January Morning

January Morning

Monday, February 1, 2016

Testimony re: Draft CA Dept of Fish & Wildlife Gray Wolf Conservation Plan

Tonight, I testified at the last of three hearings held by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife regarding its draft Gray Wolf Conservation Plan.  A number of stakeholders worked with the Department on the plan, including the California Wool Growers Association (of which I am a member and an officer).  The draft plan is over 300 pages; members of the public had 3 minutes to provide oral comments.  At the risk of boring most of you, here's what I said:

"Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments tonight.  My name is Dan Macon, and like most bald guys, I wear a number of hats!  I am a small-scale commercial sheep producer in Placer County. I'm also the treasurer of the California Wool Growers Association and an assistant rangeland specialist in the UC Davis Plant Sciences Department.  Tonight, I am speaking for myself as a small producer.  We have practiced non-lethal predator protection (raising sheep, goats and cattle) for 25 years.  My comments reflect this frame of reference.

"I'm glad to hear that the Department will be working to collar the wolves in California and to provide location information to local producers.  This is critical to any non-lethal predator management strategy.  I currently rely on Wildlife Services and my county trapper for information about the predators in my area.  For example, the trapper will let me know if he's had reports on mountain lions where I have my sheep - not so that I can take lethal steps, but so that I can adjust my strategies.  If I knew there were wolves close by, I would increase the number of livestock guardian dogs and adjust my grazing management.  If there were no wolves, there would not be a reason to incur this extra expense.

"Expense brings me to my second comment - direct and indirect costs of wolves.  The conservation plan does a good job of addressing the direct costs associated with livestock kills.  Indirect costs are more difficult to quantify.  First, a wolf kill represents the loss of genetic potential.  My sheep, like most herds and flocks, have been bred specifically for my environment and operation.  I can't simply go out and replace a ewe that has been killed with something from the sales yard and expect similar productivity.  This has multi-year ramifications.  Any investment in new genetics takes several years to provide a return.  Then there are the life-time productivity losses - in my flock, a ewe might have 12-15 lambs during her productive life.  If she's been killed, I lose that as well.

"The plan refers to losses in productivity due to stress, but this needs more attention.  Producers in other states report reductions in reproductive rates and weaning weights, as well as increased labor costs (looking for missing animals, for example).  UC Davis and UC Cooperative Extension are ramping up to collect baseline data on these issues.  I encourage the Department to support this research effort.

"Finally, wolves may result in a loss of grazing land.  I graze in proximity to recreation land.  Wolves, based on my research, will require me to use more and more aggressive livestock guardian dogs - which may not be acceptable near hiking and riding trails and rural residences.  I may incur more expense for liability insurance - and it costs more to run more dogs with my sheep.  Our operation, like many, isn't big enough to justify hiring a herder to stay with our sheep 24/7.  These lands are critical to my operation (and others like mine), and the services I provide are critical to managing the fuel loads and ecological conditions of these rangelands.

"Thank you."

A couple of observations on the hearing itself:

1. I've been around a long time (in other words, I'm on my way to becoming an old fart).  CDFW's Wildlife Branch Chief, Eric Loft, has worked for the agency since I worked for the California Cattlemen's Association in the early 1990s.  A good lesson - paths may continue to cross!

2. The process of taking testimony must be incredibly difficult for agency staff.  I can't imagine having to look engaged and interested without appearing to agree with a particular speaker!

3. Well-organized and well-spoken people get a little more leeway with the 3 minutes time limit than people who are nervous, disorganized and rambling.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Big Dogs, Hot Fences and Fast Sheep - A Few Thoughts on Predators and Sheep-raising

In the 12 years I've raised sheep commercially, I've been fortunate to have very few problems with predators.  Normally, I'd say "knock on wood" here; but luck has very little to do with our lack of predator problems.  We use an integrated strategy - which I jokingly refer to as "Big Dogs, Hot Fences and Fast Sheep" - to keep predators at bay.

Before I describe our system, however, I should stress that our approach won't work everywhere or for everyone.  I firmly believe that non-lethal predator protection, much like low stress livestock handling, takes a belief in the system and the will to make it work.  If you don't believe it will work, nothing I say or demonstrate is likely to convince you that it will.  If you do believe in the system, you'll learn from mistakes and find ways to constantly improve the system (as we do).

I should also stress that I think USDA's Wildlife Services agency provides valuable assistance to anyone who must deal with wildlife issues.  We've never used Wildlife Services to kill a predator; however, I do talk with our local trapper on a regular basis about where he's seen predators.  I've learned a great deal about what to look for in terms of predator signs.  And Wildlife Services is conducting valuable research that will expand my non-lethal tool box for coping with predators. Here in Placer County, Wildlife Services spends much of its time dealing with like wild pigs and rogue beavers in urban settings. Unfortunately, these services are ignored when the mainstream media reports on Wildlife Services.

