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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of November 12 - 18, 2003


Ranchers try more natural approach

Sheep business sets environmental goals

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 conservation.

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, Mike Stevens.

One indication that the Beans are sincere in their environmental goals is that Stevens is a former biologist with The Nature Conservancy.

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 entirely.

"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 whenever possible.

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 allotments.

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 conditions.

"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 means."

"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 be."



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