Friday, April 8, 2011

To Graze or Not To Graze?

Drought, Forest Service threaten to delay grazing season

The Rio Arriba County Commission voted to declare a state of emergency on behalf of local ranchers after the federal Forest Service threatened to delay the start of cattle grazing season on public lands.

Several stockmen spoke to the Commission at a meeting March 31 and said due to persistent, drought-like conditions in the region, district rangers in the Santa Fe and Carson National Forests were going to push back the date ranchers are permitted to release their cattle onto public grazing lands.

Dennis Gallegos, whose cattle graze on the Polvadera allotment in the Santa Fe National Forest, stood before the Commission the day before his permitted release date and said he was willing to force a confrontation with the Service, though he had been told not to release his cows yet. Then he called upon the commissioners to support him.

“I’m willing to turn the cattle out tomorrow if the County’s willing to challenge (the Service’s) authority,” Gallegos said. “I’m willing to start the brawl.“

Carlos Salazar, president of the Northern New Mexico Stockman’s Association, also spoke at the meeting and said he hoped the Commission and the sheriff would support Gallegos if he defied the Service.

Commission Chairman Felipe Martinez said as a public official the Commission could not encourage civil unrest. Then he added, “If I was in your position, maybe I’d do it too.”

Commissioner Alfredo Montoya agreed with Martinez that the Commission could not encourage defiance of the Service but to appease the ranchers he proposed passing the resolution declaring a state of emergency.

The resolution was drafted on the spot by Salazar, County attorney Ted Trujillo and County Emergency Manager Mateo DeVargas, then passed by the Commission. It declares “a state of emergency for the grazing community“ and calls upon available local resources and emergency measures, though it does not call for any explicit action or set aside any money.

Montoya said the declaration will call attention to the matter and could qualify the County for state resources.

Gallegos, who has one of the earliest permitted entry dates in the Santa Fe National Forest, said he received a verbal warning from Forest Service Range Conservationist Donald Serrano informing him that due to a lack of rainfall, his entry to the Polvadera allotment would be delayed indefinitely.

On April 1, the day Gallegos was supposed to turn his cattle out to graze, he instead met with Española District Ranger Sandy Hurlocker, Serrano and three members of the Range Improvement Task Force from New Mexico State University for a joint evaluation of the grazing land.

Sam Smallidge, of the task force, agreed with Serrano’s assessment that conditions on the range were dry, but said there was enough residual forage from last year to sustain Gallegos’ 30 cattle for at least a month until the date of release for other ranchers’ cattle on the allotment, whereupon a reassessment of the conditions should be conducted.

Smallidge also said a wet summer can be expected following a dry La Niña winter.

But Serrano said if conditions remain dry the entire allotment may have to be abandoned for the season and he was concerned that it would be more difficult to persuade Gallegos to remove his cattle than prevent him from allowing them onto the lands in the first place. Serrano said if the pastures received enough rainfall in the coming weeks to spur the growth of forage grasses for the cows, everything could proceed as normal.

“Why would I leave my cattle in a place with no food and water?” Gallegos said. “I’d rather sell them for $600 each than clip tags off their ears and let them die.”

Serrano fretted that if water remained scarce the ranchers would herd the cows into a higher-altitude pasture, potentially affecting an area the Service is rehabilitating from a forest fire last year and damaging a trout stream.

“We’re under a lot of pressure to take care of the burn area,” Serrano said.

After the joint assessment, Hurlocker, who as district ranger has the final say on the grazing decision, said he would allow Gallegos to turn out his cattle Monday, if he agreed to undertake certain measures, such as hauling water by truck for his cows or removing his cattle, should the dry weather persist

Hurlocker said he would incorporate the added measures into Gallegos’ annual operating instructions — a set of regulations given to each rancher at the start of each season. Hurlocker said situations like this are difficult because he is charged with managing the land for many uses not just cattle.

Gallegos’ reprieve may be temporary. Serrano said ranchers should be prepared with emergency drought plans and may have to sell their cows, send them to slaughter or support them on hay on their own property through all or part of the summer.

Ranchers on the Jarita Mesa and Alamosa allotments in the Carson National Forest — who are already bracing for a season marked by a 20 percent reduction in their permitted cattle — were also given warning in January that if the dry weather continued they would be subject to later entry dates, said Jarita Mesa Rancher Sebedeo Chacon. As of March 31, with many of the ranchers’ entry dates a month or two away, he said the Forest Service had not given him a written notice of any postponement, something he said it is required to do.

The emergency declaration cites delayed entry of livestock in several allotments in the Jemez, San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

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