Over the last 12 years, we've run as many as 300 ewes with lambs (now, largely due to drought, we have just under 70 sheep total).  In that time, we've lost 4 mature ewes to a neighbor's dog, 3 lambs and 1 ram to a coyote, 1 ewe to a mountain lion, and 1 ewe to a rattlesnake.  We've also had what we assume was a golden eagle try to take a lamb.  Each time we experienced a loss, we made adjustments to our system.  And each time, we learned a little bit about the predators around us.  For example, coyotes are much better at killing that dogs - dogs are typically playing, and so a sheep killed by a dog is usually more chewed up (and probably suffers far more).  A mountain lion, apparently, will bury a kill to save it for later - we never did find the ewe that we assumed was killed by a lion.

In addition to the predators we've had experience with, we also have black bears in our environment.  We've seen them close to the sheep, but we've never had any problems with them.  We know other sheep producers who've experienced losses from ravens and owls (both can prey on new lambs).  And now we have wolves in California.  I expect at sometime in my lifetime that we'll have wolves in the Sierra Nevada again.

Our overall approach to managing the sheep reduces potential conflicts with predators.  We try to mimic the reproductive cycle of wild ungulates in our environment (that is, the deer).  We lamb in the spring-time (a bit earlier than the deer, but at a time when the activity of other prey species is increasing).  Consequently, there are other things besides lambs for the predators to eat.  We also use temporary electric fencing and a rotational grazing system.  While our grazing management is focused on resting our grass to allow for recovery and regrowth, the fact that the sheep are never in one place for too long seems to help confound the predators!

We've also selected for ewes that are exceptional mothers.  We want ewes that will give birth without assistance and protect their lambs.  We want lambs that are up and going quickly.  After 11 lambing seasons of focusing on these traits, we have ewes that take care of their lambs!  While a ewe that wants to fight any threat to her lambs is difficult to herd with our border collies, we value their ability to protect their young.  And we've invested considerable time in working with our border collies, which pays off during lambing season.  Temple Grandin suggests that when we select for docile sheep or cows, we breed some of their maternal instincts out.  Our ewes aren't wild, but we do like a ewe that is up in our faces when we're handling her lamb!

Virtually none of the properties we graze has permanent fencing, which means we rely on temporary electric fencing.  These nets, which come in 164-foot lengths, are easy to move - I can take down and re-set enough fencing to enclose 5 acres in about 2 hours.  Combined with a battery-powered fence energizer and a solar-charged deep cycle battery, we can put as much as 8,000 volts through these fences.  As you might imagine, these fences deliver a powerful shock.  Not only do they keep our sheep contained (most of the time); they also keep the terrestrial predators at bay.

The cornerstone of our non-lethal predator protection is our livestock guardian dogs.  We've tried llamas (more on this in a moment), but for us, dogs give us the most confidence.  These dogs evolved in the sheep-producing regions of the Old World.  We've used Great Pyrenees (from the Basque country), Maremma (from Italy), and Akbash (from Turkey).  Our current dog (we'll be purchasing another this spring) is an Anatolian (from Turkey) named Reno.  Like most dogs in this country, there is a vast difference between dogs that come from a working lineage and dogs that are bred to be pets - we want dogs that come from a line of dogs that has lived with and protected sheep.

In many ways, our dogs occupy the niche that a large predator would otherwise occupy in our environment.  As the apex predator, they defend their territory from other predators - they just happen to be an apex predator that won't kill sheep (most of the time - more on this also).  They are scavengers (especially at lambing time, when there's plenty of tasty afterbirth in the pasture).  They mark their territory by patrolling the fenceline and defecating and urinating.  While we've never observed them fighting with a predator, we've heard them bark and growl when we hear coyotes.  I've also observed them barking at an owl roosting above the sheep during lambing.

Dogs are not perfect.  The best guardian dogs, in my experience, have not been overly socialized with humans (which means that they usually won't come to me when I call them - frustrating when they get out of our fences).  We've had dogs that had bonded with people instead of (or in addition to) livestock - and they decided that they'd rather be with people.  Even our electric fences can't contain a dog who is determined to be with people instead of sheep.  Sometimes a young dog will decide that the sheep (lambs especially) would be fun to play with.  Rough play between two dogs isn't a problem; rough play between a dog and a 30-pound lamb can get out of hand.  Some dogs will stay with the sheep when we move the flock from pasture to pasture; others can't be trusted and need to be walked on a leash.

We try to fit the dog to the overall environment.  In our operation, we're often grazing in areas where people are hiking, walking their own dogs, or riding horses.  We need a dog that doesn't stress over these things, that doesn't decide it would rather be with the people on the outside of the fence, but that takes its job as a flock protector seriously.  To me, this is my biggest concern about wolves.  I think we can figure out how to protect our sheep from wolves, but it may take more - and more aggressive - dogs.  I'm not sure these more aggressive dogs will be welcome in the "neighborhoods" where we currently graze our sheep.

