Being a cowboy probably never involved so much red tape.
Officials this month proposed new rules for the management of the livestock operation on the 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve, covering everything from where to locate a fence to how much grass cows can eat.
The regulations also have implications for outdoors enthusiasts and environmentalists concerned about the protection of and access to the preserve's jaw-dropping vistas and prized trout waters.
The proposed guidelines are contained in an environmental assessment that's open for public comment through Feb. 2.
It replaces a previous assessment completed in 2002 that allowed preserve managers to launch the annual grazing program on an interim basis.
Officials say the new, more comprehensive assessment gives managers more leeway in running the ranch. It empowers managers to decide how many head of cattle and miles of fencing are appropriate given preserve goals like turning a profit and protecting the environment.
"What we want is the flexibility to manage the resources," said preserve manager Dennis Trujillo.
Four plans for grazing are analyzed in the assessment. The one favored by managers would allocate up to 40 percent of the grasses and other forage produced annually for grazing by livestock and the approximately 2,500 elk that reside on the land most of the year.
Preserve scientist Bob Parmenter said 40 percent is the magic number to ensure the forage keeps growing.
While the 2002 assessment capped head of cattle at 2,000, the new proposal doesn't include any such limit. Still, Parmenter said the forage parameters will keep the number of livestock on the preserve from climbing much higher than that.
Managers expect the proposal would allow the removal of up to 12 miles of existing fencing and installation about 3.5 miles of new, more wildlife-friendly fence. The Valles Caldera Trust maintains more than 54 miles of perimeter and 64 miles of interior fence.
A second alternative considered in the assessment would allocate only 5 percent of forage to grazing. The option would allow for the removal of most of the interior fencing, allowing opportunities to traverse the preserve unimpeded by gates or fences.
Officials hope the plan will help reverse decades worth of high-intensity livestock operations while also achieving financial self-sustainability by 2015, as mandated by Congress when the preserve was created.
But the environmental group WildEarth Guardians has argued that the preserve's "sustainable" grazing practices only further deteriorate the land and water. Cattle can destroy stream bank vegetation and cause erosion, leaving waterways wider, shallower and warmer, to the detriment of trout.
The group this year submitted its own bid for the preserve's livestock program "for the privilege not to graze the preserve."
But the contract went to rancher Gary Morton for 1,960 steers, turning a small profit for the preserve.
The environmental assessment can be viewed at www.vallescaldera.gov.