years of study, the agencies have released a draft Environmental Assessment of the project and expect to issue a final decision by year's end.

The county-driven proposal stands in sharp contrast to the angry rhetoric coming from other ranching communities where public-land users complain federal "overreach" is putting them out of business and destroying the custom and culture of rural areas.

"We are not all Cliven Bundys. For people who are just watching the news, it's like all these ranchers don't want to pay their assessments and want to tell the federal government what to do," said Dale Lamborn, president of the Three Creeks Grazing Association. He also runs the local school district, and his ranching roots run deep into Rich County, stretching back into the homesteading era.

Instead of fighting federal oversight, the Randolph ranchers have chosen to work hand in hand with BLM and Forest Service officials.

"We are about building relationships and interagency cooperation with us and with private lands," Lamborn said. "That's the majority. We are about making it work for everybody."

'Time-controlled grazing' • Instead of grazing an entire allotment all summer, the ranchers intend to run two consolidated cattle herds, each 1,600-head strong, through fenced-off pastures for two or three weeks at a time. Then the pastures would be rested until the following year, even longer in some cases.

Known as "time-controlled grazing," this system requires far more active management and water improvements than a typical allotment, where permittees park their herds for an entire season.

The project area captures 9,000 acres of state trust lands and another 22,700 private acres, nearly all of it used for livestock grazing. These ranchlands spread up three drainages into the Monte Cristo Range west of State Route 16. Elevation ranges from 6,500 feet outside Randolph to 9,700 feet along the ridgetops.

"We are going to have the same number of cows on the landscape. We are just managing them differently for benefits for both ranchers and sage grouse," Matt Preston, the BLM's new Salt Lake City field office manager, said during a recent tour of Three Creeks with Shaul and Lamborn.

Three Creeks is within areas that are subject to new federal land-use rules designed to protect sage grouse habitat, implemented last year to keep the ground-nesting bird off the list of protected species. The BLM wants to demonstrate that livestock can coexist with sage grouse and other wildlife, Preston said.

Agriculture is the linchpin for Rich County's $24.3 million economy, accounting for half the local activity, according to a 2012 analysis conducted by Utah State University economists. Three Creeks livestock accounts for $2 million in annual production, representing 6 percent of the county's economic output when a multiplier effect is considered. The report concludes that the Three Creeks consolidation could increase nonagricultural activity by enhancing habitat for fish and wildlife, which would draw more sportsmen to Rich County.

State officials hope the Three Creeks consolidation will serve as a model for publicly owned grazing areas elsewhere in Utah and the West.

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