Thursday, June 25, 2015


We should all be more comfortable with questions and not so quick to spout our opinions. After all, we know less than we think we do, especially about the biological world. That’s one thing Jack and I share, the joy of questioning. We both like a question that hangs comfortably in the air, causing contemplation, not the rush to an answer.

So it was no surprise that we found more questions than answers when we walked the wilderness area encompassed by the Craters of the Moon National Monument during the height of the preserve’s famous wildflower season. The staff here had told Jack that a sage grouse breeding lek existed on the property. We wanted to see what the habitat looked like.   

Eruptions occurred here over some 13,000 years, the most recent being only 2,000 years ago. It was not from a single volcano erupting in the classic sense, but rather lava that flowed up and out of a deep fissure known as the Great Rift. The area was designated as a national monument in 1924 when explorers pushed to have the lava flows protected. Then in 1970 much of the land was deemed wilderness, a rarity within the National Park System. In 2000 the area was expanded and now encompasses 750,000 acres, some of it privately owned.     

We toured what the Hawaiian’s call a Kipuka, an island of natural vegetation surrounded by lava, thereby eliminating most human effects, including wheeled traffic, grazing, etc. We both wanted to see what this non-grazed area looked like. 

Jack and I sparred over the health of the grass community. I was convinced that the (what I call over-rested) plants would benefit from periodic grazing, as long as they received adequate recovery periods. He wouldn’t go for it, insisting that I was making assumptions based on limited knowledge. “Maybe that plant is just old,” he said.

We walked all the way to Little Prairie which had burned in 1992. The vegetation here was noticeably different, more grass, less brush. Our wet May meant an impressive sea of waving seedheads. But what about plant spacing? Could well managed grazing help fill in the bare ground?

Much of our walking followed the hint of a trail recently traversed by an elk. We noticed here and there her preference for penstemon blooms!   

In our nine mile journey we walked across lots of different degrees of what we might call “healthy” range. Some areas were abundant and diverse, others mostly bare ground. And the one thing that Jack and I agreed on, these differences were NOT caused by cows, or sheep, or any domestic grazing animal. They were caused by soil composition, aspect, etc. And in our culture’s heated debate over the effects of grazing, that’s a mouthful. 

a grouse was here, I even flushed a hen and three chicks!

in the distance, the 2000 fire which left behind a sea of cheat grass

the translucent blue of penstemon
lovely in anyone's eye

with no grazing, there is nothing to remove old growth and rejuvenate the plant
Do you agree?

cheat grass established with no domestic grazers

this area burned in 1992, lovely tall grass from a wet May
Could there be less bare ground with good grazing management?

bed of delicate monkeyflower 

no fire, no grazing by domestic livestock
Is it healthy? And as compared to what?

Friday, June 12, 2015

Making Memories

Spring has turned to summer. Seed heads are showing on the hay ground which means it’s time to break out the harvesting equipment.

This May’s accumulation of rain has been a Godsend for the cattleman. The plant life is unusually prolific. The cottonwood trees that surround our home have showered us in big clumps of cotton for over two weeks, the heaviest I’ve witnessed in my 25 years on the ranch. 

Spring’s last hurrah was one more big move with the cattle, which included hosting guests who had purchased a “rancher for a day” experience at the Leadership Idaho Agriculture Program year-end auction.

It would be a long day. We had to gather the Meadow Creek pasture, go over two bluffs and make the long climb to the Smyler Canyon divide, then down on into Paradise Lane. Mark figured it would take about 6 hours for the actual move – that is if things went right.  

The first time we tried it we had to turn around and come home when the roads got too slimy from heavy rains. It was fine with our guests, Jeff and Debbie Williams, because that meant they could bring their son John back with them in a couple of days when the forecast looked better.  

Our second try turned out to be a spectacular herding day. We had perfect temperatures - in shirt sleeves with a stiff breeze to keep the mosquitoes away. The sky was studded with fluffy clouds. The range was a soppy deep green, the sage wet and fragrant. And all along the way were these lovely little rain ponds for the cattle and dogs to drink from. Sly and Mater took good care of the visitors and Debbie would later call it “an experience of a lifetime.”    

A side benefit was a dutch oven meal waiting for us at our destination prepared by our friends Dick and Lonna Jean Conroy. We don’t often mix pleasure with trailing cows, as there are lots of unknowns - and spoiling the meal by being late was not an option! Luckily the cattle trailed nicely and we made it, a little late but not too late. The meal and company were superb, but as the evening progressed we couldn't help but notice storm clouds building in the west.

You know that heavy, deathly still air that precedes a storm? It happened as we were visiting following dessert. We just looked at each other and then sprang into action, cleaning up dishes and ovens, loading horses, gathering up folding chairs. At one point we took the ends of the rain spattered plastic tablecloth and simply folded it over the remaining goods and piled it in the Conroy’s trailer. When we were all loaded, I gave one last hug to Dick and Lonna Jean as they scrambled into their pickup. My hair looked like Lonna’s, wet dreadlocks, but we were laughing and loving the adventure of it. One for the recordbooks!

picture perfect

Debbie and John on the divide

What a spread!

I think we're in trouble, look at that sky!

Dick and Lonna Jean, "salt of the earth" folks
photo by Debbie Williams

Monday, June 1, 2015

Perfect, perhaps

Mark and I are catching our breath after moving cattle here and there for the last couple of weeks. We’ve had lots of rain and our world is a verdant paradise. After a mild winter and dry March, the moisture came out of nowhere and just keeps coming.

We laid in bed for a few luxurious minutes this morning. It was warm enough to leave the window open all night for the first time this spring and a cacophony of birdsong woke us. Mark called their clamoring, “the excitement of a new day.”

We had one perfect day in the mountains with the kids before they left for the summer. We took up a load of bulls to deliver to the cows and calves (seems we intend to do this all over again next year). Then we had to move the herd across a creek and into an adjoining field.    

I say the day was perfect, but that’s not entirely true. Seth got annoyed with me when I parked my 4-wheeler right directly in the path of the bulls so I could get a photo from the right position. An artist has to get her shot! Then Anna was perturbed when I had a different idea of how to get some straggler calves to cross the creek. Somehow my long experience with cattle herding (while they gallivant around the countryside) carries little weight in my kids’ minds!

Then Seth proceeded to tell me we didn’t do enough to protect the stream banks for fish habitat. “Easy to say when you’re not here to make it happen!”

Annoyed with them, I left to put out salt while they watched the herd settle in. When I returned, still in my not-so-pleasant mindset, I found them in good spirits singing cowboy songs! Another lesson for me. A brief moment of annoyance is just that - a moment - not a habit. Let it go.

And the photos were worth it, don’t you think?