Creating healthy rangelands one handshake at a time

Maggie Creek Ranch manager Jon Griggs helps his daughter, Mackie, rope a calf. Courtesy photo: Maggie Creek Ranch

“When you live and work in such a beautiful, vast environment, you
have to be a good neighbor. As long as we’re building solid relationships together to actively manage, adapt and innovate, our public
and private interests will figure out a way forward together.”

– Jon Griggs, manager, Maggie Creek Ranch
Elko, Nevada

By Dan Hottle
July 24, 2014

When asked about his thoughts on improving the ecological state of northeastern Nevada’s plants, birds and animals, Maggie Creek Ranch manager Jon Griggs narrows his eyes under a wide brim, shoots a wry grin and says, “You know, I’m not a biologist. I’m just a dumb, biased cow guy.”

Maggie Creek Ranch manager Jon Griggs. “Partners like (Jon) are helping us understand the interplay between ecological, economic, and societal objectives across our western rangelands, and how to better integrate these in ways that work for people and wildlife,” said Carolyn Swed, Reno Fish and Wildlife Office field supervisor. (Credit: Dan Hottle/USFWS

On the contrary, actual biologists from Nevada state and federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service consider the humble, veteran ranch hand an equal when it comes to the study of good rangeland health practices that benefit wildlife.

“The institutional knowledge and track record of active, thoughtful and responsive livestock management that Jon and some of his like-minded ranching neighbors possess may well be the key to helping our agencies restore and conserve the vast landscapes that comprise Great Basin sagebrush ecosystems,” said Carolyn Swed, Reno Fish and Wildlife Office field supervisor. “Partners like him are helping us understand the interplay between ecological, economic and societal objectives across our western rangelands, and how to better integrate these in ways that work for people and wildlife.”

Griggs’ grin belies the fact that for the past 27 years, his passion for healthy rangelands and the human and wild species that rely on them, coupled with his ability to navigate the rollercoaster beef industry, were instrumental in Maggie Creek Ranch being awarded the National Cattlemen Association’s 2015 environmental stewardship award.

“Mother Nature and the cattle business both take a great deal of nimbleness and perseverance to negotiate,” said Griggs. “Two years ago we had a major fire and a flood, and the cattle market dropped 40 percent, all at the same time. That’s when you have to buckle down and look at the long run of your operation. Can you overcome those setbacks, and sustain the land in a healthy way for your kids and their kids?”

Maggie Creek Ranch runs up to 3,500 brood and stocker cows and their calves across 200,000 acres of land – roughly one third of it federally owned. The ranch grows cattle on the hoof, both in wholesale and retail quantities, and markets to locals who take pride in knowing where their meat comes from and whether it’s been raised sustainably and environmentally friendly. Amid competition, the desert’s elements and an often wildly-fluctuating market, Griggs said building relationships in all sectors of his business has been the key for longevity.

Cattle roam on a Maggie Creek pasture. “Mother Nature and the cattle business both take a great deal of nimbleness and perseverance to negotiate,” said Jon Griggs. “Two years ago we had a major fire and a flood, and the cattle market dropped 40 percent, all at the same time. That’s when you have to buckle down and look at the long run of your operation. Can you overcome those setbacks, and sustain the land in a healthy way for your kids and their kids?” Credit: Dan Hottle/USFWS

Being a good neighbor has been the ranch’s motto for decades. Maggie Creek’s proactive conservation work began in earnest in the early 1990s, when the ranch undertook efforts to protect threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout – Nevada’s state fish – in Maggie Creek by collaborating with the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program to restore the watershed and replace irrigation structures to enhance habitat and passage for the famed trout. In the process, the ranch enrolled in a Safe Harbor Agreement with the Service. With this voluntary conservation arrangement, participating landowners receive formal assurances from the Service that, if they fulfill the agreement, the agency will not require any additional or different management activities by the participants without their consent.

Over the years the ranch has also improved wetlands for birds and wildlife including the greater sage-grouse and Columbia spotted frog. Solar technology has been installed to power wells that improve the distribution of water and therefore livestock across the ranch, which improves the condition of upland and riparian habitats. Riparian pastures have been fenced to protect vital water sources along Maggie Creek, improving conditions for Lahontan cutthroat trout and numerous species of migratory waterfowl. The ranch has also undertaken noxious weed control programs in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management, which has resulted in the elimination of thousands of acres of invasive scotch thistle and Russian knapweed.

