Ranchers try more natural approach
Sheep business sets environmental goals
By GREG MOORE
Express Staff Writer
Not many ranchers assemble teams of
scientists to help them develop environmentally friendly grazing plans. But a
Blaine County sheep operation has done just that, as part of its effort to
combine the all-natural meat business with a dedication to wildlife and range
A band of sheep moves from winter
to summer range in the southern foothills of the Pioneer Mountains in June. Lava
Lake, east of Carey, is in the background.
Lava Lake Land and Livestock was created
out of several sheep outfits near Carey bought four years ago by a San Francisco
couple named Brian and Kathleen Bean.
"They were shopping around for a property
where they could do habitat work," said the company’s chief operating officer,
One indication that the Beans are sincere
in their environmental goals is that Stevens is a former biologist with The
The couple’s holdings include the
24,000-acre Lava Lake Ranch and grazing privileges on 730,000 acres of
public-lands allotments. Most of those are between Shoshone and Carey, but the
network of U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and state-owned
parcels extends as far as the Boulder Mountains, north of Ketchum. Lava Lake has
donated 7,500 acres of its private land to The Nature Conservancy as a
conservation easement, which prohibits subdivision by future owners.
The business is getting off the ground at
a time of decreasing public tolerance for the impacts imposed on public lands by
livestock grazing. There are those who contend that ranching on arid Western
lands simply cannot be both profitable and environmentally sustainable. Though
Stevens says Lava Lake is not trying to be a model for anyone else, its approach
can’t help but make it a test case in that debate.
Goal is finding new niche
The company is trying to find a niche
between grazing as usual and the more extreme solution advocated by the
Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project—eliminating public-lands grazing
"We would share with Western Watersheds
the desire to see healthy ecosystems and abundant wildlife," Stevens said. "But
we differ in our strategies to achieve that goal. We are developing a business
that actually supports our work. The ongoing challenge is, how do you sustain
the stewardship efforts over the long term?"
A long-term photo monitoring point for
sagebrush habitat near the West Fork of Fish Creek, northeast of Carey. The
picture was taken in June 2002.
Stevens believes that long-term protection
of both public and private range lands requires that they be economically
useful. If they aren’t, he said, the private parcels will inevitably be
subdivided, and therefore more difficult to manage as whole landscapes. Stevens
doesn’t subscribe to the extreme view that our only choice is between ranches
and condos, but he does believe that if the land isn’t ranched, there will be
more roads, more spread of noxious weeds and less winter habitat for wildlife.
To reverse the impacts of a century of
grazing, Lava Lake is reducing both the numbers of sheep it grazes and the time
each band spends in one spot. Before the company’s formation, 10 bands of close
to 1,000 sheep each had been grazed on the land that now makes up its holdings.
Lava Lake has reduced those numbers to nine bands of 850 to 900 animals each. By
next year, it expects that to be down to six bands.
"The point at which it will stabilize is
the point at which the monitoring data tell us that the ecological situation has
stabilized," said Tess O’Sullivan, a consulting ecologist for the company.
Lava Lake’s grazing plan includes
prohibiting the herds from camping out at water sources, bedding them in
different spots each night and avoiding trailing them through gully bottoms
The plan is also "predator-friendly." With
the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nez Perce Tribe, Lava
Lake keeps track of nearby wolf packs through radio collars installed on some of
those animals. Herders move the bands when the wolves get close.
All of that requires more careful and
intensive management than is the norm. To cover those costs and the reduction in
sheep numbers, the company is marketing its lamb as "all natural"—a designation
that allows it to carry a heftier price tag. "All natural" means the lambs have
not been given antibiotics or growth hormones. Lava Lake sells its meat to local
restaurants and direct to health-conscious consumers.
The next step, Stevens, said, is to
arrange conditions so the lambs can carry the "organic" label. That will require
no use of pesticides or herbicides on their forage. Stevens said that has been
done on the Lava Lake Ranch, but the company will have to negotiate with the
Forest Service and the BLM to eliminate spraying on their public-lands
So far, Lava Lake has had to sell 80
percent of its lambs on the open market. However, the organic food business is
growing by at least 15 percent annually nationwide.
"It’s not just a fringe industry anymore,"
Stevens said. "People want non-feedlot lamb and beef. The problem is how to get
it from us to the consumer."
