“Owyhee 68” – Home on the Range

MELBA KUNA NEWS  (Nov. 12, 2014) – Encompassing 7,665 square miles, Owyhee County is Idaho’s second-largest county. Its landscape of desert, rolling hills, mountains and farmland is used for farming, recreation and, the majority of the area, as grassland.

The primary occupation in the small communities is ranching, and the economy is based in agriculture. Neighbors are miles apart and willing to lend a hand when times get tough.

The Wild West and “Cowboys” are glorified in thousands of novels and hundreds of motion pictures — True Grit, Bonanza, Tombstone, John Wayne, Sam Elliott. So what does this have to do with Owyhee County?

With such a vast area of rangeland, the reality is the cowboy still exists. He still rides a horse followed closely by his dogs. Though he may tow the horse in a trailer behind his pickup, but at the point where the road gives out, his horse becomes indispensable. He understands the land, cattle and horses just as his predecessors did, and his work is essential to the Idaho cattle industry.

The life in Owyhee County is ranching, and for decades cattlemen have purchased land permits to graze the animals on public lands. The cattle is grazed on nature’s grass, growing on intermingled federal and private lands based at the bottom of the Owyhee Resource Area. Historical ranches along with cowboys have managed this tradition. The cows are turned out in the spring and work upwards with the active growing season. While the cows graze at higher elevations, the hay crops grow on the ranch to feed the animals during the winter.

Since the mid-1990s the Bureau of Land Management has reduced the number of cows that Owyhee County ranchers can put out to graze.

As extremist groups have followed a strategy to file lawsuits with claims of impacts on endangered species, the BLM has restricted grazing use to protect the unjust species claims.

Across the West there are cut backs to fishing, timber, water, grazing, public access, hunting and natural resources. Cattlemen have been willing to look at better ways to manage grazing, but it is never enough for the extremist groups.

The ranches have been formed to utilize the growing seasons of public and private lands. Through the latest BLM decisions, the Owyhee 68 permittees, who graze their livestock on more than 100,000 acres of land, are being forced to take reductions of 50 percent or more in their AUMs (Animal Unit Monthly), reducing the number of cattle they can graze.

Ranchers associated with the Owyhee 68 have hit back, arguing their interests lie in managing and protecting the land and wildlife as well.

The agency’s choice to follow the political pressures of anti-grazing claims and frivolous lawsuits hinders the land management system. As the anti-grazing group Western Watersheds Project files lawsuits to try to run ranchers out of business, they can recoup the legal fees through the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), which uses tax dollars to reimburse WWP’s legal fees. The ranchers have not been able to use EAJA to recoup their legal fees.

To study the sage-grouse, which could lead to possible Endangered Species listing, the BLM requests ranchers notify the agency when sage grouse are spotted. The area in which the bird is spotted is further restricted from grazing yet Fish and Game still offers a hunting season for these birds.

“We (the Owyhee 68) have had anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent reductions proposed,” Owyhee County rancher Brenda Richards said. “You cannot sustain 50 percent reductions in your business.”

For decades, cowboys ride their horses across the range, moving the livestock that graze the area. They are proud of their heritage and culture and do not want be pushed out of business like the forest industry.

“A sustainable resource is our livelihood,” Richards said, “so we have to take care of the land and assure it’s there for generations.”

Ranchers are concerned that reducing grazing AUMs will increase the fuel load, leading to costly wildfires that will harm the wildlife. Fire is the No.1 threat to sage-grouse numbers.

“The easiest alternative for the government agency is to reduce the grazing,” Idaho Cattle Association vice president Wyatt Prescott said. “We believe the proper way to do this is through the parameters of existing law and to allow for due process.”

Idaho cattlemen take pride in the healthy beef product. Consumers across the nation are asking for food products that are natural or organic. The livestock that are grazed here in Owyhee County are eating the natural grasses. No chemicals. No preservatives. Cage-free. It is growing food the most natural way.

Because of the unreasonable reduction of these grazing AUMs, the Owyhee 68 have taken the agency to court, claiming the reasons behind the restrictions are not backed by solid evidence. The environmental assessment failed to consider a reasonable alternative that included the utilization of the ranchers’ range improvement projects.

Bull suppliers fear the economic impacts this decision will have on their business along with the consequences to many surrounding small towns. Grocery stores, gas stations, repair shops and equipment dealerships in these western towns depend on Owyhee County ranchers.

Owyhee County communities are rooted in or reside around the Owyhee Resource Area. Oreana, Murphy, Reynolds Creek, Marsing, Homedale, Jordan Valley and communities stretching southwest to the Nevada border are associated with a cultural identity, and ranching follows this tradition as it has in the past.

All of these ranches are important to the viability of their surrounding communities. In books about Idaho and the West — many available through the Owyhee County Historical Society at its museum in Murphy — there is a pattern of use with continued value — ranching.

A traditional culture consists of the beliefs and practices held or observed by specific human groups that have been passed down from their ancestors through their grandparents, parents and the society around them that has been regularly done in the past.  The American Cowboy, buckaroos, vaqueros all celebrate a western tradition with ranch hand rodeos and brandings. This is Owyhee County.

Our biggest threat will be the economic loss to surrounding towns and communities, Owyhee County Commissioner Jerry Hoagland says. A University of Idaho study shows that severe grazing reductions would result in a revenue loss of millions of dollars for the Owyhee County economy.

The Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association was formed in 1878.

“We’re all in this together,” OCA president Kenny Kershner said. “We need to protect our historic way of life along with the interests of livestock producers in and around Owyhee County.

“This will set precedence as to how the anti-grazing groups continue, and similar government agency action could spread to neighboring counties and states. Jurisdiction of the state of Idaho and surrounding western states should be managed by the people who live in and know the seasonal issues of the land.”

The Idaho Cattle Association, the Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association, Public Lands Council, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Idaho Farm Bureau have teamed together to litigate against these outrageous decisions.  We need to protect those who are passionate for Owyhee County and our ranching history.

Printed with permission.