December 29, 1999

True Grit - Cattle Ranching in the Mojave Desert Under Siege

It's never been easy for cattle ranchers in the rugged western Mojave. Now laws designed to protect the desert tortoise threaten to end their cowboy way of life.

Los Angeles Times

Miles of it. Sand, rock, mesquite bush, yucca and sky. Out where I-40 blasts east through the Mojave Desert and Route 247 heads south onto the sun-baked plain of Lucerne Valley. Miles of nothing.

No, miles of cattle country.

"This is great country for them," says Bill Mitchell, a local rancher out on a roundup astride his feisty appaloosa, Chief. It's a 90-degree day, and the rough desert ground is thick with rattlesnakes--Mojave greens, the lethal kind. But the cattle know how to avoid the snakes, they know what to eat and where to drink, Mitchell explains. The warmer climate allows for year-round grazing, and the dryness helps prevent disease.

Indeed, his cows look sleek and content as he patiently guides a dozen of them toward his home base, Two Hole Springs Ranch, at the mouth of Rattlesnake Canyon in Lucerne Valley. Mitchell speaks softly to them, a mantra, "Easy now, easy now."

He's been talking to cows since his childhood. He learned to rope, ride and wrangle on his grandfather's Mojave ranch, Horsethief Springs. In 1986, Mitchell bought his own ranch, Pilot Knob near China Lake. A decade later, he sold "PK" and bought Two Hole Springs.

"Working cattle is the only thing I've ever wanted to do in my life," he says.

In his cowboy hat and jingle-bob spurs, Mitchell seems a reminder of another age, a time when San Bernardino and Riverside were known as "the cow counties." In the 1920s, there were 30 ranches spread out over the Mojave, each ranch comprising several hundred thousand acres. Two Hole Springs, with 53,000 acres and 86 head of cattle, is one of six that remain.

As the century draws to a close, Mitchell and his fellow ranchers have no wish to become anachronisms--or worse, landless. These are men and women who believe in hard work and self-sufficiency, who profess an intense love for this harsh landscape. But their livelihood and way of life are under increasing pressure from various conservation organizations, which say the fragile desert ecosystem is definitely not good country for cattle.

Most of the land on these Mojave ranches is leased from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the government agency overseeing federal lands. All but five acres of Mitchell's Two Hole Springs belongs to the bureau and is, therefore, subject to a host of new grazing restrictions resulting from the 1989 listing of the desert tortoise as an endangered species.

Regulations Are 'Piling Up'

As the ranchers see it, groups such as the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee seek to enforce the Endangered Species Act on these federal lands to an extent that ranching could become economically nonviable in most of the western Mojave.

"A lot of days I'm going through all these new regulations piling up on my desk and I get to thinking, 'Do I want my son and grandson to wrangle with all this?' " says Dave Fisher, president of the High Desert Cattlemen's Assn. for 14 years. A taciturn man in his 50s, he runs 500 head of permanent range cows on his ranch of 30,000 private and 90,000 federal acres. His father started ranching this area in 1927.

"I think maybe we're not long for this world," he says.

Fisher adds quickly and defiantly, "But then I think, 'No, I'm not going anywhere.' "

He's speaking from a cell phone in his truck, 30 miles in any direction from another human being. It's 7 in the evening. His day started at 4 a.m., he's been in the saddle for 10 hours. And he's smiling: "I love this life. I wouldn't change places with anyone on this planet."

The sparse vegetation necessitates such mind-boggling acreage. The range is open, and cattle are free to wander where they will. The Bureau of Land Management restrictions aim to prevent overgrazing. Each cow is allotted a certain number of acres, ranging anywhere from one head per eight acres to only one head per 50 acres. And if there's no rain, the bureau can close down or curtail any grazing on federal lands. Ranchers would then have to downsize their herds, auctioning extra cattle until it rains and the bureau reopens the acreage.

Even without the bureau restrictions, area ranchers say they would rather sell off their herds than overgraze.

"It's in our best interest to take as good a care as we possibly can of the land," Mitchell says. "Whether it be federal or private, it's our resource. We depend on it."

A long-term drought could all but close down a ranch. This dependence on the weather and on this wild, lean land seems to define those who choose to live here. "Life is simple and hard," says Julie Mitchell, Bill's wife and the mother of their 2-year-old daughter, Serenity. "You learn to take whatever comes and to be grateful for everything--the rain, the morning."

The old adobe house on their ranch is without heat and electricity. They use a wood stove, solar panels and gas lamps. They cook on a barbecue under a huge Palo Verde tree. The view drifts east for hundreds of miles.