As I mentioned, we have used llamas in areas where the predators were most likely to be coyotes and dogs, and where neighbors are likely to object to barking dogs.  In past years, this seemed to work fine; in the last 12 months, we lost a ram and 3 feeder lambs to coyotes in pastures that were "protected" by llamas.  I do have a friend nearby who has observed her pair of llamas chasing off a neighbor dog.  If we try llamas again, we'll definitely use more than one.

Despite our success in using this approach, I will admit that I would probably use lethal force if I came upon a predator in the midst of an attack on our sheep.  In reality, this would probably only happen at home; I rarely if ever carry a weapon with me when I'm checking the sheep.  If I suffered repeated losses to predators, I would definitely call on Wildlife Services for help.

Perhaps the most difficult part about dealing with predators is the human aspect.  I recently read an article about wolves and livestock that quoted Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.  He said, "We've learned to live with wolves; what we haven't learned to live with is the never-ending process."  I agree - the human conflicts over natural resource management are more difficult than actually making a difference on the ground.  I get frustrated when other ranchers tell me they try to kill every predator they see (regardless of whether it's causing problems).  I get even more frustrated when well-meaning people who have never found a half-eaten lamb or a ewe with her throat torn out - who have never been responsible for the well-being of livestock - try to tell me how well non-lethal predator control works.

Part of why I love what I do is that I get to be out in the natural world nearly everyday.  Rangeland livestock production is a partnership with nature.  I get a thrill when I see wildlife - even when I see large predators.  This thrill, however, is tempered by the knowledge that they are a threat to the animals in my care.  Because I believe in the techniques that we use to protect our sheep, I'm predisposed to finding ways to improve on this system when it breaks down.  I would welcome further conversation on this topic!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Ranching, Wildfire and Community

photo credit: Gordon Long
Last week, I helped to organize a tour of the Butte Fire in Calaveras County as part of the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition summit.  The tour, and the Coalition's summit on the following day, focused on the intersection of wildfire and ranching in California.  During our tour, we heard from a watershed manager from the East Bay Municipal Utility District, from a local CalFire battalion chief, and from several ranchers who were impacted by the fire (including Doug Joses, whose efforts before and during the fire helped save the town of Mountain Ranch).  During the summit on Friday, we heard from researchers and ranchers about fire prevention, fire management, and the need for more research (especially regarding post-fire grazing management).

Over the last three years, the Sierra Nevada region has experienced three fires that burned more than 50,000 acres in a single 24-hour period (the 2013 Rim Fire, the 2014 King Fire and the 2015 Butte Fire).  I remember hearing a UC Berkeley fire researcher (I wish I could remember his name) talk about the King Fire - he had run a model that predicted that the fire could possibly burn from Stumpy Meadows Reservoir to Hell Hole Reservoir (a distance of roughly 15 miles) in 7 days.  The fire made the 15-mile run the next night.  Even though our sheep operation is relatively small, I worry constantly about wildfire during the summer months.  Fire behavior, at least from my perspective, seems to be changing.



Our tour, and our conversations on Friday, revolved around these changes and around changes in, and impacts to, the ranching community.  When I was a kid, I remember that most of the properties of 10 acres or more in Tuolumne County (where I grew up) were fenced and had livestock grazing on them.  When we stopped to look at the Butte Fire on Thursday, ranchers Doug Joses and Bob Garamendi pointed out the small ranches that no longer existed.  According to Doug, "Everybody up here had 75-100 sheep, maybe that many goats, and usually a few cows."  Because of the grazing, he said, fuel didn't have a chance to build up.  Today, the children and grandchildren of many of these ranchers no longer graze livestock.  And because there were fewer residences - and because the families that did live there ranched (at least part-time) - controlled burns were a regular occurrence.  "Just about every weekend in late July and August," Doug said, "we'd go to a control burn on somebody's ranch."  Bob Garamendi said that he could remember CDF (as those of us of a certain age still call CalFire) doing cooperative Vegetation Management Program (VMP) controlled burns on private ranches into the early 1980s.  VMP burns are increasingly rare today.

As more people have moved into the Sierra foothills, the liability associated with prescribed fires has limited our ability to use this tool.  Consequently, we have fuel loads that are far beyond anything we've experienced in the last 100 years (at least).  We drove Jesus-Maria Road through the Butte Fire - and our local guides told us that there were places on the road before the fire where the brush enclosed the road like a tunnel.  After 4 years of drought, and with low humidity and moderate winds, this fuel pushed the fire faster than most of the folks fighting the Butte Fire had ever seen.

As we drove through the fire, I was reminded about the importance of knowing the land.  Doug and Bob both grew up on the ranches they currently manage.  They know the landscape intimately.  Bob talked about helping a couple of dozer operators find a safe route for constructing a fire line during the fire.  Doug knew where the fire would likely "lie down" because he'd grazed the fine fuels and brush with goats, sheep and cattle.  A satellite photo or a topographic map can't provide this level of detail.  I've experienced GPS systems that show a road that no longer exists or a creek crossing that is impassable.  This local knowledge is critical to stopping a fire - and to keeping firefighters (especially those from out of town) safe.  While I understand the reluctance of professional firefighters to include "civilians" in fire suppression efforts (as well as the liability involved), local, on-the-ground experience would be helpful, it seems.

