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Grazing Contract Goes to N.M. Researchers, Pueblo

By Susan Montoya Bryan
Associated Press
      The Valles Caldera National Preserve has awarded this year's grazing contract to a team of researchers from New Mexico State University, Jemez Pueblo and the New Mexico Beef Cattle Performance Association.
    The team's proposal was among five considered by the preserve's executive director, board members and staff.
    "The plan selected includes community, educational, economic and scientific elements that extend benefits beyond the borders of the preserve," said Gary Bratcher, the preserve's executive director.
    The proposal calls for having between 500 and 1,500 head of cattle on the northern New Mexico preserve at a rate of $52 per animal. The number of animals allowed on the preserve will depend on forage conditions.
    Some groups have criticized preserve managers, saying promises have not been kept in past years to keep grazing cattle out of streams and other riparian areas. The not-for-profit group Caldera Action said current plans include only vague statements about keeping cattle out of sensitive areas.
    "The lack of specificity in the riparian protection plans is a huge concern to us," said Tom Ribe, president of Caldera Action.
    Terry McDermott, a spokesman for the preserve, said Thursday that managers understand the group's concerns and chose the proposal partly because it would lessen the risk to riparian areas. Another reason is that it would maintain the preserve as a working ranch.
    "We find this to be a very, very intriguing and acceptable proposal that could work into bigger and better things not only for the cattle growers but also for the conservation and preservation of the riparian areas," McDermott said.
    This year's grazing program will essentially serve as a breeding stock operation with extensive hands-on management by NMSU and its partners.
    Manny Encinias, a beef specialist with the university, said the team aims to develop a high-altitude performance testing facility for virgin bulls and replacement heifers. He said there's a nationwide demand by beef producers for progressive genetics that meet industry standards for performance and also have an ability to thrive at high elevations.
    "Before the trust accepted our proposal, there was no high altitude facility in the U.S. where seedstock could be objectively evaluated on a 100 percent forage-based diet," Encinias said.
    NMSU and its partners also plan to launch an educational program for regional beef producers that will emphasize sustainable practices for natural resource management and herd improvement.
    Purchased by the federal government in 2000 for $101 million, the 89,000-acre former Baca cattle ranch is known for its meadows, streams, forests, volcanic domes and huge elk herds.
    The preserve is managed not by a federal agency, but by trustees who are charged with protecting the land's natural and cultural resources, providing recreational opportunities, operating it as a working ranch and being financially self-sufficient by 2015.
    Bryan Bird of WildEarth Guardians said his group was disappointed that its proposal wasn't accepted. The group had offered to pay $50,000 to graze between three and five cows this season.
    "In this case, I think the rejection of our bid underscores the need for Congress to revisit the mission of the preserve itself," he said.
    WildEarth Guardians and Caldera Action also have argued that the grazing program falls short of helping the preserve become financially self-sufficient. Bird said reaching the goal might be impossible and perhaps not desirable.
    "We would not ask that Yellowstone pay its own way," he said. "This is a national treasure like any of our others in the West. I think as taxpayers we realize we may have to pay for its management and its worth that to keep it protected."
    Acknowledging that the Valles Caldera is an experiment in land management, McDermott said preserve officials have to continue to learn so that what is accomplished in New Mexico can be replicated elsewhere.
    "Sure there's going to be bumps along the road and mistakes made by all parties involved but the biggest mistake that anyone can make is to be afraid of making one," he said.
   


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