Proactive buckaroo outfit wins 2010 BLM Range Stewardship Award

Oct 1, 2010

In all likelihood, many livestock operators have contemplated how collaborating with groups outside the industry might enhance rangeland, wildlife, public image, and even production levels. But the risk of going out on a limb to invite outsiders in to study, assess, and judge grazing practices makes many producers back away. Although experience has taught many ranchers that grazing can be a highly beneficial part of good range management, experience also teaches that many people employed by government agencies or conservation non-profits either have explicit anti-grazing agendas, or else are ignorant of the potential positive effects of grazing on range and wildlife. Consequently, the reason many ranchers avoid these collaborations is pretty simple: you invite these people onto your ranch, and they’ll tell you to kick the cows off.

So it takes faith, trust, and no shortage of attitude to sit down with non-industry partners and start a conversation about conservation. But for one Nevada ranch in the heart of the Great Basin, the experiment has paid off tremendously. The management of the Smith Creek Ranch has been able to work productively with agencies and groups to enhance its rangeland resource, as well as the ranch’s long-term sustainability. And on Sept. 14, their outstanding efforts were recognized at the annual Public Lands Council convention in Pendleton, OR, where they were presented with the 2010 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Rangeland Stewardship Award.

But the grass has not always been greener at the Smith Creek Ranch. Ray Hendrix bought the place in 1996. Located about 40 miles west of Austin, NV, the ranch had long been subleased out every year by the previous owner. A succession of leasees, having no vested interest in the long-term health of the range, had grazed it about as hard as the land could take.

Hendrix hired Duane Coombs to be the manager of Smith Creek in 1998. At that time, the land was in serious need of restoration, just to keep the ranch viable. Typical of Nevada, BLM allotments make up the vast majority of the ranch’s grazing lands. But due to range conditions, BLM was seriously contemplating reducing stocking numbers.

Coombs explained the situation. "This is a classic public lands outfit. My permit covers about 250,000 acres, and then we have … about 3,000 acres of deeded land."

"The permits were in pretty tough shape," said Coombs. "In 1998, we were looking at that point at a 15-25 percent reduction on our AUMS [animal unit months]. We actually went back with the BLM and … proactively rewrote the AMP [allotment management plan] so that it was more workable so that we could … put in quite a bit of adaptive management."

Equipped with a new AMP and the leeway to start addressing the various range health issues, Coombs rolled up his sleeves and set to work. By partnering closely with BLM, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS), as well as a number of Nevada-based groups, Coombs has made remarkable progress in turning the Smith Creek Ranch into a model of productivity and good stewardship.

The partnerships have been key to allowing Coombs to achieve his goals. But he is the first to admit that these relationships didn’t gel overnight.

Says Coombs, "I never thought that I’d end up buddies with Fish and Wildlife Service … but they’ve been the best allies that I’ve got."

"When you start in on rehab, [a lot of people] want you to not graze it. And we’ve been very careful and up front that we make sure [people understand] these are grazing lands."

"I guess that’s been the hardest thing for me with doing any kind of project … you’ve got to educate people that are involved that this is a livestock operation. [So] even though we can do this for you and for wildlife, if I don’t run cows, I can’t do it. I’ve got to be able to turn out, and I’ve got to be able to use it. ... So I’ve been brutally honest from the start with all these folks."

Coombs’ constant willingness to cooperate on all manner of restoration projects, both on private and public land, and his unwillingness to negotiate a few basic fundamentals, has proven to be a formula for success.

An excellent example of how Coombs has made projects on private land work to the benefit of his permit is his participation in sage grouse habitat enhancement on the ranch’s deeded property.

"We’ve got sage grouse here," says Coombs. "We are so reliant upon our BLM permit that if we were to see a sage grouse listing, it would be devastating to this ranch. And at the same time, [a listing would] be devastating to the sage grouse on this mountain range because of the habitat we provide on the private land—the brood-rearing habitat that we get on our meadows and fields. I’ve got over 600 birds living on the private land here, at the headquarters. If we lose out, then the bird loses out."

Cooperating with USFWS, BLM, and Nevada Fish and Wildlife, Coombs has pursued several different angles to protecting the grouse. One approach gives him discretion to graze according to where the grouse may be nesting in a given year, as opposed to having a set grazing pattern.

"We’ve modified our grazing around the bird, especially during nesting," Coombs explains. "Having the flexibility to graze around the bird is key."

"We’ve also done some enhancement projects on private land, on private meadows. On a couple of those, we’ve partnered with US Partners for Fish and Wildlife," a department of USFWS which works with private landowners to improve habitats. "They’ve actually helped us with quite a bit of funding for habitat improvement for sage grouse."

