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Monday, October 29, 2012

Hunting the Flesh and Blood of the Mountain Fall

Walking as quietly as I can through the half-dark dawn of dark timber, I hear a cow elk mew, calling her calf. I freeze. 

I consider the leap from hunting and gathering to herding and gardening a relatively short one in the trajectory of human evolution as well as my own. All flesh is grass, indeed. A life lived close to that reality is, for me at least, the existential experience of being alive. The same blood runs through deer, elk, cattle—and human, as well as bear, wolf, and mountain lion. 

I send an intention, a sort of prayer, to Bull Elk: Merge your flesh and blood, your spirit, with mine.

Symbolic intentions for a successful hunt.  Jenny Stricker

I crouch and raise my binoculars, peering through the tree branches. Nothing for a few seconds, then a slight movement: elk legs.

Every ranch is wildlife habitat, especially here in the Rocky Mountains, and even here some are better than others.  On the Howell Ranch we manage our grazing to maximize elk habitat. The owners of the largest parcel, which Jim leases and now subleases to me, own that ranch specifically for elk hunting; and lease it to us for grazing because our management is designed to improve the forage quality for wildlife, especially elk. 

Mule deer, Blue Creek Unit, the Howell Ranch

Rocky Mountain elk, Blue Creek unit, the Howell Ranch.

We do that in three ways. First, we only run livestock during the summer; they are shipped home before rifle season.

Second, we subdivide the landscape into smaller pastures and rotate our cattle through them so that their grazing is distributed evenly across the landscape, from creek to ridge and everything in between. These steep slopes are dominated by the relatively unpalatable bunchgrass Thurber fescue, which if not grazed for a few years becomes so stemmy and rank that neither elk nor cattle will willingly eat it. Because our cattle are stocked at high density for short grazing periods, they have to eat that Thurber fescue along with the more palatable grasses. Every few days they are moved to a fresh pasture. This way the cattle use most of the plants in the pasture, but also meet their nutrition requirements. 

Third, between grazing periods, every pasture has the rest of the growing season, and some if not all of the next growing season, to recover before our cattle graze it again. So while the pasture that the cattle are in is evenly grazed, most of the rest of the landscape has a significant amount of standing forage, and about half of the pastures are rested each year. A year of rest is not enough to make Thurber fescue unpalatable to elk. And we have lots of elk: a few hundred.

Pat Magee's wildlife management class from Western State Colorado University visiting my camp at the Howell Ranch.

The herd is moving perpendicular to the slope across the creek from me. They have not heard me because the creek muffles the sound of my boots on the snow and forest litter, which would otherwise give me away. 

You might think that this story is about hunting on the Howell Ranch. It isn’t. Other people pay thousands of dollars to hunt on this ranch, and on other ranches throughout elk country. Many of these ranches have more income from hunting than they do from livestock. So, for the most part, ranch managers or leaseholders like me do not hunt for free on the land we manage, even if we manage it specifically for deer or elk habitat.

Instead, I hunted on public land, with the rest of the masses. I did not hunt the public land adjacent to the ranch, because that is in a draw-only unit and my bull license wasn't valid there. 

I find a spot in their path where I can see deeper into the trees, and I see some partial elk bodies move across.

This year I hunted with my friend and a great conservationist, Lars Santana. He works for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Montrose, Colorado, where he is a multi-county rangeland management specialist—very similar to the job I used to do in Grand, Summit, and Jackson counties before I left to become a rancher and rangeland consultant. Lars had drawn a coveted buck deer license for a game management unit in the Gunnison Basin. Our bull elk licenses were also valid for that area.  

Then, the sound I’ve been waiting for all week: somewhere in that dark timber a bull elk calls. Not the forest-splitting bugle of the just-ended rut, but a bull for sure.

We spent the first half of the season in deer habitat. On Tuesday morning we were glassing two sections of Lost Canyon when Lars spotted his buck. He tracked it until the sun rose and the wind shifted, alerting the buck to the stalking hunter’s presence. In the afternoon we came back. There wouldn’t be any elk here, so I set up a spotting scope on the far ridge and watched, that I might see where the buck would go if it was spooked. A violent wind shook the sagebrush as well as the spotting scope. I didn’t see the buck, but watched Lars disappear into some trees on the far side of an outcrop. I pulled out my new copy of Don Hunter’s Snow Leopard: Stories from the Roof of the World, and read an essay about one of the world’s great predators, glassing the area around the trees between paragraphs. The Gunnison Basin is not entirely unlike the arid, windswept steppes of central Asia. Just before sunset I heard a single shot. I never saw the deer.  I packed up and hiked down to find Lars and the buck, just out of sight from my position on the far hill, behind that outcrop from which Lars made a perfect shot at 300 yards. We field dressed and quartered his buck, and packed it out to the truck in the dark.

