While national news has focused on the armed takeover of a remote wildlife refuge in Oregon, another ranching family just one state away isn’t making headlines — but they should be.
What a contrast.
While Nevada’s Bundy clan have sent the last several years breaking laws and bringing scorn onto ranching families across the West with their ill-advised defiance of the law, the Constitution and the federal system that permits them to graze cattle on public lands, another ranching family in the Silver State has spent generations doing what animal agriculture does best: Raising beef while improving the land.
For their efforts that date back to the 1970s, the Searle family of Elko, Nev., owner-operators of the Maggie Creek Ranch, were named national winners of the 2015 Environmental Stewardship Award by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
The award, which dates back 25 years, is presented by the National Cattlemen’s Foundation and sponsored by Dow AgroSciences, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to recognize ranchers who make a commitment to environmental stewardship and land management practices that sustain healthy, productive ecosystems.
There really isn’t any reason those two outcomes can’t co-exist, by the way, and more importantly in the context of the recent takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, no reason why ranchers and federal land managers cannot partner on projects that meet the goals of both sides; Profitability for ranchers and environmental protection for the land itself.
The 2015 Environmental Stewardship Award underscores exactly that dynamic.
“Maggie Creek Ranch [illustrates] how ranching families work every day with the land, natural resources and cattle to better the environment,” said Philip Ellis, President of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, in a statement released during NCBA’s recently completed Cattle Industry Convention and Trade Show in San Diego — an event that dates back to 1988, by the way. “When cattlemen and women, like the Searle family, dedicate themselves to conservation efforts, the entire industry benefits.”
The family raises cattle in sagebrush country in northern Nevada, an area ringed by snow-capped mountains and so scenic that True West magazine Elko as one of the Top True Western Towns, a place where “Nevada’s real cowboys work and play, and the Wild West spirit is catching.”
Boosterism aside, the operative fact in this story is that Maggie Creek Ranch runs its operation on a combination of two-thirds private land and one-third permitted federal land. As NCBA noted, Jon Griggs, the ranch manager, has worked for many years to build trust and to collaborate with the Bureau of Land Management on conservation projects.
“We have had a common vision of the watershed, and what the land should look like,” said Carol Evans, a Fisheries Biologist with the BLM. “Never mind the land boundaries, we just get to work.”
Multiple use on display
That work includes improving habitat for wildlife and for threatened and endangered species. One project of particular success was the installation of irrigation diversions and a fish passage to protect the Lahontan cutthroat trout. That was important, because the ranch uses irrigation water that flows from the Ruby Mountains northeastern Nevada, including the creek for which the ranch is named.
According to a report by the Nevada Department of Wildlife, Maggie Creek now connects several small tributaries that support trout migration and breeding. But that wasn’t always the case
Back in 2005, “fish-migration barriers existed on a number of these tributaries,” the department wrote in a report.
“The pre-project condition on the main-stem of Maggie Creek consisted of a single non-functional culvert that created a complete barrier to upstream movement for all aquatic species,” the report stated. “Additionally, the structure was only able to marginally satisfy the irrigation needs for Maggie Creek Ranch.
In the fall of that year, ranch management and BLM worked to design and install a double culvert system with baffled weirs that provided successful fish passage and enhanced the ranch’s irrigation system. Three years later, after floods had destroyed much of the original project, the structures were rebuilt and the department reported that they improved system “appears to be allowing fish passage and satisfying irrigation demands.”
A healthier ecosystem on the ranch now support fish, wildlife and cattle in a sustainable manner, all part of a family tradition that began 40 years ago with Sally Searle and her late husband, Bill.
“This award is such a personal thing for us, with my grandfather being gone,” said Bekah Klarr, granddaughter of the Searles. “He really lives on through environmental stewardship and that heritage that he passed to us, which means a lot.”
It’s just too bad that the media narrative of American ranchers for the millions of urban residents who will never set foot on a working ranch the rest of their lives is that of a bunch of gun-toting renegades who represent the worst of the profession.
It would be nice to see a horde of reporters descend on the Maggie Creek Ranch to see what the best in the business look like. □
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator