In the 1990s, just outside Leadore, Idaho, scores of chinook salmon navigating the bends and twists in the Lemhi River found themselves fatally sidetracked, shunted off course by the diversion dams that sent water to the local ranchers' feed fields. When those and other perils—lower water levels, higher water temperatures, cattle grazing along the riverbanks, a series of dams in the Columbia River system—began to threaten the river's salmon population, the government stepped in to protect the fish.
It's a setup that brings to mind Nevadan Cliven Bundy's tangle with the desert tortoise: A species whose habitat includes longtime rangeland suddenly needs special consideration, changing the rules of the game. In Idaho, ranchers faced tens of thousands of dollars in fines if a salmon died on their property; in Nevada, the government sought to protect the tortoise—and large swaths of federal land—by buying back grazing rights ranchers didn't want to sell. Bundy responded by refusing to pay his cattle-grazing fees but continuing to allow his herd to roam throughout the Gold Butte area. That ultimately led to an armed standoff with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and made Bundy a conservative hero. (His racist comments alienated his new political allies soon after.)
Merrill Beyeler, a 69-year-old Lemhi Valley cattle rancher, has impressed conservatives with a different approach. In May, the Republican won his primary race for a seat in the Idaho House, toppling a veteran lawmaker in a deep-red district by running on a pro-government, pro-conservation platform. He has been described as the anti-Cliven Bundy: Instead of trying to start a range war with the federal government, he's sought to solve conflicts by cooperating with officials, and closely.
A schoolteacher for two decades before he took over his family's cattle ranch full time, Beyeler decided to help ensure that the salmon population went up instead of down. Working with the state and federal governments as well as nonprofit groups, he and other ranchers restored a lost spawning area; put in sophisticated screens that let water through while keeping the fish out; restricted grazing during certain times of year, so cattle wouldn't harm the ecosystems of the riverbanks; and even dedicated acres of their own land to the conservation effort. "Not one was a silver bullet," Beyeler says, "but we certainly feel we're in a much better place than we were in the 1990s." He estimates that he and his allies engaged in more than 200 local projects aimed at protecting the chinook salmon population. This year, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game counted 239 salmon nests in the Lemhi River, the highest number since 1978.
Beyeler's work won him the Bureau of Land Management's Rangeland Stewardship Award for 2013. It also raised his profile around the district. One day, as he was preparing to go to a local water meeting, he recalls, a neighbor called him to ask if he'd ever considered running for office. He hadn't, but he soon decided that he should. He ran for the state House in 2012 but lost the primary. Then in 2014, with better name recognition and increased support from Conservation Voters for Idaho—the state affiliate of the League of Conservation Voters—Beyeler again challenged Republican incumbent Lenore Hardy Barrett, who by then had served in the Legislature for 22 years, and he won.
Beyeler is quick to make it clear that he doesn't dabble in environmentalism. "We've changed the definition of an environmentalist to the point that I'm not sure it agrees with Webster's dictionary any more," he says. "When people use the term 'environmentalists,' I think really what they want to say is 'extremists.' " On the other hand, he says: "There's nothing more conservative than conservation."
If it seems like a distinction without a difference, that sure isn't the case in Idaho. Beyeler's victory puts him on a path to join a state Legislature that Rocky Barker, a longtime environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman, describes as among the most Republican in the country. "You have to not only be a conservative, but a damn conservative," says Barker, who covered Beyeler's primary race. Environmentalism, with its focus on climate change, doesn't pass that test, but conservationism just might. The Republican Party's history of environmental stewardship dates back to Abraham Lincoln, who enacted legislation to protect what would become Yosemite National Park, and runs through the administration of Richard Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency. Barker believes that Beyeler and others like him could be reviving that tradition. "This election is a bellwether, I believe. It's the beginning of a larger trend," he says.
Merrill Beyeler is quick to make it clear that he doesn't dabble in environmentalism.
The League of Conservation Voters—whose state group spent $30,000 on Beyeler's race—hopes so. It cites a handful of similar victories around the country and suggests that those wins could offer a road map for conservation-minded national Republicans. Conservation Voters of Michigan spent $80,000 this spring on behalf of state Senate candidate Wayne Schmidt, who came from behind to beat his tea-party-backed competitor in the 37th District primary. And last year, the New Jersey LCV chapter spent more than $40,000 to urge Democrats and independents to help reelect Christopher "Kip" Bateman, a pro-conservation Republican state senator who won with 60 percent of the vote.
Cliven Bundy, not surprisingly, is no fan of the collaborative-conservationist approach that has taken hold in Beyeler's corner of Idaho and elsewhere. "I don't have a problem with people experimenting a little bit," he says on the phone from his home in Bunkerville, Nevada. "I'm all about doing things better. I just have spent a long time observing the bureaucracies at the BLM and Park Service and Forest Service, and I've seen very little production, yet we have an $18 trillion debt. I think America's tired of that, of paying these people for nothing, all these bureaucracies."
"Let me tell you about the desert tortoise," he adds. "I've been here basically a lifetime on this ranch, and in my lifetime I've never killed a tortoise and I've never seen a tortoise killed by a cow. One time I saw a tortoise fall off a ledge down by the road, and he was upside-down with a broken shell, but that had nothing to do with my cattle or land. In my almost 70 years, that's the extent of tortoise damage."
When told of Beyeler's work with the BLM, Bundy didn't think much of it, describing partnering with the feds as a form of government subsidy. "He could be a Republican or Democrat," Bundy said. "The question would be if he can make a living without suckling on the federal—I don't want to say it, but I think he's a leech, let's put it that way. I hope I'm wrong, but I know that kind of 'collaborative' project. He's a welfare rancher."
Beyeler has a different view. "When you grow up in a small community like this, you kind of know everybody," he says. "People who work for the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service—those are your neighbors, your kids play ball together and go to school together. I guess basically it came down to two choices: You can either trust those people and say, 'Hey, we're going to work this out together.' Or, 'We're going to make this a conflict.' I couldn't see any future in a conflict, so I thought, let's sit down together and see what we can and can't do."