Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Heather Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch: This Land I Love

I have loved this land and have enjoyed taking care of the cattle on it —
such as moving these cattle to a higher pasture in late summer —
from the time I was a little girl riding range to help with my father's cattle.

My husband and I are cattle ranchers, mainly because we enjoy working with animals and because we love the land and variety of life it sustains. The heart of our small cattle operation is our public range — summer mountain pasture that is home to our cows and calves for 4 months while we are putting up hay on our home place.

It saddens me that there are people in our country who want to eliminate livestock grazing on public lands. I don't think they understand how natural and necessary grazing is and how the grass and grazer depend on one another in a symbiotic relationship. Proper grazing is very important to the health and reproduction of range grasses. The grazing animals are an important part of the ecology in these regions. Bison played the role of bovine grazer in earlier times. Our cattle are merely filling that ecological gap left by the bison. Plains buffalo were the native grazers in the Midwest and some of the prairie regions of the West. Mountain buffalo (or the woods bison) were a smaller subspecies that lived in more rugged terrain of the West, including our region of central-eastern Idaho. Local residents have found numerous bison bones, skulls, and horn shells on these rangelands, especially at the base of old “buffalo jumps,” where Native Americans herded the animals over cliffs to their deaths to harvest the meat and hides. Here on our own rangeland, we’ve found several ancient horn shells at “buffalo wallows,” where the animals loved to paw in the loose earth and cover themselves with dust to hinder the biting flies.

Bison filled the major grazing role in centuries past.

Over the years we've found several ancient bison horns
and horn shells on our cattle range.

A myth has been created by certain interests — people who believe that grazing is harmful and unnatural. I also feel that many people don't realize that most range ranchers are very good stewards of the land, doing their best to take good care of it. My husband and I have invested our lives and our efforts into this land, and we know that our use of it has made it even better for the wildlife with which we share it. Over the past 45 years we've made many improvements and have seen increases in deer, antelope, and other native wildlife. Elk, which were not historically present in our area (they were "planted" by the Fish & Game Department during the late 1930s and early ’40s), began to move into our range about 30 years ago, and we now have a large resident elk herd.

Our piece of mountain grassland is very special to me. I love it shamelessly and utterly, in a love affair that began when I was ten years old, riding range to help care for my father's cattle. This love of the land grew to be one of the abiding passions of my existence.

For the past 53 years, my family's cattle
have enjoyed their summers on this rangeland.

This is the land that nurtured me, raised me, taught me many of the wisdoms I value most. It is an ancient land, a patient land, a productive land. It was the home of a thriving Native American culture long before my time, of bison now long gone, and of millions of generations of wildlife. It witnessed countless dramas of life and death. It saw the beginnings of ranching in this valley, the early settlers and their livestock. Many herds of cattle, sheep, and horses roamed upon it. It saw conflict, strife, and failure, including numerous homestead efforts that failed, and bore it with patient indifference. Many of the early marks of man upon the land are now faded and gone.

This land sustains our family and cattle,
and today our grandchildren help ride range:
grandson Nick is helping move cattle to the high range.

This land and the creatures upon it present an endless kaleidoscope of life and color. It is timeless, yet ever new — the same, yet changing. Though I may see it every day of my life, it is always different, with something new to see.

The land sustains my family’s and our children’s and their children’s cattle, and maybe someday our grandchildren's cattle, if they choose to lead this kind of life and if ranchers are still allowed to graze the land by then. My cattle, my horses, and my children grew up on this land. Our children were riding with me before they were old enough to handle their own horses, riding a gentle old mare that I led from my saddle horse. The range is part of their life, their childhood memories, their heritage.

Our cattle love this land also. It is their favorite part of our ranch, and they're never more content than when spending their summers foraging on the grassy slopes or lazily chewing their cuds on a high ridge, catching the cool breeze. Any cow that has to stay “home” for some reason is restless and unhappy, even in the lush and greener irrigated fields. Those cows feel the pull of the mountains and wistfully long to be there.

One thing I know for certain — this land will be here long after I am gone. I am not nearly as important to it as it is to me. One of my greatest joys and satisfactions is having been able to spend my life upon it while I am here. This land is not mine; I belong to it. And it is this belonging, this gratitude, love, and passion that is one of the main driving forces of my life. This land has given me one of the most important reasons for being.

It helps me realize who I am and where I am going and gives me daily satisfaction in what I'm doing. Trying my best each day to care for my animals, which involves caring for the land that feeds them, helps me know that I am one with creation, at peace with my Creator, finding my own fit in this great world and universe. Belonging to the land, working with Nature in her seasons, gives me a sense of wholeness and satisfaction that I don't think I could find very easily in any other way. We come to love that which sustains and nurtures us. The rancher who is dedicated to his unique way of life will always be a good steward of the land, for he knows that, if he takes good care of it, the land will take good care of him.

Our cattle are most content when spending their summers on the range.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. You can read all of her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.

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