Lars Santana and his buck, Lost Canyon, Colorado.

I lower my binoculars and raise my rifle, looking now through the scope—dialed all the way down for close range—for antlers. I see one, but it is a spike: a young bull, not legal to hunt. I see about forty elk, including four spike bulls.

We lost a full day of hunting to the all-important task of processing the deer meat, which the two of us did ourselves on the kitchen counter. The buck provided enough meat to feed both of us, and Lars’s family, for a couple of months. But for a year’s worth of meat, at least one of us needed to harvest an elk.

At one point I think I glimpse a full-size antler through the veil of trees, but I can’t be sure. The elk fade into the darkness. I stand, shake the numbness from my feet, stuff my cold fingers back into my glove, and creep on toward the meadow where I will set up in a spot where I can see farther, and hope that some more elk come up the creek.

Rocky Mountain elk, Blue Creek Unit, the Howell Ranch.

We spent the last few days on a steep, wooded slope on the Uncompahgre National Forest, in a mosaic of spruce-fir forest, aspen forest, and small open parks. The park where I was hunting was not unlike the higher-elevation part of the Howell Ranch. Here too was Thurber fescue. But here it grew in tall bunches, mostly not grazed. The grasses in between the bunches, especially Kentucky bluegrass, were mowed to within a few inches of the ground. The culprits left their sign all over and around the park. This morning there was a fresh pile of it on the log on which I’d been sitting last evening.

The next evening, the last of the season, I hear the elk again, through the trees. They are just across the boundary, on private ranch land. So close, and yet so far.

Ranching and hunting seasons ended, I go home with a cooler of deer meat. My inner hunter-gatherer thrills at presenting meat to my gardening godess. I will have to buy some meat too, this year: grass-fed beef from a well-managed ranch run by people who, like me, love their land and their animals, and participate joyfully in the circle of life.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Visitors share a few days of ranch life

I imagine many of you don’t actually live and work on a ranch, and may be wondering what a typical day is like for folks like me who do.  Perhaps you might wonder what it would be like to visit.

Jenny at the hot water heater. Matt Barnes
I’ve been blessed with some rally fascinating people as visitors the last two weekends.

Two weekends ago my girlfriend Jenny came to visit, and we spent the weekend irrigating, moving and sorting cattle. At least she didn’t have to do any fencing.  Jenny is a biologist, botanist, working as a soil conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Costilla County, Colorado, as well as a part-time writer and folklorist. And she has a way of making this place even more beautiful than it already is, just by gracing it with her presence—especially if she’s helping with the ranch work.

Moving cattle is a normal part of this operation, something I do at least once a week; sorting cattle is not.  But when your cattle and the neighbor’s cattle get mixed up, you have to sort them out, even if there isn’t a corral nearby.  So Jenny got to spend her Saturday doing some relatively difficult cattle work, finishing up in the rain. Of course we had a great time in camp, grilling steaks and corn on the cob, followed the next day by eggs and sausage and writing and even a little relaxing before spending Sunday afternoon irrigating.

This past Saturday my friend John Jackson, an agriculture consultant from Kansas, owner of Agricultural Management Group, Inc., and who manages the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise near Towaoc, Colorado, showed up with a saddle and a cooler full of food.

Matt Barnes flood-irrigating. Jenny Stricker
I showed him how I flood irrigate the four-hundred-acre meadow at the lower end of the ranch. Being a center-pivot guy, I think he may have looked slightly askance at what we like to call “peasant irrigation”—doing it the old way, by hand with a tarp and a shovel. Flood irrigation is notoriously inefficient because a significant quantity of surface water is “lost” to the groundwater. Of course that really means stored in the soil, and held higher in the watershed for a longer time—generally a good thing. And most of it makes it back to the creek eventually, except the little bit that is lost via evapo-transpiration in the process of growing this lush meadow.

Matt. Jenny Stricker
In the afternoon we saddled up, gathered the cattle from a rangeland pasture on the brushy slope above the irrigated meadow, and drifted them across that slope and down to my best and smallest irrigated pasture. John and I both try to use low-stress livestock handling, though I’ve found that everyone who professes to use that particular art form does it differently.