Local knowledge extends beyond the landscape - community connections are also an important part of the story.  Again, Doug provided a useful (and humorous) illustration.  At one point during the fire, Doug had two water trucks (6,000 gallons of water) held up a mile from his ranch by a CHP roadblock (this was before CalFire had been able to get to the ranch).  CHP refused to let the trucks through, and even told Doug that they shouldn't let him return to the ranch.  Doug called the sheriff's dispatcher in San Andreas (who happened to be his ex-wife - they'd divorced 40 years ago).  After calming him down, she made a few calls to CHP in Sacramento, and the trucks were released.  To me, this illustrates the importance of the connections that those of us who have lived and worked in rural communities all of our lives have made and maintained.

During our conversations with firefighters during the tour, I was struck by how high-tech fighting wildfire has become.  Improvements in communications, mapping technology and equipment have made fighting wildland fire easier (and potentially) safer than it once was.  But sometimes, I think, we make the mistake of thinking our technology is infallible. With computerized mapping capabilities, I fear that we may be forgetting how to read paper topographic maps (for example, do you know how to tell a ridge from a valley on a topo map?).  Several ranchers who had private land and public grazing allotments within the Rim Fire related stories about having to tell fire managers that the fire had burned beyond the perimeter shown on their "updated" maps during a morning briefing.  Despite our tremendous advancements in technology and knowledge, sometimes on-the-ground knowledge trumps aerial photography and modeling.

All of this brings me to my own small ranching operation.  I've written in the past about wildfire as it relates to our sheep business (see this post, for example).  When I see smoke on the horizon in the summer and autumn months, I call the ranchers I know who might be in the path of the fire (and they call me when they see smoke in my direction).  If I'm grazing sheep on dry forage or in brushlands, I make plans for how I'd evacuate the sheep in a fire.  Even when I'm indoors, I listen for the sound of low-flying fire aircraft.

So before our foothill rangelands turn golden this summer, I'm going to take the initiative to talk with my neighbors and fellow ranchers.  I plan to organize a breakfast meeting with other ranchers to talk about how we might help with fire prevention and even with fire suppression.  I intend to reach out to our local CalFire folks so that they know who the large landowners are in our community - where the gates and ranch roads are, where the stockponds are that might be a critical source of water during a fire.  And I'm interested to know if others have ideas about this topic, as well.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Conversation with the Land

Wendell Berry is one of my favorite authors.  As a poet, a novelist, an essayist - and a farmer - he writes about things that interest me - and in a way that makes me think more deeply about my own agrarian efforts.  For Christmas this year, my wife gave me a copy of his 2015 collection of essays, Our Only World.  As I read his essay about sustainable forestry last night, I was struck by the thought that farming and ranching (and forestry) - done well - are conversations with the land.  Good farming and ranching requires a dialog with the land - a give-and-take discussion.

This conversation requires us (ranchers and the land) to develop a common vocabulary.  The grass, the trees, the soil, the animals (wild and domestic) allow us to communicate with the land.  More importantly, these "words" allow the land to communicate with us (if we're willing to "listen").  For example, the variety and health of the plants in our pastures allow the land to tell me how I'm doing as a grazier.  The life in our soils tell me whether I'm paying attention to what's going on beneath the surface - whether we're cycling carbon and building organic matter.  The health and vigor of my sheep - and the health and vigor of the wildlife on our rangelands (including the predators) - communicate something about the quality of my management.

Developing this vocabulary requires thoughtful observation.  In several leadership courses I've taken, I've learned about the importance of active listening in effective communication.  Active listening involves hearing without focusing on our own responses.  Listening to the land takes more than my auditory senses - "listening" to the land requires all of my senses (sight, smell, taste, feel and hearing).  Paying attention - to the color of the water in our seasonal creeks, to the sound of the tree frogs singing after the stock ponds finally fill in the winter, to the hawks that hunt for rodents in our pastures after we move the sheep, to the weight of our lambs at weaning - allows us to understand whether our efforts are improving the health of our land.  Actively listening to the land requires me to be fully engaged.

I find that conversing with the land is largely a matter of my questions and the land's answers.  I might try something new (like herding our sheep through a stand of dead starthistle to aid in it's decomposition).  I like to think that I'm asking the land whether this approach will help improve the condition of the rangeland.  In listening for the answer, I find that I have to adjust my concept of time - I can't expect the land to answer immediately.  This is, perhaps, the greatest challenge in communicating with the land.  I probably won't get an answer from the land on the same day that I ask the question; indeed, I might not get an answer for months or years.  Humans communicate on a human-centric timescale; the land often communicates on a geologic timescale.