Cattle being driven across Maggie Creek Ranch. Griggs works to balance economically sustainable herd numbers across the ranch’s privately-owned lands and its public (federal) grazing allotments. And, primarily because there are no fences on Maggie Creek’s lands to delineate the two, his desired pattern of livestock management remains the same: focus cattle use during the spring and fall across the land without timing and seasonal restrictions. Courtesy photo: Maggie Creek Ranch

In addition, the ranch helps with wildland fire management by hiring and offering up ranch-hands who are also qualified firefighters. Griggs and his crews also pre-stage initial attack equipment on the ranch during the fire season and work with state and federal agencies to re-seed burned areas – often using native, perennial plants that are capable of competing with invasive annual grasses, like cheatgrass.

Rehabilitation post-fire can be extremely difficult. Griggs agrees with federal land managers that locally-sourced, native perennials are ideal to plant after fires, because they are also the best forage for his cattle.

“We need to continue to work together to figure out how to make our rehab efforts a success, because when we fail, the invasive species love the disturbance and will continue to make fuel for more fires,” he said.

But establishing resiliency against fire, especially given the ranch’s location in the low-elevation, low-precipitation corridor of Interstate I-80, is where Griggs finesses the use of what he considers his best rangeland health tool: his cows.

Griggs works to balance economically sustainable herd numbers across the ranch’s privately-owned lands and its public (federal) grazing allotments. And, primarily because there are no fences on Maggie Creek’s lands to delineate the two, his desired pattern of livestock management remains the same. Focus cattle use during the spring and fall across the land without timing and seasonal restrictions.

A riparian area flourishes at Maggie Creek Ranch thanks to responsible livestock grazing practices. Credit: Dan Hottle/USFWS

This would allow targeting of annual grasses such as cheatgrass when they’re green and nutritious for cows, reducing fine fuel loads that lead to more catastrophic wildfires. It would also reduce the grazing pressure on native perennial bunchgrasses during their summer growing season.

But current federal grazing permits, he said, don’t allow for that level of flexible livestock use. Instead, when rangeland health starts to suffer, he added, ranchers have historically resorted to decreasing their cattle numbers.

“When you become a public lands rancher you agree to work within federal permits, but not every piece of land is the same, and not every production year is the same,” he said. “In some years you need to turn cows out earlier to efficiently and effectively beat down the invasives that have exploded with good rains, and in some years later.”

Griggs said that’s the reason he’s chosen to come to the table with federal partners where he can use his decades of experience to help figure out ways for those producers trying to conserve the land to have more flexible grazing permit allowances.

“We have to be trusted to make good decisions that work for all of us,” he said.

In an ideal world, Griggs’ federal permit would allow him to run his cattle based on range conditions – not preset dates on a calendar – so he could graze to provide adequate rest for vegetation.

Susan Abele, a Partners for Fish and Wildlife program manager from Reno, Nevada, helps out the Griggs family with Maggie Creek Ranch operations during a recent visit. Abele was instrumental in helping nominate the ranch for the National Cattlemen Association’s 2015 Environmental Stewardship Award, which it won. Courtesy photo: Maggie Creek Ranch

“That’s where creative collaboration with federal land managers can hopefully lead to positive solutions,” he added. “I’m never completely satisfied with Maggie Creek Ranch’s range conditions, and I always see room for improvement. But I realized working with the agencies over the years that reaching an agreed-upon standard of what ‘pristine’ rangeland that is considered optimal for fish and plants is often extremely elusive for everyone involved because conditions on the ground vary so much from year to year.”

Griggs may not be a biologist, but he sides with the application of best available science and feels strongly that Nevada’s ranges should be managed according to their ecological site potential. In other words, what the land can become for plants and wildlife, if properly cared for. But he also concedes that with flexibility comes responsibility.

“There’s the potential for others to abuse any flexibility the government may grant public lands producers; you have to be able to demonstrate positive results on the land to which you’re entrusted,” he said. “Others who may not be doing their best to take care of their lands responsibly should not be hastily judged or penalized because it may just be a lack of good information and communication. It could also be that they’ve simply operated for years under an archaic federal permit that’s locked them into negative practices.”

The children of Maggie Creek Ranch’s employees are encouraged to help in daily operations, working cattle in the early mornings before shuffling off to school. Calving, feeding and branding cattle are as equally important as science and math class, because the ranch’s next generations will need to be able to combine all of these skills, Griggs said. It’s all a part of a western sagebrush country culture that’s just as rugged as the Nevada landscape on which the ranch lies.

“When you live and work in such a beautiful, vast environment, you have to be a good neighbor,” Griggs said with his wry grin returning. “As long as we’re building solid relationships together to actively manage, adapt and innovate, our public and private interests will figure out a way forward together.”