A Friend of Fish and Cow

 

Arizona ranchers George and Sharon Yard are willing to get down and dirty, and then some, to save a drowning cow or a threatened fish.  By Dan Dagget

 

If you wonder whether ranchers really care about their animals, or are concerned about the environment, or love their way of life, George and Sharon Yard of the Y Bar D Ranch in central Arizona‚s Verde Valley are good people to know. Most likely there is a story involving the Yards that sheds a unique light on the matter. That may be the reason the National Cattlemen‚s Beef Association named them winners of the Environmental Stewardship Award for Region VI for 2002.

Take, for instance, the matter of how ranchers feel about their animals. A couple of years ago, in the midst of one of the longest and deepest droughts on record in the southwest, George, Sharon, and a friend named John Winnicki were patrolling the stock-watering tanks on the Y Bar D looking for animals in trouble. As these small rain-runoff-filled catchments dry to a central puddle surrounded by mud that can be deep and bulldoglike, they become death traps to animals too thirsty to be cautious.

George and John rode their horses up to one large catchment notorious for the broad expanse of gluelike clay mud that lay hidden under its shallow waters when it was low. George saw the back of a small cow barely sticking above the surface. He immediately assumed the animal was dead, and realized just as quickly that it was an animal he and Sharon had come to know as „Miss Demure.š

Most ranchers don‚t name their cows (most have too many to name), but the Yards name the ones they notice, and this young cream-colored heifer had an odd black spot on her cheek. „It looked like a beauty mark, you know, like movie stars have,š said George. "So we named her Miss Demure."

As George and John looked at what they assumed was the corpse of the unfortunate cow, she abruptly lifted her head above the mud, took a breath and went under again.

"She's alive," George shouted, "but God knows how long she‚s going to stay that way." He quickly stripped down to his underwear and fought his way out into the stinking water, mud and manure to see what he could do. He carried the loop end of a lariat, the other end of which was dallied to John‚s saddle horn.

     

John stood by, concerned about his old friend who was tough and strong though in his 70s. Moving through the mud was exhausting enough, but pulling the cow out meant wrestling with her to get her turned in the right direction. She was headed toward the center of the tank-toward the water. Pulling her from behind, which they would have to do, would require bending her head around at so radical an angle it would risk breaking her neck.

     

George was wrestling with the cow, freeing one leg and then another, and almost had her turned around when Sharon drove up with the truck. With the help of a bent tent pole, carried for just such a purpose, George managed to slide another rope around the cow‚s middle and tie it. Sharon then knotted both this rope and one looped over the cow‚s horns to the truck‚s trailer hitch. The biggest obstacle at this point became the fact that the cow was too exhausted to hold her head up without help. 

     

"She needs something to give her strength," George called to Sharon. Sharon dug through the pile of gear behind the truck seat and came up with a bottle of Gatorade. "Maybe this will help," she said.

     

Sharon took some wooden pallets from the back of the truck and used them as stepping stones so she could walk the Gatorade out to George. He held Miss Demure's head up out of the muck as Sharon thrust her arm into the cow‚s mouth and literally clawed the mud out of her throat. Then she poured in the Gatorade.

     

Miss Demure seemed to rally. She opened her eyes, breathed more easily, and raised her head. Sharon went back to the truck and slowly eased it forward, sliding the cow onto solid ground. Then she took some scraps of hay she had dug out of the corners of the truck bed, pushed the hay into the cow‚s mouth and got her chewing. Miss Demure chewed and swallowed and seemed to revive even more. She struggled to her feet.

     

Her calf, which had been waiting nearby, rushed to its mother and tried to nurse, but Miss Demure was so muddy the calf couldn‚t find her udder. Sharon and George scrubbed enough of the mud off the cow that the calf could tell which end was which. They scrounged some more hay from the truck bed and left it nearby. Then they moved on to see if any other critters needed saving.

     

A couple of days after this, I was on the Yard ranch to check on a rangeland restoration project. Sharon pointed out the cow that had been the main character in this adventure. There was the mud line plainly extending above her head. "That's Miss Demure," Sharon said. "Only now we call her Gatorade."

     

Ranchers aren't supposed to be as concerned as the Yards are about their livestock. They‚re supposed to look at them as a commodity, as burgers on the hoof. George says that, for him, the urge to raise cattle and take good care of them is a congenital defect. "I got it from my dad," he said. "He was a rancher down around Bisbee, Ariz."

