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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

PC Beef

Air Date: Week of

Wolves have a new ally in cattle country. A New Mexico rancher is marketing wolf-friendly beef from cattle grazed on land where a variety of predators, including wolves and coyotes, are allowed to run wild. Vicki Monks reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Wolves and ranchers aren't exactly best buddies, and in the western United States many cattle and sheep ranchers have lashed out at plans to reintroduce endangered wolves. The cash-strapped herders worry that these predators will prey on their animals. They also fear that wolf reintroduction will mean more restrictions on the use of public land. But not all ranchers. As Vicki Monks reports, at least one New Mexico cattleman is answering the call of the wild.

(A truck on the road)

MONKS: This is an incredible view up here.

WINDER: Yeah, you can see, gosh, I don't know, 100 miles in every direction.

MONKS: Riding up onto a high plateau at Heritage Ranch, snow-covered mountain tops are visible anywhere you look. Somewhere down below those peaks, Jim Winder's cattle are foraging for new spring grass. Mr. Winder, a fourth-generation New Mexico rancher, runs cattle on 100,000 acres of public and private land. It's a vast expanse and it's hard to imagine how he ever finds his livestock, much less how he keeps them safe from mountain lions and coyotes. But predators don't worry this rancher. This is one of the regions where the Federal Government plans to release endangered Mexican wolves. And that's just fine with Mr. Winder.

WINDER: We're used to getting along with coyotes and lions, and I don't see that wolves will be that much of a threat to us. You know, they were here first, and they're part of the land, part of the ecology. You just learn to live with them.

MONKS: Jim Winder's Heritage Ranch is the first outfit in the country to win certification from defenders of wildlife for predator-friendly practices. That means no predators will be killed here. And meat from the ranch will carry an authentic Wolf Country Beef label, and will sell for a premium. Mr. Winder says consumers want his beef but can't always find it on the grocery shelves.

WINDER: The customer has been really great. I've been really surprised. People go out of their way to get it. I've had a real hard time motivating grocery stores. The meat industry's a pretty tough industry, and just being another entrant in that has been pretty hard.

MONKS: Times have been tough for most ranchers lately, and with beef prices low, a few cents extra per pound can make a big difference. But there's more at stake here than selling hamburger. Mr. Winder looks at what he's doing as a chance to help bridge a chasm.

WINDER: We're a very traditional lot, ranchers. And years ago I saw the environmentalists as a threat and I felt well, maybe instead of fighting with them, you know, if we just communicate. And so I spent a lot of years just talking to people. A lot of ranchers are seeing that now is a time to make some changes and realize that these people are not our enemies.

(Milling voices and music)

MONKS: Heritage Ranch is only a few hours drive from Albuquerque, where the American Farm Bureau Federation held its national convention earlier this year. And so it happened that several hundred members of the Farm Bureau, the sworn enemy of wolf reintroduction, found themselves at a country dance and barbecue featuring Mr. Winder's Wolf Country Beef.

(Guitar, singer yodels; milling voices)

MONKS: To be sure, many of the farmers and ranchers dining on wolf-friendly barbecue were skeptical about prospects for coexistence with wolves.

MAN 1: I'm glad to see this man trying to make a go of it with the problem that he has.

MAN 2: There's a place for him, but I don't think in our cattle country we can have too many of them, and I say it's hard on livestock.

MONKS: Most of the farmers and ranchers here, though, echoed a common theme. The marketplace is the real problem in cattle country, not wolves.

MAN 3: The predators are minor compared to the prices that we're currently receiving. So the predators are in no way running the farmers off the land, where the prices and the economy has.

(Truck on rough terrain)

WINDER: I'll show you a home site up here.

MONKS: Looking over his ranch from the window of his pickup truck, Jim Winder points out the valley where his great-grandmother set up the family's first homestead. Evis Swan Winder moved to this high desert region as a young woman and made a go of her ranch alone after her husband died at an early age. Mr. Winder brings up his deep roots here to make the point that Wolf Country Beef is no gimmick. It's part of a survival strategy, just one element of a much broader plan.

WINDER: I kind of looked at where we were on our ranch, and saw that every year things were doing worse financially.

MONKS: The Heritage Ranch survival plan started with efforts to heal and restore land degraded by 200 years of farming, grazing, and intermittent drought.

WINDER: The wetlands really kind of capture flood waters during the summer time. And then that water soaks into the ground, cleansing it, and it comes up out of a creek right here in front of us.

(Running creek water)

MONKS: Mr. Winder has restored wetlands on the ranch and keeps cattle away from fragile streamside riparian areas during critical growing seasons. So the creeks are running colder and deeper. There's more water available for livestock and more vegetation. That means less money spent on cattle feed. The healthier land also attracts wildlife: golden eagles, kestrels, yellow cuckoos. More than 200 species of birds altogether. And plenty of predators, from mountain lions to small striped coatamundis. And hundreds of coyotes. Mr. Winder quit killing predators about 15 years ago, and in all that time he says he's only lost two calves to coyotes.

(A dog howls)

WINDER: Coo! (Whistles)

MONKS: Much of the credit goes to Mr. Winder's dog Cougar, a New Zealand hanaway bred especially to herd livestock. Today he's guiding cattle toward a corral with a clicking electric fence.

WINDER: And they're trained with voice commands and whistle commands and stuff to gather the cows. And they do it by barking at them. They don't ever bite the cow or anything. But just a voice command like Coo, speak.

(Cougar barks)

WINDER: That'll do. Good job. And they'll gather the cows and that, you know, this is a large dog. And he goes and barks at you like that, you're going to get in with the rest of the cows. And a coyote or a wolf or a mountain lion really doesn't have much of a chance to get a calf.

MONKS: Heritage Ranch managers studied buffalo herding patterns to figure out the best way to keep the cattle safe. They use common sense approaches, such as moving cattle away from coyote dens before calves are born. And though other ranchers in the neighborhood disagree, Mr. Winder doesn't expect wolves to change the equation very much.

WINDER: We're the only ranch in New Mexico that came out in favor of the reintroduction of the Mexican wolf. Because frankly, we see it more as an opportunity than as a threat. I think people would pay money to stand where we're standing right now and see this beautiful scene and then hear a wolf howl in the distance. You know, that would be worth a lot.

MONKS: Eco-tourism is another part of the Heritage Ranch survival plan. Mr. Winder is also selling off limited scattered homesites on the ranch to help finance wetland and other restoration efforts. It's an open question whether these ideas will catch on in cattle country any time soon, but what's at stake may have as much to do with the survival of ranchers as the survival of wolves. For Living on Earth, I'm Vicki Monks.



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