Bringing it back: Sears family continues to operate, improve ranches
Opal – In the 1870s, Bill Sears’ grandfather, James W. Chrisman, moved to the land north of Opal where the original homestead still stands near the house.
“Bill’s grandfather put together 13 ranches over two counties,” says Bill’s wife Alice. “He was in the legislature, he was a banker, he was a sheepman and he was a cattleman.”
The original family brand – the flying W – is still held by one of Bill’s cousins.
“We ran as a family operation into 1998, when we began exchanging our family shares that we ranch today,” Alice continues, referencing three separate ranches. “Bill is the third generation, and he’s always believed he is a caretaker for the ranches. He’s got a lot of history here.”
Bill was born and raised in Kemmerer and Opal, ranching through his youth and childhood. In his early days, Bill worked in the mines and drove semi trucks, but when his uncle needed his help, he returned to the ranch in the late 70s.
“He’s grown up on the ranch,” Alice explains. “When his uncle died in an accident in 1984, Bill took over then.”
Another old family brand was that of the horseshoe spear, which is the brand Bill now holds on the Horseshoe Spear Cattle Company.
Horseshoe Spear Cattle Company was formed in 1998. They run a herd of Angus cross cattle.
“It’s a good English-based cross, mainly black-hided,” notes Alice.
“The idea is to buy high and sell low, and I’m in the midst of buying another 100 head of cows,” he explains. “I’ve done all kinds of things to make the operation work.”
Each year, they begin calving at the end of March, in an attempt to avoid cold weather and blizzards. They then brand in early May.
Alice notes that there are a number of things that they have changed over the years in order to continue operating and improve the ranch. Last winter, for example, they wintered another rancher’s cattle for the first time.
“It was something we had never done,” says Alice. “We had some excess hay, and we had a man contact us to winter his animals.”
For the future, she adds that it is something they may do again.
“We’ll either buy more cows or winter someone else’s,” says Alice of the future of the business. “This is Wyoming – we do what we can to stay in business.”
They have also had to seek new places to summer their cattle. In most years, they turn out on upper BLM range or Forest Service allotments, but they decided to take voluntary non-use of the allotments for controlled burns. In search of new summer range, Bill stumbled on Anadarko’s Company Ranch.
“We’ve worked with Anadarko for many years, and they like the way Bill treats the land,” Alice explains.
The Company Ranch
“Bill and one of our neighbors, George Collins, are in a partnership, and they are running the Company Ranch for Anadarko,” say Alice. “It is a very, very old historical ranch, and it needed some work.”
With the Company Ranch in need of some significant rehabilitation, they have begun working to restore it to its glory.
“We’ve been working with the Game and Fish Department, the BLM, Anadarko and NRCS,” she comments. “We are trying to bring it back to full production and bring all the old water sources back.”
In the work that has been done, Alice notes that there are signs of sage grouse showing up more frequently, and the wildlife corridors are being opened again.
Work on the ranch includes removing fences and working with NRCS on a comprehensive ranch plan.
“We are looking at every water source, spring and old pond to see what can be reworked,” says Alice. “They are also trying to bring the irrigation systems back.”
They are also working to reestablish hay fields and rehabilitate land where the Ruby Pipeline went through.
“We inter-seeded, fertilized and fixed a lot of irrigation. Last year, we were able to get some hay off the land,” she continues. “This year, we didn’t get any hay off of it, but we’ve raised some good pasture.”
“When it benefits, everyone is going to benefit,” adds Alice. “It really has been a good project.”
In light of the changing political climate, changes in the industry and changes in society, Alice notes that the future of agriculture is very uncertain.
“We are uncertain whether the climate is going to be conducive to passing on the ranch,” Alice says. “It’s the challenges.”
Bill marks labor uncertainty as being particularly difficult.
“Trying to get kids or young people to come and help is hard,” he notes. “They don’t want to do chores or feed horses.”
With difficulty finding help and no children interested in taking over, he worries about the future of the operation.
Alice also adds that rules and regulations also make it very difficult to continue operating.
“Every time we turn around, there is a new rule,” she says. “We have to stay on top of things, and they have changed so fast.”
In order to maintain healthy rangelands and systems, Bill focuses on the ranch as a whole, considering the cattle, rangelands and wildlife.
“I’m a holistic manager,” says Bill. “I really like being able to leave some grass out there to graze.”
“Bill isn’t a cowboy, he’s a rancher,” says Alice. “He loves the land, he loves the animals and he’s got a lot of natural knowledge.”
“It’s not how much money you have,” Bill comments. “It’s the time you are here – that is what is of value. I try to make the best of my time here.”