Why is it, I've often wondered, that so many biologists have become
the sworn enemies of stockmen? In the West, where controversies
usually center around livestock and riparian areas, it seems all
but impossible for biologists and ranchers to explore middle ground
and common goals. In the rare instances when they do try to come
together, the cattlemen invariably wind up sitting on one side
of the room, arms stiffly folded across their chests and hats
pulled down low over their glaring eyes, while the biologists
huddle on the opposite side of the room behind stacks of paper
and reams of data.
To many stockmen, the biologists often represent uncaring
bureaucrats whose overtly single-minded focus on preservation
threatens to force them out of business and ultimately destroy
a heritage that is rapidly fading from the landscape. To many
agency biologists, the cattlemen represent a menacing threat to
the aquatic resources.
In an objective evaluation, is this really a fair characterization
of either side? And, for that matter, are there really two different
sides? If we could somehow rip away the political and emotional
fuzz, I think we would realize that we really are on the same
I've been a professional biologist for almost 20 years. The
first portion of my career was spent mostly in research projects
throughout the West. It was a good foundation for understanding
real science but a poor venue for understanding real life management
Much of the next portion of my career was spent working for
a state fish and wildlife agency. It was there that I first encountered
the fiery conflict between agency biologists and stockmen. At
that time my charge was primarily big game management, which mostly
entailed population dynamics, habitat evaluations, and setting
hunting seasons. But I was also responsible for depredation complaints
which usually came in the form of a phone call, the party on the
other end blurting out, "Hello, this is John Rancher. I've had
elk tearing up my new alfalfa seeding for the last two weeks.
They've destroyed my fences and now I'm watching one as it makes
dessert out of my wife's prize rose bush. I want you to come get
your damn elk right now!!!"
Immediately we were forced to opposite sides of the fence.
The elk-the same elk I was sworn to protect-were threatening his
livelihood, not to mention his wife's roses.
Later in my career, mostly for family reasons, I resigned
my commission as a state game biologist and entered the world
of federal biology. I no longer had direct responsibility for
the fish and wildlife. Instead, I had responsibility for the habitat
and faced a myriad of new regulations and conflicting demands.
When a problem arose I could no longer go get "my damn elk," but
I had to figure out long-term solutions on the ground.
About 10 years ago I began to develop a keen interest in
riparian communities and aquatic systems, and I started taking
graduate classes in these subjects. I discovered that I had a
lot to learn, so I've stuck with it and I now make my living working
almost exclusively with range/riparian-related issues.
The question we have to ask each other is this: How do we-both
the rancher and the biologist-relate to the land? What do we need
from the land and what are we willing to give back to ensure that
those needs can be met for us and our children's children? Funny
thing is, once we open up our minds, set aside our preconceived
notions and really talk to one another, we uncover a startling
revelation-we want the same thing!
We all would like our rangelands and riparian systems to
remain healthy and functional while we utilize them, to tarry
in equilibrium in accord with the needs and stresses placed on
the land by man and the environment. Neither the rancher nor the
biologist wants our riparian systems to be run into the ground
and become non-functional. The land and her resources are precious
to us all and must not be squandered by anyone. Both groups clearly
understand this principle, but they haven't been able to get beyond
the political schisms long enough to talk to one another and discover
that they really are on the same side. The ironic paradox is that
we are natural allies!
I recently moved from a portion of Oregon that was undergoing
significant change. Ranching was once an integral element of life
there but like so many places in the West it was "discovered."
People moved in from urban areas wanting their own little green
acre. Eventually many of the ranches succumbed to escalating taxes
and increasing criticism from well-meaning but poorly informed
The ranching families who had cared for and lived on the
land for generations were gone. Some of the ranches were subdivided
so more people could have their little green acre. But some of
the outfits were purchased by a new breed. They were mostly corporations
or wealthy people who had "real" jobs in some far-off city. Buying
land on speculation, they figured "ranching" would be a good tax
write-off. They had no identity with the land. They hadn't depended
on it for generations. They couldn't understand the subtleties
that the land was trying to show them and it suffered for the
loss of that connection.