Sometimes, our questions of the land may be offensive - and the land surely tells us such if we're paying attention.  Sometimes the land can be offensive, too - even the most sensitive "listening" farmers and ranchers have suffered from the drought.  But "listening" - and responding to what we "hear" - makes all the difference, in my opinion.

The best farmers and ranchers I know are constantly listening - even if the answers are incomplete or confusing.  They try something (in other words, ask a question), wait for the answer (sometimes for years), and then adjust their management accordingly.  The best farmers and ranchers are comfortable with this uncertainty - and they understand that this conversation will last a lifetime (and probably longer).  As Jayber Crow, the title character in one of my favorite Wendell Berry novels, learns:
"You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers.  You will have to live them out - perhaps a little at a time."
"And how long is that going to take?"
 "I don't know.  As long as you live, perhaps." 
"That could be a long time."
"I will tell you a further mystery," he said. "It may take longer." 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Anguish and Anxiety - Hidden Impacts of the Drought


In late December, the Modern Farmer published an article online entitled, "Climate Change is Freaking Farmers Out, Medically Speaking." The piece, by Dan Nosowitz, discusses a recently published study from Australia regarding the mental health impacts of climate uncertainty on farmers in the town of Newgate (in the southwestern corner of Australia).  Neville Ellis, a PhD student at Murdoch University, interviewed 22 farmers about their lives and their sense of well-being.  His findings, according to the article, confirm that climate change has had an impact on farmers' mental health:
"This sort of climate change, in an area vulnerable to extreme changes, has had a nasty effect on the mental health of farmers.  The biggest problem seems to be the uncertainty.  Farmers don't know whether their crops will survive or be hit by a sudden drought or heat wave.  They don't know whether storms will blow their now-dry topsoil away, ruining any chance for crops to grow.  Ellis, in the study's release, said, 'So what we see in these dry seasons is that farmers will be checking forecast 10, 20, 30 times a day.  They just don't know what's coming on the horizon, so there's a degree of anxiety about what is coming their way."
Recent surveys - and my family's own experiences - are revealing similar feelings among California farmers and ranchers, resulting from the region's worst drought in 500 years. For me, at least, anxiety about the drought has given way (at least in part) to a sense of resignation and acceptance - perhaps because we've made such significant changes in the scale and nature of our operation.  Coming into the drought, we had a flock of over 300 ewes - and our sheep business represented a significant portion of our income and my daily work.  Today, we have slightly more than 60 ewes - and I have worked full-time off the ranch for the last several years.  During the driest months of our now-four-year-old drought, I found myself checking multiple weather forecasts - looking for the one that held the most hope for precipitation.

Moving sheep in Rio Vista - February 2014.  This hillside should have been lush
and green at this time of year.
Other California ranchers, in recently conducted interviews, have directly cited the emotional toll that the drought has had on them.  One rancher spoke of the "mental anguish" that resulted from selling animals and watching crops fail.  Another said, "The drought has taken an emotional toll - you ranch because you love the land and want to make it better.  It hurts to see the land going backward."

These feelings, certainly, are not new to the current drought. Caroline Henderson, an Oklahoma farmer who wrote "Letters from the Dust Bowl" for the Atlantic Monthly during the 1930s, wrote, "Many a time I have found myself tired out from having tried, unconsciously and without success, to bring the distant rainclouds nearer to water our fields.  I'm beginning to see how worse than useless is this exaggerated feeling of one's own responsibility." I suspect, had the Internet existed in the 1930s, that Ms. Henderson would have been checking multiple weather websites on a daily basis.

In the Murdoch University press release about his research, Neville Ellis said, "The farms are more than just a business for these farmers - it's their home, their personal history.  There is no escape if they have a bad day at work.  Some I talked to had become completely disengaged from the predictions and the forecasts - they shut themselves off in their properties with the curtains drawn so they wouldn't have to face the realities outside."

Caroline Henderson said it this way, "But of all our losses, the most distressing is the loss of our self-respect.  How can we feel that our work has any dignity when the world places so little value on the products of our toil?"  Like Henderson and the Australian farmers in Ellis' study, I find that my sense of identity is wrapped up in what I do - despite my day job, I see myself first as a sheep rancher.  And while I love what I do "professionally," I can't help but feel that in having to sell sheep and take off-ranch work, I've failed in some way.

As I write this morning, our part of the Sierra Nevada foothills has received close to normal rainfall for the season.  We have snow in the mountains (unlike last January), and more rain is predicted for the coming 10 days.  A "normal" winter has done wonders for my attitude (and, I suspect, for the attitudes of my fellow farmers and ranchers) - and yet the experience of the recent past continues to make me anxious.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Random Thoughts on Eastern Oregon

I've struggled with whether I should post my thoughts on what's been happening in Eastern Oregon (relative to the conviction of the Hammonds on arson charges and the militia occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge).  This post, like my thoughts, is disjointed - but I feel like I need to write down my ideas.  I hope the few of you who read this will add to the thoughtful discussion.