For example, in 2002, Coombs initiated a project with Partners for Fish and Wildlife and the Nevada Rangeland Resources Commission to cut 130 acres of pinion on the ranch’s deeded property. Pinion encroachment is known to compromise sage grouse habitat and promote soil erosion. Dr. Tamzen Stringham of the University of Nevada, Reno, along with ARS, has been using the project to measure the impact of encroachment.

"It’s been a win-win for everybody. Actually, now we’re pushing the BLM to let us make a watershed-scale project out of it," says Coombs. "As a rancher, I don’t have to do the pushing anymore. I can let the guy from ARS [do it]. We’ve got some big wigs back in Washington, D.C., pushing this project for us. It’s been phenomenal. It’s one of those [things] that I never thought it would take off the way it did."

Over the past decade, the Smith Creek Ranch has developed an expansive portfolio of restoration projects, and BLM has taken notice. Stream and riparian restoration, spring exclosures, photographic monitoring, and entering into safe harbor agreements are just examples of the many ways that Coombs has pushed the envelope.

Doug Powell, rangeland management specialist for the Rangeland Resources division of BLM in Washington, also pointed out that the Smith Creek Ranch has gone out of its way to educate young people about ranching and range improvements.

"They were willing to bring [youth] groups out to their ranch to take a look at what they were doing... I think that was real valuable. I think that was one of the things that caught our attention, not only that they were making the improvements, but their willingness to try to share that information."

Added Melodie Lloyd, public affairs specialist for BLM: "We do have a multiple-use mandate. [R]anching is part of our heritage and it’s been on the public lands since before the public lands existed … The Bureau can’t manage the public lands by itself. We need the stewardship of those that use and enjoy our public lands… Those that help us care [for] and manage public lands deserve recognition, and that stewardship is important to us."

But Coombs observes that stewardship not only benefits the greater good, it also enhances the productivity of the ranch. "The country responds phenomenally" to restoration, he says. "That’s the thing that’s amazing to me is how fast the country responds. How resilient it really is."

"In this part of the world, if I manage grazing for a diverse habitat for wildlife, that’s the best country that I’ve got to turn cows out in. It benefits the cows as much as anything."

For producers interested in exploring collaborative projects, Coombs speaks highly of the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program which has provided support, funding, and sometimes a much-needed liason between him and the BLM.

"We stumbled onto … the Partners program, and it’s been a blessing for us," explains Coombs. "They’ve allowed me to go in and say, ‘I really think this would work and I would like to try it.’

I know those guys are scary to work with. It took a while before I was able to be comfortable with them. But [this] program within the Fish and Wildlife Service has been phenomenal. The folks that they have … are ag friendly, and a lot of them kind of ag-based people. So they have an understanding of what we’re up against; [they understand] we also have to make a living."

If Coombs can be said to have a philosophy of public land management, it might be summarized like this: Be proactive, and learn to think like a member of the non-ranching public. By forcing himself to see ranching and his own management through the eyes of others, Coombs has achieved a level of insight few industry insiders possess. It is unlocking doors for the Smith Creek Ranch.

Speaking of grazing issues, Coombs says, "I’ve always tried to beat them to it. If my range con’s coming … the first thing I’m going to do is say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a place here that I’m worried about. Let’s go look at it first thing.’ It seems like I’ve been able to almost head them off at the pass. That way, I’m being pro-active, and I try to go there with some sort of solution."

Jill Devaurs, rangeland management specialist at the Carson City Field Office—who nominated the ranch for the BLM Stewardship Award— has noticed "their willingness to do something before BLM even suggests it. Unfortunately, we don’t get out there very much, but I know that I don’t need to worry at all about them. They just bend over backwards to see you or meet with you when they can. "

Coombs has also worked hard to communicate what he is doing on the public lands to the general public. He points out that although running a business must be one of his priorities, his business is not where the public’s interest lies. They want to know about wildlife, about habitat restoration, about watersheds:

"They want to know what I’m doing for them," says Coombs. "I’ve got to be able to focus in my mind on making a profit and staying in business, but at the same time, I need to tell my story to the public in a way that they appreciate, and … they’re interested [in]."

Though it took a leap of faith, stepping outside of their comfort zone has proven to be tremendously successful for Coombs and the Smith Creek Ranch. "For us, that was one of the scariest things to start out with," says Coombs. "You’ve kind of got to show these people your soft underbelly. And it’s scary."

Scary though it may have been, this is one experiment that has paid off. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent