Going to the mountain: Ranchers speak on federal landsWritten by Christy Martinez
Big Horn County – From rangeland monitoring to Coordinated Resource Management (CRMs) to rotational grazing and full-time cowboys, the public lands ranchers in Big Horn County rely on many strategies to make, and keep, grazing on federal land possible.
Merle and Eleanor Hamilton, who live on their family’s ranch north of Hyattville, remember a time without grazing permits and government intervention.
“I remember when the BLM first started to ask where we were going next, after so many years of planning our allotments our own way,” says Eleanor. “Pretty soon they got a little more heavy-handed, and I can’t imagine what my father would think these days, with the regulations we have to abide by.”
Merle says Eleanor’s dad was instrumental in dividing up the federal land when the Taylor Grazing Act passed.
“Something definitely needed to be done,” says Eleanor. “The range was in very poor condition from overuse, and anyone who wanted to could buy a little bunch of sheep and go out wherever they wanted.”
Merle says he was told that at one time there were 14 sheepwagons between Hyattville and Manderson.
“My dad agreed with the concept to an extent – he realized that something had to be done, and it had to be managed,” says Eleanor. “But he was very conservative, and he believed in very limited government. If he saw the way things are today, I’m sure it would be almost too much for him.”
Today some cattle and sheep operatorsrun on their BLM permits on an actual use basis, which they say is convenient.
“We submit our AUMs twice a year so the BLM knows how many units we run at what period of time and where they’ve been,” says Keith Hamilton, who now manages the Hamilton ranch with his wife Linda north of Hyattville. “Actual use is convenient for us because, as we turn out of our meadows in the spring, we can go in ahead of time and anticipate what our numbers will be, and the BLM bills us accordingly.”
“This year was certainly an example of that, because we couldn’t get to the mountain as early as we normally do, so we’ve been able to work with both agencies to make it work so we didn’t have a gap in the middle with no place to go,” adds Linda.
Keith says the jury’s still out on their grazing on the mountain this year.
“We don’t have the production in the higher country that we normally do, but the lower country is exceptional with all the rain. Right now it appears we’ll be a little short on the upper end, but we aren’t stocked to the point we ever have to worry too much about that,” he says.
“We are blessed with enough private land on the slope and on the mountain that we have quite a bit of flexibility,” continues Keith. “It helps juggle things a little bit if we need to.”
Gene Robertson, who ranches from east of Hyattville with his wife Kris and daughter and son-in-law Amanda and Cal Tharp, says he thinks wolves will be one of the major issues on the Big Horn forest permits.
“Up to now we haven’t had packs of wolves, but when we do get packs, it’s not so much what they kill, but that they won’t let the cows stay,” he says. “We won’t be able to keep our cows anywhere, and it’ll be tough to keep weight on our calves.”
Of grazing on federal land, Gene says, “We make mistakes, but my thinking is that it will be ok, as long as we don’t make the same mistakes in the same place every year. Nobody’s perfect with the cows – they’ll be cows – but overall I think our deal with the Forest Service has been pretty good.”
Stan Flitner of Shell agrees, saying, “It’s pretty hard for a rancher to go out and destroy the environment, because he doesn’t have enough money, and he’s too busy. He may make some big mistakes, but it’s nothing he can’t solve.”
Although Stan describes their relationship with the Forest Service as tough over the last few years, he says it seems to be getting better.
“You could say the federal agencies are exactly as good as the personnel they have on the ground where you are,” adds Stan’s wife Mary Flitner. “I think the agencies’ emphasis in the Big Horns has become heavily toward recreation, with a disregard for grazing, other than its visual aspects.”
“I don’t think they have a very good concept of livestock. They don’t understand livestock, and most don’t stay here long enough to learn anything about livestock,” says Stan. “The problem is they move. If you get a good one, he’s gone, and if you get a poor one he’s here forever.”
Stan says that transient tendency results in a federal agency that has no sense of history.
“There’s no connection,” he says. “Nobody knows how to connect the dots, because they’re not here long enough to see a change. That’s our biggest obstacle.”
In dealing with the public and recreationists, Gene says they run in the Paintrock Basin, which is hard to access any way other than horseback, but in the summer they camp in the Battle Park campground.
“We get along really well with most people there,” he says. “More out-of-state people are coming in and spending a lot of time in the country, and 99 percent of them are good about shutting gates. There’s only one percent that shows up every once in a while that will leave gates open.”
“We try to have the same purpose with our federal land as we do the private – trying to make it so the next generation can take it and not feel that they’ve got to fix a mess,” says Keith of his land management philosophy.