Livestock grazing has taken a heavy toll on Western rangelands since the arrival of domestic cattle and sheep that were bred for much damper climates.
These animals, which have contributed greatly to the West’s pioneer heritage, have damaged fragile alpine and desert ecosystems, fouled stream corridors and rearranged native plant communities, environmentalist say.
While they contend public lands grazing is not sustainable in its time-worn form, Utah’s notably dry and cold Monte Cristo Mountains harbor a massive private ranch that some observers believe could illuminate a path forward.
Deseret Land and Livestock Ranch, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and covering more than 200,000 acres in Rich County along the Wyoming border, has developed an innovative system of rotational grazing that state officials hope could be adopted elsewhere. The experiment has proved not just profitable in an industry with famously low margins but also easy on the land and compatible with large wildlife that often compete with livestock for forage, according to officials with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
“Deseret Land and Livestock has proven what can be accomplished. They show that it can be done, and good things can happen with increased animal numbers,” said Taylor Payne, a coordinator with the department’s grazing improvement program. “That’s what I love most about Deseret, it gives the ability to defend livestock grazing.”
Payne is leading an effort by several public lands ranchers in Rich County to consolidate their grazing allotments and operate collectively to emulate Deseret’s rotation practices, which are only possible on a landscape scale.
“At Deseret Land & Livestock, being sustainable producers is a foundational principle that permeates everything we do," ranch spokesman Dale Bills wrote in an email. "By taking a stewardship approach to managing land, cattle and wildlife, this ranch will be just as productive a hundred years from now as it is today, if not more so. We always look to the long term in managing and conserving resources.”
Church officials declined to make anyone available for an interview for this story, but ranch biologists have publicly discussed their operations in the past.
“The focus is to manage for everything. We’re kind of greedy. We want it all. We want a healthy land base that pays for itself, that generates real revenue through grazing, hunting primarily,” the ranch’s then-wildlife manager Rick Danvir said in a 2012 video posted to YouTube. “In terms of generating money, we’re trying to turn sunlight into dollars, solar dollars.”
The ranch was established in 1891 as a joint stock operation that passed through the hands of various owners until 1983, when the church acquired it from a Hong Kong businessman named Joseph Hotung. Since then, it has been able to double its cow-calf operation to 4,500 mothers producing up to 4,000 calves a year, even with the numbers of large game animals increasing sharply, according to the video.
The ranch is just one of several massive agricultural operations the church owns in multiple states, the largest being the 290,000-acre Deseret Ranches in central Florida. Today the Utah-based faith is one of the nation’s largest holders of commercial agricultural land and among the the largest cow-calf operators.
According to a 2012 Bloomberg report, the church has amassed at least 1 million acres used for agriculture in the United States, as well as holdings in Australia, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Canada, Argentina and Mexico.
In a 1991 “State of the Church” address, apostle Gordon B. Hinckley, then a counselor in the governing First Presidency who would become the faith’s 15th president, said these acquisitions were driven to safeguard the church’s large financial reserves in ways that earn money and produce food.
“Prudent management requires that this money be put to use. In that process, we have purchased and hold some good, productive farms,” Hinckley said. “They are well operated under capable management, and they yield a conservative rate of return. We have felt that good farms, over a long period, represent a safe investment where the assets of the church may be preserved and enhanced, while at the same time they are available as an agricultural resource to feed people should there come a time of need.”
In the case of Deseret Land and Livestock, the profits and food are not coming entirely from livestock. Wildlife accounts for a third of the ranch’s revenues, mostly from hunters who pay a premium for the privilege of going after the trophy elk that flourish on the ranch, along with pronghorn, mule deer and moose, according to the ranch’s YouTube video. Also generating revenue are those who come to fish and observe birds.
Big game, big opportunity
The ranch is home to 10,000 large game animals and its land forms the bulk of a Cooperative Wildlife Management Unit, or CWMU. Under this arrangement with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the ranch receives big game permits, which it sells to guided hunters.
The ranch is part of a larger 224,000-acre CWMU that includes smaller neighboring ranches and is among the largest in the state, said Chad Wilson, who heads DWR’s private lands-public hunting program. He believes Deseret is also among the state’s best-performing cooperative units, reporting exceptionally high rates of hunter satisfaction.
The number of tags issued varies, but this year Wilson expects this unit to be awarded 90 deer, 110 elk, 40 pronghorn and four moose tags. They are split equally between the landowners and the public.
“Larger big game herds and the ranch," Payne said, “have been able to provide a great hunting opportunity for the people of Utah.”
The ranch supports up to 2,500 elk, Wilson said. Without the CWMU in place, it would not likely support half that many, and the public would not have the chance to hunt on these lands.
Central to the ranch’s innovative grazing strategies are its vastness and diversity of elevations, ranging from 6,300 feet to 8,700 feet. The rest-rotation system the ranch has perfected through years of experimentation has allowed wildlife to prosper alongside cattle, according to Troy Forrest, who heads Utah’s grazing improvement program.
“The big thing is rest. The plants need a chance to go to seed and create new plants,” Forrest said. “What you are doing is provide an opportunity to work with nature instead of against it.”
Rest brings rewards
For years, Utah wildlife officials wondered why the state’s public rangelands couldn’t be managed in a similar manner. In response, several ranchers who controlled contiguous allotments on federal land north of the Deseret ranch, known as Three Creeks, began banding together a decade ago to replicate the church-owned ranch’s rotation practices.
In 2018, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management approved the plan for the Three Creeks, and today 36 permittees are operating as a single ranch in a bold experiment that could, if successful, change the course of public land grazing.
According to Payne, Deseret is divided into 100 pastures through which the ranch’s six herds rotate. Three-fourths are in dry uplands that grow grasses in early spring and late fall; the remaining pastures are irrigated meadows.
“One key factor of the [Deseret Land and Livestock] grazing plan is to rest approximately 20% of its pastures every year during the growing season,” Payne wrote in a 2018 case study on the Three Creeks experiment. “In the spring, the ranch only turns cattle out onto a pasture that was totally rested the year before. This protects the forage from repeated grazing during the rapid growth period.”
Each pasture is grazed at a different time than it was grazed the year before so that various forage species will have a chance to grow and complete their life cycles, according to Bills.
“At any given time, approximately 90% of DLL’s pastures are recovering. This innovative grazing system allows both cattle and wildlife to thrive on healthy forage,” Bills wrote. “As DLL improves water systems on the ranch to provide for cattle, those same improvements benefit wildlife. By all measures, wildlife populations are thriving on the land we manage.”
This system is intended to replicate the natural rhythms that predominated before European settlement, when big game moved about with the seasons, according to Danvir’s YouTube video.
“The thing we’re mimicking is that you had herds of a variety of sizes moving across the landscape, moving around, finding new food, finding new water,” Danvir said in the YouTube video. The goal is to promote diverse plant communities, in terms of both age and species, and ensure these different plants are intermixed on the land.
“Pygmy rabbit doesn’t want a big grass patch. He wants brush something like this in front of us,” he said in the video while surveying the sagebrush steppe that characterizes the ranch’s lower elevations.
The ranch manages its lands for all its furred and feathered inhabitants, wild and domestic, that aren’t predators.
“The way we’re making our money is making beef and growing elk, deer and pronghorn,” Danvir said in the YouTube video. “We’ve got to have that compromise. We can’t just favor pygmy rabbit. Can’t just favor prairie dogs. Can’t just favorite cows. Can’t just favor deer.”
He believes the ranch offers evidence that ecology and economics can go together.
“The way we’re going to do the best for the owner, ensure that this place can afford to be managed as a big piece of wildland," he said, “is to be ecologically sound and economically sound.”