We generally graze our irrigated pastures twice in the season, once at the beginning and once at the end, using the dry native range in the higher country in midsummer. It isn’t quite time to start the final cycle through the irrigated pastures yet, but I’m conducting a little experiment with my smallest and wettest pasture to see if I can graze it three times instead of two. So the cattle were back on the meadow for a few days at mid-season. Now they will graze a couple rangeland pastures of oak and sagebrush before beginning their full second cycle through the irrigated meadow. By the time they’ve gone through the other pastures, my little experimental pasture will be ready to be grazed again, at least for a day or two, at the very end of the season in late September.

Matt cooking a cow-camp breakfast. Jenny Stricker
John and I spent the evening noshing on bread and cheese, beer and Colorado wine, and feasting on pork chops and fried potatoes with onions and green chile.  The latter dish also ended up mixed with bacon and eggs for breakfast, the kind of oily treat that I’ve heard some people, generally those who don’t do physical work as a matter of lifestyle, say isn’t good for you. We agreed that our food cooked in an outdoor kitchen in a remote cowboy camp with no electricity was as good as anything either of us has had in a restaurant in recent history, and considering the physical work involved in growing grass and cattle, we gave ourselves permission to eat as much as we want.

Jenny Stricker

When you work outside by yourself all day, there is plenty of time to be inside your own head. That’s one of my favorite things about ranching. But the few folks who manage to find their way out to this outpost tend to be some pretty amazing people and always generate fantastic conversation. Of course some of that is shovel-in-hand, if you get my drift.

Reading and conversation area by the wood stove. Jenny Stricker

Friday, February 10, 2012

Winter Dance: a rangeland rendezvous

The Society for Range Management 2012 Annual Meeting

Once a year, the managers of North American natural grasslands, shrublands, savannas, and deserts gather for a rangeland rendezvous where we discuss the science and art of land stewardship. This year’s Society for Range Management annual meeting, Winter Dance: Lessons from the Past – Strategies for the Future was held in Spokane, Washington, by the Pacific Northwest and Idaho Sections of the SRM, from Jan 28 to Feb. 3.  The theme was a nod to our Native American friends, and it did indeed feature a dance.

The primary purpose of the meeting is the many technical sessions, which range from ecological site descriptions and vegetation dynamics to wildlife habitat and livestock-wildlife interactions.
I spent Tuesday in the grazing management session, where the morning talks focused on using various forms of intensive grazing management—rotational grazing and resting—to change the way that livestock utilize pastures. The afternoon talks also dealt with changing grazing patterns, but in the context of extensive management, using herding and strategic supplementation to improve grazing distribution.
Ben Norton, my Master’s thesis advisor from Utah State University, presented data that my fellow graduate student Motoko Maeno and I collected, which showed that in the short grazing periods of rotational grazing, cattle ate plant species roughly in proportion to their availability in the pasture. This corroborates the results of my thesis, that small pastures, short grazing periods, and high stocking density promote relatively more even spatial distribution of grazing across the landscape. This is important because it means that with management you can not only prevent livestock from repeatedly grazing preferred and sensitive areas and plants, but also make more of the landscape and more of the plants in the pasture effectively available.
University of Arizona
Santa Rita
Experimental Range
The afternoon presentations in the grazing management session were mostly given by Derek Bailey and his graduate students at New Mexico State University.  My favorite was one by Retta Bruegger and Larry Howery from the University of Arizona, with colleagues from NMSU, on herding and strategic supplementation to accomplish targeted grazing. They demonstrated that they were able to herd cattle to a specific spot on a mountainside on the Santa Rita Experimental Range (my old stomping grounds), where cattle had not voluntarily gone, and reduce fuel loads there.
The SRM Native Range initiative hosted a two-day session on success strategies for Native American rangelands. At lunch I enjoyed conversation with several representatives from The Columbia Plateau, and at the craft fair I bought a CD of Yakama old-style round dance songs (hand drum and vocals) from Three Bears Music to add to my unofficial rangeland ethnomusicology collection.