The corporations, for the most part, were the worst. Run
by bean counters who never left their offices and couldn't see
the sores being inflicted by "bottom line" management, in the
end the strength, stability and sense of purpose of the community
was lost in the transient nature of the bottom line.
Like it or not, the livestock industry is easy to throw rocks
at. The politically correct view is that livestock are bad for
the land; especially riparian areas. And let's face facts, improperly-managed
livestock can wreak havoc on streams. But, and this is the important
part, it is not necessarily so. In fact, properly-managed livestock
can be beneficial to the land. It takes a commitment, an understanding,
and the care of one for whom the bottom line is important but
it is not what drives them. If that were true, most ranchers would
have sold out long ago.
The truth is, most biologists share similar feelings. They
don't fight all the headaches of being an agency biologist for
the money or prestige. They, like the rancher, do it because it's
in their heart. None of us want to see corporate ranches and subdivisions
swallow up the land and change our close-knit communities into
cold little cities, dominated by mini-malls and driven by the
So, what do we do? How do we get beyond all the past prejudices
and harsh words? The answer is simple. Just do it! Begin by treating
each other as mutual stewards of the land who have a commitment
to a common, deep-seated concern for her well-being and future
health. Recognize that we each have areas of expertise to share
with the other.
Commitment is the key. The biologists must commit to sticking
it out. When I worked as a state biologist it was common for biologists
to spend their whole career at one duty station. They developed
a connection with the people, the community, and the intricacies
of the land. They understood the strengths of the community, the
vulnerabilities of the land, and learned the subtleties of how
they worked together. It isn't that they were better biologists;
rather, they had committed to be in it for the long run. They
developed a sense of community and they found ways to work things
out together. The ranchers need to commit to the future and, like
it or not, recognize that some things have changed forever. There
will always be rules, regulations, preservationists, listed species
and, hopefully, biologists.
The question remains, how do we do it? Right now, to me,
the best answer seems to be collaborative stewardship. It's not
just the latest buzz word, it is a way to put past conceptions
behind us and facilitate all that I've been talking about. It's
a way for natural allies to recognize each other, learn to talk
to each other, and ultimately get things done.
For collaborative stewardship to work, everybody in the community
with an interest is invited. But you are only invited if you want
to help make things work. If you come to bitch or point fingers
and call names you will be escorted out the door. Everybody has
to come to the table with an open mind and give it enough time
to build trust. Mostly, everybody has to commit to working together
to find solutions. Anybody can stand there and say, "No, I won't
do that" or "No, you can't do that," but it takes a lot more to
figure out answers.
There is a definite process to follow. Nobody tries to force
anybody to do anything. You work through it till you come up with
a solution you all can live with and then everybody sticks to
their part of the bargain. Sound too idealistic? It's not, and
it's working. Just ask one of our fourth-generation ranchers.
Their costs are down, conception rates and weight gains are up,
and we're all riding together several times a week and having
We are common allies! We need to recognize that and stand
together. If people who don't work on the land continue to divide
us we will certainly be consumed by political correctness, the
bottom line, and tons of unnecessary regulations. In that eventuality,
the biologists and the ranchers both lose, but the real losers
are the land and our children. Let's make the choice together,
before somebody in a far-off city makes it for us.
* * *
Chance Gowan has worked for state and federal agencies in natural
resource management and research for the past 20 years, currently
for the U.S. Forest Service. He has completed undergraduate and
graduate course work at several western universities. He appreciates
rural communities, wide open spaces, and his American Indian roots.
"If you'd like more information on collaborative stewardship or
how you might develop a program for your allotment," Chance says,
"please feel free to write me at HC 63, Box 1671, Challis, Idaho
83226, or contact the Idaho Round Table at P.O. Box 285, Bliss,
Idaho 83314. We'd be happy to help in any way we can."