Even after George became an M.D., he never got over his cattle-raising obsession. "I've owned three ranches," George said. "A little one near Flagstaff, when I first went there to open my practice. Then a bigger one near Young, Ariz. And now this one in the Verde Valley."

     

Sharon was a nurse before she was George's wife. She grew up a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl in Tuba City on the Navajo Reservation. "Every day I had to fight my way onto the school bus and fight to keep from being thrown off," she said. "I learned to be tough early." Sharon now does a lot of the cowboyin' on the Y Bar D.

"She ran the roundup this year and did a damn good job of it," George said.

     

Just as ranchers aren‚t supposed to care about their livestock, they aren‚t supposed to care about wildlife either, especially non-huntable, inconsequential fish. The Yards bust that stereotype, too. When an effort was initiated to save an endangered fish-a three-inch minnow named the spikedace-from extirpation in the Verde River, the Yards got behind the effort from the onset.

     

George credits his environmental conscience to his father, but he also got some of it from his kids. While they were growing up in Flagstaff, they became part of the town's Colorado River-running community-a community with a strong environmental ethic. Some of that rubbed off on their dad. In fact, George has run a few rivers in his day. Above his and Sharon‚s bed at the Y Bar D is a painting of the two of them running Lava Falls, the biggest rapids in the Grand Canyon.

     

George and Sharon began hearing rumors in the early 1990s that cattle were going to be banned from grazing alongside streams that were considered habitat for the spikedace and other threatened native fish. Cattle grazing was deemed to be a detriment to the survival of those fish because it removed streamside vegetation, which increased erosion and sedimentation into the stream, making it wider and more shallow. That, in turn, caused the water to warm. In addition, the waste of the cattle washed into the streams and caused pollution and reduced oxygen content. All of these effects allegedly made those streams less valuable as native fish habitat.

     

Deciding to act before they were required to, George and Sharon removed their cattle from alongside the river in 1993. They worked with a biologist from Arizona State University to plant 3,200 coyote willows to speed up the revegetation of the stream banks.

     

By 1997, when a lawsuit from an environmental group caused grazing to be removed from 800 or so miles of Southwestern streamside, Sharon and George already had an idea that the strategy wasn‚t going to work. By that time, their stretch of river had given them, and some scientists who were monitoring their efforts, a preview of what was to come.

     

Vegetation did increase along the riverbanks after cattle were removed. Trees began to sprout on the banks where cattle had been eating them. This caused the stream to narrow and deepen which, in turn, caused the water to cool. As a result, the Verdeųa typical wide, shallow, gravelly, warm-water, southwestern streamųwas transformed into a narrow, deep, cool, mud-bottomed stream, more characteristic of the eastern United States. This made it ideal habitat for some very effective predators that are also more common to the Eastųsmallmouth bass, green sunfish and flathead catfish.

     

Courtesy of those predators, the year the spikedace recovery  on the Verde was declared complete-1997-was also the last year anyone saw a spikedace at any of the river‚s established monitoring sites. A few fish turned up at other sites for the next couple of years but, since 1999, no spikedace have been seen on the Verde. This startling trend began to show up in the other native fish as well. By the end of the 1990s all natives were in a precipitous decline on the upper Verde, and the river had gone from having one of the highest percentages of native fish in the southwest (80 percent), to having one of the lowest (30 percent).

     

"We're beginning to look at predation by nonnative fishes as one of the big factors causing the marked decline in native fishes in the upper Verde River," explained John Rinne, research fisheries biologist at the U.S. Forest Service‚s Rocky Mountain Research Station at Flagstaff.

     

In addition to nonnative predators, scientists came up with another factor to account for fewer native fish in the Verde, in spite of the fact that cattle had been removed and the river had become more "natural." It was noted that spikedace populations waxed and waned in other rivers they inhabited-the Gila in New Mexico, for instance-where their booms and busts seemed to correspond to major flood events. With that in mind the scientific community concluded that what the spikedace in the Verde needed was a big flood. The natives were "disturbance-dependent." The scientists hypothesized that a big flood would wash out some of the nonnative predators.

     

And if a flood doesn‚t do the job? One method being considered as a next step by scientists and wildlife managers is poisoning the entire river. For this purpose, a toxin especially deadly to fish, rotenone, would be used. This extreme measure has a number of serious downsides. For one thing, there‚s a good chance it won‚t work.

