By now the history and behavior of cattle have provoked an entire industry dedicated to kicking them off public lands in the West. "The livestock industry is the last wildlife-genocide program in the United States," says Bruce Apple, the director of an Oregon-based environmental organization appropriately called Rest the West. "All-out war is declared on a diversity of species every day to benefit a single industry."
To be fair, the crops ranchers raise for their cattle have actually been good for some wildlife species, particularly big game such as elk, deer, and antelope. It's some of the smaller inhabitants—birds, tortoises, and ferrets, to name a few—that cattle have decimated. Yet the acrimony in this war, and its costs and casualties to date, make one wonder whether the cowboy life has simply become obsolete. On an ideal planet cattle would be restricted to our green eastern states or returned to the greener continent from which they came, leaving the arid West to the animals that are native to it. But the interlopers are here now—about 45 million beef cattle roam some 870 million acres, more than two thirds of the land mass in our seventeen westernmost states. These animals live on roughly 200,000 cattle ranches. Many of the biggest are financially marginal sideline investments run by wealthy enterprises, including the Mormon Church, or by tycoons such as William Hewlett and David Packard, of the Hewlett-Packard Corporation. Most, however, are run by small ranching families whose primary asset is land the profitability of which is questionable—for running cattle or doing anything else.
One simple answer would be to fence cattle out of the streams—a step that Campbell has taken along the most vulnerable mile of his riverbank. But fencing every troubled stream won't work. The resulting labyrinth of barbed wire would be harmful to wildlife, troublesome to maintain, and costly. Good fencing can cost $8,000 to $12,000 a mile. And with every fence comes the cost of pumping and piping replacement water to thirsty cattle—and the bureaucratic trouble. Ironically, western-state water laws have traditionally encouraged ranchers to skip all this and walk their cattle directly into fragile streams.
IN search of solutions, I paid a visit to Clint Gray, a ranch manager known around the valley for unusually ecological approaches to ranching. The operation that Gray was running at the time (recently another ranch manager, George Hixson, took it over) is unusual—there are no huge ranch headquarters, no shops full of tractors and machinery, no stacks of hay. There are just a few scattered buildings, including an old wooden house with a sagging front porch, which sit in a small green basin high above the main valley.
Gray first appeared on the doorstep of the ranch owner, Jim Bentley, one November day seventeen years ago, frozen out of a nearby gold-mining camp and looking for a home. Bentley let him stay in a broken-down cabin at the far corner of what was then a 50,000-acre ranch, and Gray lived there alone for the next few months, spending many hours studying the patterns of the animals and the grasses out of ecological curiosity. Soon he was recruited for work on the ranch, but the imprint remained of his months of watching the wild range. Now, at fifty-two, he calls himself a "recovering hippie." About a decade ago, after Bentley was forced to reduce his herd because of unrelated business losses, Gray, by then the ranch manager, made his priority not beef production but preserving the health of his boss's land—and gradually discovered a highly effective method of running cattle. He was well suited to this role. His house feels like the backwoods cabins of his past; the walls, made of barn siding, are hung with spurs, branding irons, hay hooks, and a .30-30 rifle. Wood rasps sit next to the cereal bowls in the kitchen cabinet. Bookshelves are filled with titles like The Organic Way to Plant Protection, Holistic Resource Management, and The Knowledge Value Revolution.