It's on the Internet - it must be true!
While the Internet is wonderful in many ways, it doesn't facilitate thoughtful discussion of complicated issues.  Over the last week, I've seen "news" articles and analyses that justify everyone's perspective on this issue.  The Hammonds are being persecuted. The Hammonds are deer-poaching right-wing radicals.  The Bundys are patriots. The Bundys are crazy.  The Bundys are trying to establish a Mormon homeland.  The federal government is trying to steal the Hammond's land.  The Feds are simply trying to protect our public lands.  So here I am - writing about this issue on the Internet.  Not sure this adds anything to our collective understanding of the subject or not.

It's good to be white!
Regardless of the cause, there does seem to be some hypocrisy involved in our collective reaction to what Ammon Bundy and his followers are doing.  I'm sure this will offend some of my friends, but it seems to me that if an armed black man and his followers were to take over a federal building, we'd call him a thug.  If an armed Muslim man were to do the same, we'd call him a terrorist.  If an armed Native American were to do the same, we'd put him in federal prison.  I can't bring myself to think of Bundy and his followers as patriots.

It's complicated!
Based on what I've read, the Hammonds may have started one of the fires for which they were convicted to cover up illegal deer hunting activity.  The people who taught me to hunt, and those with whom I hunt today, were and are offended by poachers.  On the other hand, I know ranchers who have lost grass to backfires set by state and federal firefighters who weren't familiar with the local area and who didn't care that the rancher might know more about the locale.  I've also read that the Feds were pressuring the Hammond family to sell out to the Malheur refuge (or to a national monument, depending on what one reads).  The overload of information online makes it more (rather than less) difficult to discern the truth.

Good and bad...
I am a rancher.  I've been a federal employee.  I've worked with federal agencies and ranchers throughout my career.  The overwhelming majority of those in both categories are good folks.  They love the land; they love their communities.  They work hard.  But there are a small handful - as with any community or profession - who aren't good people.  I find it terribly difficult to judge who is good (and who is bad) from afar.

Rural communities feel dispossessed and disenfranchised...
Personally, I accept the concept of federal land and multiple use.  Before the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management were established (and in some instances, afterwards), our public lands were mismanaged in pursuit of private gain.  That said, I also understand the frustration of people and communities who depend upon the resources provided by public lands.  As a rural westerner, I am frustrated when decisions are made in cities about my own community and livelihood by bureaucrats that have no understanding of or concern for on-the-ground conditions.  My frustration, and that of the vast majority of my colleagues, drives me to educate my suburban and urban neighbors - and my elected and appointed representatives.  And like the vast majority of my colleagues, the Bundy family doesn't represent me.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Drought Update: Still (Always) on my mind

Looking back at my writing over the last six months or so, I've found that I've written about our drought with much less frequency.  While I suppose this could be taken as a sign that I feel like the drought is over, in reality, I think drought has become the new normal for me.  And so as we enter a new year, I want to think about the ways in which drought continues to impact my day-to-day life.

First, a snapshot of current conditions in my part of the Sierra Nevada foothills.  With just over six inches of rainfall in December 2015, we are approaching "normal" precipitation for the current water year (which started on July 1).  More importantly, we are slightly above normal in terms of our mountain snowpack.  Since snow is our most important "reservoir" for summer water, this is great news.  Last year in early January, my family visited Yosemite Valley and found it barren and brown; yesterday, we snowshoed in Truckee and were heartened to see more than 3 feet of snow on Donner summit.  And we've had an extended stretch of cold weather (at least it's cold for our region) - the longest stretch of sub-freezing morning temperatures in several years.  Cold weather is critical for the winter dormancy of much of our vegetation - and for disrupting the life cycles of a number of agricultural pests.

Even with these positive signs, we are still seeing the impacts of drought every day.  After four years of drought, our rangeland soils are so dry that the ephemeral creeks where we graze our sheep are not flowing consistently.  Even though we received a germinating rain in October (which is reasonably normal here), our germination has been very spotty and uneven (probably due to the "false" germinations we've experienced for the past several autumns).  Many of the blue oaks on our rangelands still have their leaves - despite the recent cold weather, drought stress and our warmer-than-usual autumn seems to have disrupted their normal deciduous pattern.  During trips into the mountains this fall, we've been startled by the number of dead and dying Ponderosa pines (victims of drought stress and bark beetle attacks) - and we understand that tree mortality in the Sierra Nevada gets more severe as one travels south.

My work reflects the realities of living with drought, as well.  I've documented the reduction in our sheep flock - we bred about 75% fewer ewes this year compared with 2011.  Our de-stocking responded both to a lack of forage availability and to greater demands on my time - fewer sheep means lower income, which means I'm working full-time off the ranch.  During 2015, I managed the cattle and pastures at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center - and drought was a constant companion.  Because of the drought, we weaned calves early, shipped yearlings early, and hauled stock water to some pastures.  And as the new year opens, my new job as assistant rangeland specialist in the UC Davis Plant Sciences Department is focused (in part) on drought and water-related issues.