What really makes Lava Lake more than just
a livestock business is its support of range land research. Stevens said that
since the Beans bought the property, 35 scientists have conducted field surveys
there that will not only guide Lava Lake’s grazing plans but will collect data
to add to the general knowledge of range land ecosystems.
Strict scientific methods followed
Stevens said most range land surveys have
been done on an anecdotal basis—someone goes out now and then to see how things
are coming along. Lava Lake’s goal is to follow strict scientific methods.
Stevens said researchers have set up projects in a variety of riparian and
upland habitats. They have set transects along creeks, taking vegetation samples
at prescribed distances and at regularly scheduled times.
The data collected will help write
restoration plans and recovery plans for the sage grouse, on Lava Lake’s land
and elsewhere. Sage grouse are a species of concern throughout the West due to
their dwindling populations.
A graduate student at Montana State
University is conducting research on riparian song birds and an Idaho Department
of Fish and Game biologist is planning to redo a bird survey initially conducted
20 years ago to determine how things have changed.
"We want to know what’s really going on
out there," Stevens said. "Over time we’re going to build a data base that
should be extremely useful."
Lava Lake’s grazing management plans are
evolving with the help of a volunteer board of advisors. The board includes Guy
Bonnivier, former state director of The Nature Conservancy; Bellevue resident
Maurice Hornocker, well known for his research on predators; and former
University of Idaho wildlife biologist Jim Peek.
"I’m trying to be a skeptic," Peek said in
an interview. "We’re going to hold them accountable and hope they can justify
their methods. So far, we’ve gotten along pretty well. They’ve been able to hold
their own with me."
Peek believes that decisions on whether to
graze particular areas need to be made on a case-by-case basis. He said that
overgrazed vegetation in some areas can be brought back faster with limited and
targeted livestock use.
"There’s lots of evidence that strict
protection is not the way to go," he said. "If you don’t stimulate things, then
they don’t tend to respond."
However, Peek acknowledged that that is
rarely the case with riparian areas, and that even grazing in dry, upland areas
needs to be managed at a level that many ranchers can’t afford.
The Sawtooth National Forest’s Ketchum
District ranger, Kurt Nelson, also points to Lava Lake’s operations as a model
for public-lands grazing in the future. He said that changes in grazing patterns
throughout the district are effecting continual improvements in range
"I think if you’ve got smaller bands and
are able to move them over a larger area, you can minimize the impacts so they
are acceptable to most people," he said.
However, he said, increasing recreational
use of the district is continually raising the bar for what is acceptable.
Cautious optimism debated
The cautious optimism expressed by Nelson
and Peek is not shared by Western Watersheds Project Executive Director Jon
Marvel, who applauds Lava Lake’s attempts, but believes its operations cannot be
sustained without indefinite subsidies from its owners. He contends that the
only way Lava Lake’s books can be balanced is by ignoring the investment in its
land purchase—an option not available to most ranchers.
"What they’re doing is commendable,"
Marvel said, "but you’re not going to pay for all those scientists by selling
lamb. It would only be a model for someone of equivalent or greater economic
"I think the Beans are a great help to the
landscape at this time," he added. "They show that in order to have recovery of
wildlife and natural systems, you have to have drastic reductions in livestock.
That’s a great message to send to other ranchers out there."
Marvel acknowledges that sheep, because
they travel in tight bands that can be moved by herders, are less destructive to
the landscape than are cattle. However, he contends, even with Lava Lake’s
reductions in animal numbers, grazing on public lands has unacceptable impacts.
He raises the following points:
- Domestic sheep carry diseases that are
fatal to wild bighorn sheep. The bighorns that used to inhabit the Boulder,
Smoky and Pioneer mountains cannot be brought back as long as domestic sheep
are grazed there.
- Sheep eat aspen shoots. During hot
weather, the sheep will bed down in aspen groves whether the herders want them
there or not.
- By eating the forbs (small,
broad-leafed plants) in sagebrush country, sheep reduce the habitat available
to sage grouse.
- Sheep pollute streams by defecating and
urinating in them.
"Any time you have large numbers of
domestic animals in a natural setting, you have negative impacts," Marvel said.
Stevens readily admits that there are more
questions than answers about sheep grazing on the arid hillsides surrounding the
Wood River Valley.
"What makes sense from an environmental
perspective and what makes sense from a business perspective?" he asks. "We’re
still very much in the process of finding out what this business is going to