Tuesday, January 26, 2016

As Bundy's Malheur takeover ends, the real concerns of Sagebrush Country ranchers linger

Ammon Bundy and those that had taken over federal buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge were just arrested with one person killed.  Story here.

I have no love for the Bundys nor their neo-Sagebrush Rebellion, but in my five years in Idaho, I have come to understand some of what makes ranchers in this great expanse of sagebrush desert that covers some 11 states of the northern Rocky Mountains squirm.  A lot of my students come from ranching families, and I hear the struggles people endure.  It’s not an easy life.  And so, in an effort to give some color to why the Bundys have a following, and also some additional context, I wanted to lay out several issues that are going on in this part of the country that are legitimate concerns for these ranchers.

First, species protection has hit this region hard.  There are two big issues going on right now.  The first is the sage grouse.  Even though the sage grouse was not listed under the ESA, the rules put in place to prevent degradation of its habitat will be hard on some ranchers.  The second is bighorn sheep.  Since the late nineteenth century, domesticated sheep have been raised on federal lands in the northern Mountain West with great pride.  However, the domesticated sheep have all but decimated bighorn sheep in the region, science appears to show, through disease transmittal.  In one major case at the Ninth Circuit, Idaho Wool Growers v. Vilsack, a forest plan seeks to reduce grazing of sheep from 100,000 acres to 30,000 acres.  If the Forest Service wins, the policy of dramatically reducing sheep runs in the Mountain West will spread to other national forests and BLM-controlled lands in just a few years.  In short, the attempts to save just the sage grouse and bighorn sheep have dramatically altered grazing in the northern Mountain West.

Second, if you haven’t come to sagebrush country and talked to people, it’s hard to understand how there are families that have been farming these federal lands for generations.  In the weird world of renewable, non-compete grazing permits, there are families that have grazed federal land for generations but do not own it.  There is an odd tenant-farmer reality:  some of these families have been here for generations but do not own any land.  This creates immense hostility, especially when new conditions are placed on those permits.

Third, these families that have been here for generations have engaged in something of an open secret:  there are a few very large holders of federal grazing permits.  This is hard to track down, but I have been told by several reliable sources that many of the largest grazers utilize shell companies to hold their permits to obscure the true extent of their holdings.  In essence, grazing on federal land is agglomerated just like so much of the rest of the food system.  So, when you see ranchers out there talking about their permits, they are probably one of two types.  The first is a very savvy player in a large agribusiness-type operation; the second is a hardscrabble individual who is holding on under an increasingly difficult permit system.

Fourth, the remoteness of sagebrush country feels like it is a world apart; it is, but when it's federal land, the rules of law apply in ways that are not common for a place where things are still done with a handshake.  In this land, there is no state or local official that will touch you.  I know local building inspectors that are fearful to issue notices of violation for building permits in these remote places.  But federal law is something altogether different.  It doesn’t bend like the state and local officials; it comes at you the same no matter where.  That is what is hard for people born to this place to get.  Even if everything is for sale at the state or local level…the feds, they actually say what they mean.  They don’t play by house rules, and what appears like the general application of the rule of law to anyone who doesn’t live here feels like bald tyranny to those used to being able to intimidate their way out of enforcement by state or local officials.

Fifth, it is hard to underestimate the effects of globalization on these remote farms.  My clinic visited a rancher that had 6,000 head of cattle several years ago.  There is no slaughterhouse in Idaho, so he sends most of his cattle to California or Oklahoma for slaughter.  His most profitable operation is a connection with a chef in Korea who pays the rancher to personally escort his best cattle to Seoul every fall.  That type of globalization is just simply remarkable when you stand in this isolated sagebrush country.  It also means that the pressures of the global market have come here, too.  These ranchers feel it, and they struggle under that global competition.

Sixth, climate change is real here.  Fires are bigger and more common, which reduces grazing.  There is an ongoing drought, which also affects grazing.  The increasing effects of both drought and fire will continue to make it harder to raise cattle or sheep on public lands.

This is not an encyclopedic list of every grievance that ranchers in sagebrush country have.  However, I thought that it was unfair to let the Bundys stand in for the real grievances so many have here.  Even for those that advocate for less grazing on public lands—I am probably among them—have to recognize that there are legitimate concerns of the ranchers that are trying to make a livelihood in these places.  The Bundys have made a carnival side-show of these concerns.  Even if we were to achieve some environmentally optimal result that eliminated grazing on public lands, some solution for the economies of these rural places must begin.  Otherwise, the Bundys will be able to be martyrs in what is otherwise simply the enforcement of the rule of law we all expect and desire.


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Stephen - Thanks for this perspective. It's indeed a hardscrabble life. My family had a ranch in Eastern Montana until they lost it when the price of beef went through the floor in the 80s. Some of the dynamics of absentee ownership were playing out even then, and the folks who work on the margins of the system do indeed struggle. And, at the same time, they have a perverse sense of entitlement. It's a crazy dynamic.

Posted by: Jamie Baker Roskie | Jan 28, 2016 9:30:31 AM