I hesitate to compare this drought with the Dust Bowl years of the late 1920s and 1930s.  Unlike the Dust Bowl, this drought hasn't caused mass human migration in the United States.  The skies above the East Coast haven't been darkened by dust from the high plains and mountain West.  However, based on tree-rings and other paleotological records, the current drought is the worst experienced in California in 500 years.  On a more personal level, the significance of any event can be measured by comparing life before the event with life after.  From this stand point, this drought is undoubtedly one of the most significant events of my adult life.  My life and livelihood after the drought look very different than I thought they would before the drought started.

And so as we start a new year, I'm hopeful that predictions of a wet late winter and spring (products of one of the strongest El NiƱo events ever documented) come true.  Even so, memories of last year's historically wet December and equally historically dry January are fresh in my mind.  To borrow a sentiment from Yogi Berra, we won't know this drought is over until it's over.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

When livestock are your livelihood - #sheep365

As a new month (and a new calendar year) approaches, I'm exactly 90 days into my #sheep365 social medial project.  Since October 1, I've posted at least one photograph of something related to my family's sheep operation on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  Other producers (especially in the United Kingdom) have started using the hashtag, too - search for #sheep365 on Twitter and Instagram for some great sheep-related photography!

While many of the photos look very similar from one day to the next, the photos that I took in October look very different than those I took this week.  Now that I'm roughly 25 percent of my "sheep year," I can see differences in our rangeland and pastureland (we've moved from irrigated pasture to wintertime annual rangeland) and in our sheep ("open" ewes in October versus mostly pregnant ewes in December).  I've also photographed some of the mileposts of our year - from turning out the rams on day 1 to moving the sheep to winter pasture on day 66.

The project has also initiated conversations with my fellow shepherds (and shepherdesses).  While we have not lost any sheep to predation during this first 3 months of my project, every shepherd must cope with predators.  While the arrival of wolves in California is a high profile example, I worry more about more mundane predators - especially coyotes and free-roaming dogs.  I especially appreciate the sentiments expressed in a Facebook conversation about predator losses early this month.  My friend John Harper said,
"Non livestock producers [are] amazed to hear that producers grieve over their losses from any predator.  Their belief is that since producers raise livestock from the food chain that we don't care about them.  They [non-producers] [are] in awe that we believe in providing the best life while they are in our care until [they fulfill] the service they were genetically selected for.  They don't understand that since the animals have been bred to abandon their defenses to serve humans that we have a special bond to protect them."
Another friend and sheep producer, Jasmine Westbrook (who had recently experienced a lethal dog attack in her sheep), responded,
"I have also encountered the misconception that ranchers do not become emotionally attached to our livestock.  It seems obvious from the inside that when you raise an animal from birth you would become fond of it....  I don't think people realize how much our lives intertwine with our livestock....  It's our job to protect them, and we failed today."
I guess the point that I'm trying to make here is this: Even though raising sheep is a business to me and my family, it's more than than that.  As Jasmine said, "When raising livestock is your livelihood, livestock is your life."  Part of this is economic - while my savings account isn't very robust, my ranch-related assets (sheep, fencing, dogs, equipment, etc.) are more robust.  But it's more than that for me - I love working with livestock (sheep, especially).  Weaning a healthy group of lambs and sending them off with our buyer feels like success.  Losing a ewe to a coyote feels like failure.

This brings me back to this project.  As I try to take photographs that tell a story about what I'm doing on any given day, I'm realizing that these small, seemingly insignificant activities add up to my life and to my livelihood.  I'm also realizing that spending time with our sheep is part of what I look forward to every day.  Only 275 days left in this project!  In the meantime, here are a few of my favorite photographs from the last month or so.










Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Of Wolves and Livestock

Wolves have been on my mind recently.  Earlier this year, we received confirmation that a breeding pair of wolves had taken residency in Siskiyou County (in Northern California).  We saw photographs that indicated they were a successful breeding pair (at least 5 pups were in the photographs).  Over the weekend, the Sacramento Bee included a report of the first probable instance of a calf (and possibly a cow) killed by wolves (click here for the article).  And this week, the Bee's editorial page included yet another opinion piece authored by staffer from the Center for Biological Diversity (click here for this article).

First a note of discouragement about the Sacramento Bee's coverage of this issue.  The link to the op/ed piece by Amroq Weiss of CBD is shown as "news" - when it's clearly opinion.  Over the last 12 months, the newspaper's coverage of the topic, at least on its editorial pages, has been entirely one-sided - even though the paper has received at least two submissions that offer a different perspective on wolves.  Given the Bee's lack of balance on this issue, I guess I'll continue to offer my own viewpoints on wolves and livestock here on my Foothill Agrarian blog.
A screenshot from www.sacbee.org - this "article" was written by the
Center for Biological Diversity.
I do think it's possible to have a reasonable conversation about wolves in California, contrary to what Ms. Weiss would have us believe.  Over the weekend, I posted a link to the first article on my twitter feed (I posted just the link - with no comment about the article).  Over the course of several hours, several of us engaged in a useful discussion about how ranchers can cope with wolf predation.  I think this conversation needs to expand.