††††

"You have backwater vegetation where fish toxins never get to. You also have areas where there is underflow...fish toxin never gets there," said Rinne. Also, he said, the Verde has a number of side streams that wouldn't be treated. Nonnatives from these streams would undoubtedly repopulate the Verde.

    

Since rotenone kills by attacking the gills of aquatic creatures and suffocating them, it attacks aquatic species other than fish, too. It would thus impact the entire food chain in the river, creating an environmental disaster. For this method to succeed, enough natives would have to be removed before the poisoning to repopulate the river after it had recovered. Since no one has seen a spikedace in the Verde since 1999, this is impossible in the case of the fish this measure is most supposed to benefit. If there are any spikedace that have survived this restoration, this final solution would most likely kill them.

     

As extreme as all this sounds, the scientific, wildlife, and environmental communities consider it less extreme than measures being proposed by George Yard and some of his ranching neighbors. First, the ranchers noted that cattle created conditions identical to those scientists said the spikedace needed in order to surviveųconditions the scientists hoped flooding would create. Cattle created the wider, shallower channel; the gravelly bottom; the warmer water. Cattle even "fluffed up" the sand, pebbles, and cobbles of the river bottom as they waded through, keeping those cobbles from being cemented together with the accumulated sediments and algae growth that made them less hospitable to spawning. This might be the reason, observed the ranchers, that spikedace had survived more than a hundred years of grazing on the Verde while just a few years of „recoveryš had apparently exterminated them.

     

To help make this case, the ranchers of the Upper Verde, including George and Sharon Yard, joined with the scientists of the Rocky Mountain Research Station and the Prescott National Forest to form an organization named the Upper Verde River Adaptive Management Partnership. The group was formed to promote collaborative solutions to management problems facing the Verde, including the spikedace, and to assure that the best science available was used to make those decisions. One of the alternatives discussed in this forum was bringing the cattle back to help restore the spikedace.

     

George Yard took the matter a step further. Applying the same sort of take-charge initiative that he and Sharon applied to save Miss Demure, George offered to rewater an abandoned stretch of river on his ranch and use it as a refuge within which native fish could persist and even recover. Nonnative predators would be kept out of this „refugiaš by means of an electric „fish fence.š At a meeting I attended on the subject, the major sticking point seemed to be concerns over whether the Yards would graze cattle anywhere near the refugia.

     

As I write, four large floods have happened on the Verde within the last two months. One was big enough to be of the sort hoped for by the recovery-by-flood advocates. The river rose eight feet in 15 minutes. In spite of that, John Rinne said the hoped-for decrease in nonnative predators does not seem to have happened. Nor did any spikedace turn up in his post-flood monitoring. "We've changed the river so much," said Rinne, "the flood didn't take it back to what it was."

     

The rotenone solution remains on hold, but Rinne noted that early evidence suggests it hasn‚t succeeded on another tributary of the Verde-Fossil Creek-where nonnative bullheads have been detected in the creek after it was poisoned.

     

In the meantime, returning cattle to the river is still considered more extreme than poison. Rumors have surfaced, however, that a proposal by some neutral organization to use cows to bring back the fish might finally attract some supporters.  n 

 

Dan Dagget‚s latest book is The Gardeners of Eden, Rediscovering Our Importance to Nature. His classic, Beyond the Rangeland Conflict, available from RANGE, is a Pulitzer Prize nominee. The environmentalist/author is a partner in EcoResults!, an environmental organization that rewards people for restoring and sustaining the natural environment.

  .

When Miss Demure got in over her bovine head, it took teamwork to rescue her.

(Photo courtesy the Yard Ranch)


John gets her tied to the truck, but she‚s too tired to lift her head until Sharon (above) gives her Gatorade and hay.

(Photo courtesy the Yard Ranch)


The former Miss Demure, now known as Gatorade, wears the mark of her mudbath. 

(Photo courtesy the Yard Ranch)


The Verde River in 1995 is shallow, wide and warm, creating riffles as it runs. It‚s the ideal habitat for native fish. Below, is the same river in 2001. Without cattle to keep down the brush, the shaded river is cooler and deeper with fewer riffles. It may look pretty, but native species of fish are disappearing and non-native predators are taking over. 

(Photos courtesy the Y Bar D Ranch)

Spring 2005 Contents

© 1998-2005 RANGE magazine. All rights reserved. | For reprints, permissions or general questions, contact RANGE


Brought to you by RANGE magazine