West Elk Livestock Association

Posted: Feb 1, 2006
Written by: 
April Reese

West Elk Wilderness, Gunnison National Forest, near Paonia, Colorado

Objective: To maintain a safe, secure, rural community with economic, social, and biological diversity while fostering abundant and diverse flora and fauna, clean air and water, and stable soils.

Participants: Six ranching families who hold seven grazing permits on the West Elk grazing allotment; Forest Service range specialists; local citizens. Currently, no environmental or recreation groups participate.

History: The West Elk grazing allotment is located in the northwest stretch of the West Elk Mountains, along the North Fork of the Gunnison River valley southeast of the town of Paonia. The 90,000-acre allotment encompasses primarily national forest land, and 60,000 acres lie within the West Elk Wilderness. The elevation varies from 6,000 to 12,000 feet, ranging from desert adobe hills and washes on the west side to pinyon pine and juniper-covered mesas and aspen-cloaked mountain slopes on the east side.

Livestock grazing has been part of the landscape in the West Elks for more than a century. The West Elk allotment came together in 1981, when four separate allotments were combined into one. At first, the newly united allotment followed a "deferred-rotation" grazing strategy, where a certain percentage of the forage in a grazing unit was left ungrazed for a period. But while that approach helps conserve forage to a certain extent, it can be overly rigid and does not consider other factors, such as recreational use and wildlife needs. In 1994, hoping to find a better strategy, the permittees and the Forest Service got together and came up with a holistic management plan for the allotment, taking those factors into account while also aiming to improve the range.

The key management tool in this new approach, now in its 12th year on the West Elk allotment, is herding. All six families that run cattle on the allotment manage their animals as a single herd, which typically numbers about 1,000 cow/calf pairs. Herd riders on horseback - usually the permittees themselves - keep the herd moving through 30 different pastures at various elevations over the course of a season (May to October). The animals are moved in a figure-eight pattern: one year, in a clockwise direction around the figure eight; the next year, counter-clockwise.

The length of time the animals stay on one pasture varies from as few as two days to as long as two weeks, depending on the condition of the pasture, the time of year, the presence of wildlife, and recreational use. Keeping the herd from staying too long in any one place prevents overgrazing and makes use of the best forage on all the pastures, participating ranchers say. Keeping the animals moving has not resulted in a drop in weaning weights. In fact, allowing the livestock to move to fresh pasture and fresh water sources improves the condition of the animals, said Justin McConkey, a range specialist with the Gunnison National Forest's Paonia Ranger District.

The Forest Service has established several long-term monitoring points on the allotment to keep an eye on range conditions and examine how the pastures are responding to grazing management. The agency has set up a "Grazing Response Index," which uses annual monitoring data to evaluate how the livestock utilize the pastures and how the plants respond. Wildlife use of the allotment is also monitored.

The group's annual meetings are open to the public, giving locals an opportunity to offer input on the grazing plan for the following year. The Forest Service posts the annual grazing schedule at trailheads in the West Elk Wilderness so that hikers and hunters know where to expect to cross paths with cattle.
ph.westelk6.jpg ph.westelk7.jpg
 Trail Creek, 1932. The pasture was grazed by 500 cow/calf pairs for 2 periods totalling 43 days.
Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service
 Trail Creek, 1999. The pasture was grazed by 1200 cow/calf pairs for 12 days.
Photo by Dave Bradford, USDA Forest Service
Accomplishments: By working together, the six ranching families have found greater stability and economic viability than if they had continued to operate separately. Their holistic, collaborative approach has paid off ecologically as well: The public lands on which the groups graze their cattle are in better shape now than they were 15 years ago, when the families first began experimenting with herding, said Dave Bradford, range and wildlife staff officer for the Paonia Ranger District. In fact, Bradford credits the holistic management practices the families have implemented with helping them weather the recent drought. Moving the cattle from pasture to pasture throughout the season gives range plants a chance to grow and build up hardy root systems, so they're better able to recover after grazing and to withstand dry periods. And since the rotation system improves range conditions, it can potentially expand the grazing season. On the West Elk allotment, managers have been able to increase capacity by 200 head and extend the season by an average of 20 days. Keeping a rider with the herd also prevents animals from wandering into sensitive areas or staying in one place too long, which can lead to overgrazing, erosion, or the fouling of streams.

Holistic management has helped the ranchers' bottom line as well. By pooling their herds, the six ranching families are able to cut costs. While keeping a rider with the herd can be expensive, one rider oversees the entire, pooled herd, which reduces costs that the individual ranchers would incur if they were running separate operations. So even though herding is more labor-intensive, labor costs are about the same as they would be if the ranchers ran their cattle separately. The ranchers have seen improvement in their animals as well. Weaning weights and conception rates have increased, while losses from consumption of poisonous plants have decreased. The rotation schedule keeps the animals grazing on the most nutritious plants, and more active management helps keep cattle away from poisonous plants.

In addition, the Forest Service has been able to use the West Elks cattle herd to restore vegetation. At the end of the season, cows are set loose to browse in an area of the forest where oak brush is overgrown. Labor and transportation costs amount to about $8,000 for the vegetation treatment, which lasts about a month, but keeping the cows on the forest for those extra few weeks at the end of the season saves their owners about $10,000 in feed.

The group's holistic approach to ranching has won over local residents who initially were skeptical of grazing in the wilderness area, and has helped livestock managers better understand the needs of the larger ecosystem, Bradford says. "Developing a holistic management goal can help everyone develop a better understanding of the important issues related to the management of the whole," he says.

The success of the collaborative ranching effort has also benefited the community by keeping local ranches and open space intact.

 Mount Lamborn and Coal Mountain
Photo by Dave Bradford, USDA Forest Service
Challenges/Constraints: Because the grazing allotment is primarily in a wilderness area, range managers and ranchers occasionally receive complaints from hikers about having to share trails and fields with cows, which are authorized to be in the wilderness area under a special provision in the law that created the West Elk Wilderness. Increased awareness about the herding program has helped diffuse the controversy somewhat, but complaints still trickle in from time to time, Bradford said. Some members of the public believe cattle do not belong in official wilderness areas, no matter how well managed they are.

One of the permittees' biggest challenges is keeping hunters and anglers from undermining herding strategies by leaving gates open, which allows the cattle to roam into the wrong pasture.

For more information see:

West Elk Wilderness

Headwaters News: "A Working Wilderness, II"
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