Nonprofit organizations in other western states have developed funding sources that can reimburse ranchers for direct losses to wolves.  In my opinion, these programs help, but they don't address the entire picture.  Emerging research clearly demonstrates a link between the presence of wolves and stress-related production losses in livestock.  These losses include reduced reproductive success (that is, fewer calves or lambs per breeding female) and lower weaning weights (due to greater energy requirements for predator evasion/defense as well as increased stress).  For more information, click on this study).

Most of us who are in the business of raising livestock on rangelands have invested significant time, energy and capital in developing the genetics of our flocks or herds to match our resource base.  For example, we keep ewes in our flock that do well on the type of vegetation that our foothill rangelands and irrigated pastures will produce.  We select rams that compliment the genetic make-up of our ewes.  Our ewes teach their lambs how to thrive on our forage.  In other words, the success of our current flock is a direct result of the breeding and ewe-retention decisions we made 4-5 generations back.  While we might be reimbursed for the death of a particular ewe or ram, the market price we would receive doesn't reflect the genetic value of that individual within our flock.  I cannot simply replace a dead ewe with one I purchase from the auction yard in Escalon.

Furthermore, in my own sheep operation, I worry about another indirect cost should the wolves' territory expand further south.  We are committed to co-existing with the predators in our environment (mainly coyotes and mountain lions).  Electric fences and livestock guardian dogs have allowed us to raise sheep in our part of the Sierra foothills without having to kill these predators.  But we also ranch in areas where there are many people.  Our livestock guardian dogs have to be aggressive enough to deter the coyotes and cougars, but docile enough not to scare the neighbor kids.  Based on the experiences of ranching colleagues with more wolf interaction, we'd need to get bigger and more aggressive dogs to protect our flock from wolves.  I'm not sure how the neighbors would feel about this.

Rural communities often bear the brunt of living day-to-day with well-intentioned but at times ill-conceived environmental laws and regulations.  While this doesn't mean that some of these laws and regulations are unjustified, I do feel that rural communities and businesses that depend on our natural resources are sometimes not considered when these laws and regulations are adopted.  The daily opportunity to see and interact with wildlife is one of the more rewarding aspects of my livelihood; at the same time, worrying about protecting my sheep from predators is stressful.  Dealing with the aftermath of a predator attack is unpleasant and frustrating.  I have chosen sheep ranching as a profession because I love working with nature and I love caring for livestock.  Wolves (and other large predators) are a concept to somebody living and working in Sacramento or San Francisco; those of us who live with these predators have a much more complex relationship with them.  I wish the Sacramento Bee would acknowledge this!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Christmas for Shepherds

"Back in the cities, they have different ways,
Football and eggnog and Christmas parades
I'll take my blankets, I'll take the reins,
It's Christmas for cowboys on the wide open plains."

                                                                    -- John Denver

A week from today, my youngest daughter will awaken us early on Christmas morning.  I think she's taken over my role as the member of our family most excited about Christmas!  She even wants me to teach her how to make coffee this year, so she can bring me a cup in bed (which, as the theory goes, will get me out of bed sooner).  After opening our gifts to each other and eating our traditional cinnamon roll breakfast, we'll all head outside to do our home chores.  We'll feed the horse and mule, let the few sheep we keep at home out of their night pen, feed the hog and check on the chickens.

Since we keep most of our sheep on rented pasture about 6 miles from home, our Christmas Day chores involve some driving.  Usually, I do these chores by myself, but on Christmas, the girls go with me.  Sami's happy to have us all out of the house, I think - she gets to clean up a bit before the next round of Christmas festivities (all food-related).  I relish the time tending our sheep with my daughters.

We usually try to move the sheep onto fresh grass a day or two before Christmas, which makes our Christmas Day chores easy.  We feed the guard dogs, check the condition of the ewes, and walk our fences.  Our border collies join us - there's not much for them to do, but they'd mope if we left them home.  If the day is cold and wet (like we hope it is this year), we look forward to getting back to the house and warming up in front of the wood stove.

In many respects, Christmas is like any other day for a shepherd - the sheep still need my attention.  Christmas Day is special in my family - not only for it's cultural and religious significance, but also for the reminder that we get to work with each other.  We get to work outside, and we get to work with livestock.

Shepherds' chores, in many ways, haven't changed much through the centuries.  I still worry about my sheep.  Like my predecessors, I make sure they've got plenty to eat and that they're protected from predators.  As I watch my daughters working with me, especially on Christmas morning, I grateful that another generation is learning how to tend sheep.  I couldn't ask for a better Christmas gift.

Merry Christmas!

The goofy Macon girls - Christmas Day 2014