I also enjoyed the Mongolian Rangeland Development and Management symposium, hosted by Jim O’Rourke and 24 delegates from Mongolia.  The herder and livestock populations have grown substantially during the transition from communism, and because most of the country is unfenced common land, there is no way to systematically rest pastures and allow plants to recover between grazing events; thus land degradation and poverty are widespread.  Through its Green Gold project, Mongolia is now forming pasture user groups and a pasture use law to combat the problem.  The Mongolian Society for Range Management had a booth in the trade show where they sold Green Nomad products, and I succumbed to yak wool scarf for Jenny.
Mongolian Rangeland Development and Management panel discussion.
In addition to technical sessions, the week included numerous committee and board meetings.
As president-elect of the Colorado Section, my responsibilities included attending the SRM Advisory Council meetings, along with all of the other section presidents, on Sunday and Monday.  Our discussions dealt mostly with improving outreach and communications of the applied science and especially the art of rangeland management, particularly in the Rangelands journal.
Rangelands is our professional journal, existing somewhere near the midpoint of the continuum between magazine and scientific journal, emphasizing the art of land stewardship.  If you have a story to tell about living on the land, managing natural resources in the West or anywhere on the half of the world’s land area that is considered rangeland, I (as a new Editorial Board member) encourage you to publish it in Rangelands.  And, if you have thoughts about how to improve SRM outreach and communication tools, including Rangelands, please email them to
CSU Rangeland
Ecology Club
My other job as president-elect was to chair the Colorado Section meeting at dark-thirty Tuesday morning, where we fed the CSU rangeland ecology students breakfast before sending them off to the grueling plant identification contest, an event that students spend months studying for.
The University of Arizona
School of Natural Resources
and the Environment
Those official duties discharged, I was able to enjoy the alumni socials of Utah State University and the University of Arizona—where Mitch McClaran, in a rare moment of exaggeration, declared me “famous.”

Then we all two-stepped Tuesday night away to the music of Wylie & the Wild West.  I declare the women of the Colorado Section the best dancers, though they might not say the same of me!
The Taste of the Northwest on Wednesday night featured beef and lamb from Washington and Idaho, as well as Idaho potatoes, huckleberry jam, and other tasty treats.  The event was co-sponsored by the American Grassfed Association, which I like to think is a trend that a few of us in the Colorado Section started with the Sustainable Rangelands Through Low-Input Grassfed Production symposium at the Denver 2010 meeting, which was featured on this blog as well as in Rangelands, and videos of which are available on the SRM website.
Julie Conley and Jeff Schalau jamming.
The Taste of the Northwest featured live music by SRM’s own Karen Launchbaugh, a rangeland ecology and management professor at the University of Idaho.  Afterwards a spontaneous jam session of traditional country and western folk music, hosted by friends from the Arizona Section and the Wyoming Section, lasted until midnight.  It featured my old friends Jeff Schalau on fiddle, and Julie Conley on guitar and vocals. Adios, mi Corazon!

Post-conference tour of the Coeur d'Alene Valley, Idaho

The Cataldo, a Jesuit mission to the Coeur d'Alenes. The oldest standing building
in Idaho, it was built of waddle-and-daub, a natural building technique related
to adobe and jacal, that pre-dates LEED by a long, long time.

Post-conference tour to Wallace, Idaho, epicenter of the Idaho-Montana fires of
1910 ("the Big Burn"), and home of the original Pulaski tool.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Raising and harvesting bison at the Medano Zapata Ranch

Reports of the West’s death are greatly exaggerated.  I spend a lot of time with ranchers and cowboys, and I just spent a few days among a herd of bison, the West’s most iconic grazing animal, at the Medano Zapata Ranch, at the foot of the Great Sand Dunes and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  A herd of bison grazing, trampling, and raising dust is a spectacular sight for anyone who loves Western rangelands.

The Medano Zapata Ranch is actually two adjacent ranches which together sprawl over 103,000 acres of chico flats, sagebrush, and natural wetlands in the closed basin in the northeastern San Luis Valley. 
The ranch is owned by The Nature Conservancy, leased to Duke Phillips, and managed by Jeff Gossage. 
I spent a few days with Jeff and his wife Carla, enjoying hospitality, food, and great old Americana music on Jeff’s record player.

Jeff, Carla, and I have something in common: none of us grew up ranching.  She is from Germany, where she said most people think of the West as something from the past—like maybe all the cowboys rode off into the sunset decades ago.  Yet here we are, ranching.

Jeff, Rex, and I spent most of two days cutting meat from a young bull bison and Jeff’s large bull elk.  The meat had hung (dry-aged) for 3 to 4 weeks, tenderizing it but also producing the usual rind that we had to trim off.  I like the way that, if the meat is not frozen, the knife finds the right path through the meat.  We carved up steaks and a few roasts, and ground the rest, adding fat from a butchered hog, even making sausage.  Enough to feed the ranch crew for months, if not the year.

We ate some raw backstrap as we carved, which made me feel Paleolithic.  Killing magnificent animals for food, and then cutting and eating that meat, are activities—and skills—close to the core of what it means to be a human.  Which is to say, part elk and part bison.  In a very real sense, “all flesh is grass.” (Not to mention microbes.)

Having put up meat for the winter, I felt like a satisfied bear ready for hibernation.  Then, sleeping under a buffalo robe, I dreamed that I had to slay three knife- or sword-wielding adversaries with my carving knife.
Sangre de Cristo.