Most of the week Bill works a grinding 10-hour day as a heavy equipment operator based in Barstow; it's a well-paying job that enabled him to buy Pilot Knob and will allow him to live permanently on Two Hole Springs within the next few years. His cattle take up the rest of his time. The offspring from his base herd of 86 cows must all be caught, branded, vetted, castrated, weaned and occasionally loaded onto a trailer and sold--no mean feat when the average 6-month-old heifer weighs 500 pounds, has never seen a human and doesn't want to be moved.

Often, Julie is Bill's only ranch hand and the two of them ride miles of fence line checking for gaps and cuts. Even with a good fence, the cattle will roam off the ranch, and it can take days of hard riding to round them up and herd them back. Bill and Julie must also frequently check the dozens of water holes scattered throughout the ranch, which can become clogged or contaminated.

Source of Contamination

The contamination source is often human. Bill recalls finding a group of duck hunters with a beer cooler, sitting in their fold-out chairs by one of his water holes. The wild cattle won't approach the water with humans present, no matter how thirsty they are.

"I asked them how they'd feel if I came and camped in their backyard with my campfire and my horse and a couple of big bulls," he says.

Julie, a small-town girl from Illinois, is new to ranching but has embraced it for herself and her daughter. She used to work part time but now has her hands full with Serenity and the ranch.

She hopes to home-school Serenity.

"We don't want her to be excluded from a social life," Julie says, noting that Bill's three daughters from his first marriage were home-schooled at Pilot Knob but were active in local rodeos and youth events. "I really think kids should be living like this. They should be out running around and throwing rocks, not watching TV," she says.

"On ranches, kids are always involved," Bill says. "They learn the interconnectedness of things. If you ask them, 'Where does milk come from? Where does beef come from?' they're not going to say, 'The store.' "

One also learns to be aware in such a wild place, to step carefully. Julie remembers a morning this summer when she and Serenity were letting the doves loose from their cage: "I turned my back for a second to undo the latch, and I heard Serenity say, quite happily, ' 'nake, Mommy, 'nake.' " Julie turned to see her daughter standing over a Mojave green.

Moving very slowly, she picked up Serenity, backed away and called out to Bill, who then shot the snake.

People who endure such incidents as part of their daily lives are not easily intimidated. But "the conservationists"--as the Mitchells, Fishers and other ranchers politely refer to conservation organizations--have caused concern, even anger. And they've certainly prompted change.

Of the 6.2-million acres of the western Mojave in federal hands, 1.58 million acres were designated in 1992 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as critical habitat for the threatened desert tortoise. The Bureau of Land Management then had to comply with various guidelines concerning land use in these designated areas. New restrictions were placed on cattle grazing in the hopes of reestablishing a healthy tortoise population.

Cattle's Effect on Ecosystem

According to Michael Conners, executive director of the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, the tortoise is particularly threatened by the damage that cattle can wreak on a fragile desert ecosystem.

Cattle tend to prefer riparian areas such as stream beds. So, although there may be one cow allotted for eight acres, chances are that cow, and cows from surrounding eight-acre allotments, will congregate around the water, compacting the soil and destroying the surrounding vegetation, Conners explains.

Conners is clear about his organization's goal: "We would like to see an end to all grazing in all critical tortoise habitat." He points out that the Endangered Species Act is a law and believes that the only reason why cattle are still grazing in designated areas is that ranchers are a powerful political lobby.

For the moment, however, the land bureau will continue to allow controlled cattle grazing. But the smorgasbord of new restrictions is making life increasingly difficult for the ranchers.

Bill Mitchell learned about designated habitat the hard way. In 1986 he bought Pilot Knob with 100,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management leases and 1,320 of private land for his 75 head. Three years later, when the western portion of his land was one of the first areas designated as critical tortoise habitat, he worked with Lee Delany, then area manager with the land bureau.

"We tried to come up with something that would work for both of us," Delany says. "It was a lot of additional work for Bill. He had to put up fencing and rotate cattle and reduce their numbers." But the cattle continued to wander into prohibited areas. By 1995, Bill retained only 20 head.

"I just couldn't keep going," he says. He finally decided to sell Pilot Knob--to a ready deep-pocket buyer: the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee and its co-sponsor, the Wildlands Conservancy. While much of Two Hole Springs, Bill's new ranch, is also in designated critical habitat, the grazing restrictions are less severe and he hopes to maintain his current herd size.

Conners has little sympathy.

"It'll be a hundred years before Pilot Knob will be back to normal." He describes "normal" as a pristine, wildlife-healthy wilderness. As it is, the number of permanent range cattle has declined consistently over the last 50 years. According to Pete Lounsbury, agricultural biologist with the San Bernardino Department of Agriculture, the area held more than 13,500 range cattle in 1948. Last year, there were perhaps 1,600.

"It's a way of life more than anything," says Lounsbury, who empathizes with the Mojave ranchers but notes their economic contribution to the state is fairly minimal these days. "It's so tough. They've been fighting city hall one way or another for so long that now some are saying, 'The hell with it!' "