© 2023 Boise State Public Radio
NPR in Idaho
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
We will be streaming the State of the Union address live, Tuesday, Feb 7 at 7 p.m. MT (6 p.m. PT). Tune in!

Birders and Burgers: An Unlikely High Desert Partnership

Anna King
Northwest News Network
Colby Marshall and his family are trying to breed smaller cattle, like these young steers, that can thrive on just desert grass. It’s one of the ways the Broken Circle Ranch owners are trying to prepare for the next drought and help wildlife.

In the remote valleys of southeast Oregon both birds and cattle flourish. This is where mountain streams feed an oasis of lakes and marshes in the high desert. Cattle ranchers and wildlife advocates have been fighting over that valuable grassland for decades. Now, they’ve struck a delicate truce that keeps both birds and burgers in mind.

Roger Sleeper is a man of few words, but he can do impressive bird imitations.  Sleeper is a former biologist and bird expert who now volunteers at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.  “That woo, woo, woo, woo, woo, woo. That’s snipe, they’re flying around and diving.”

This place looks like something right out of National Geographic. Cranes slowly bob through the shallow waters. Mallards skim across marshes, grasslands and sagebrush. “Just continuous noise. Everyone’s talkative in the morning.”

On one side of the narrow road we’re parked on is lush wetland. On the other side: barbwire and pastureland full of black Angus steers and round hay bales.  Some bird lovers believe that cattle shouldn’t be allowed to roam on wildlife areas. Ranchers say you’ll never find more birds than where the cattle have grazed and renewed the landscape. 

This conflict got so fierce in the early 90s, that ranchers and federal wildlife managers got into an armed standoff over one refuge watering hole. Two cowboys were hauled off to federal court in Portland. Hundreds more ranchers rose up in anger and frustration. Some wildlife agents got threatening phone calls at home.

It’s been a long road, but now things have changed. I drove down 10 miles of gravel past sagebrush to reach Colby Marshall’s house on the Broken Circle Ranch.  Marshall sat at his kitchen table with his dad Gary, along with two people you might not expect -- a wildlife advocate from Portland on speakerphone and Chad Karges. He’s the number two guy at the Malheur refuge.

Karges says members of this group found they all cared deeply about the ecology of southeast Oregon – and they wanted change. “There is a lot of common ground here if we can just figure out a way where everyone feels safe when we have the conversation.”

That conversation birthed something they call the High Desert Partnership – it’s a way to manage the refuge that helps both the birds and the cattle. Rancher Colby Marshall says their first project is certain voracious bottom-feeding fish. “Carp are taking out huge ecological components of the refuge which are having a significant impact on the migratory birds that are coming through.”

Carp muddy the waters and block the sunlight. That kills the plants and other life birds depend on. To kill the carp, the ranchers and feds will have to work across private and public lands - the fish don’t know the difference. After the carp – the hope is the partnership can wrestle stickier issues like water rights and cattle management.

Colby Marshall drives me out on some of the 195-square-miles that make up Broken Circle Ranch and some public lands they use. “We’re going to go down to one of our meadows …” Some ranchers -- like Marshall’s family -- are also beginning to change how they manage their desert land. It’s not just to make the landscape better for birds. Marshall remembers a seven-year drought that left his family’s land so dry it cracked. Now, the rancher raises smaller cattle and leaves more grass in place to protect the land for future dry spells.  “You know that you’ve struck the right balance is when you have healthy wildlife, healthy livestock, healthy soils, healthy grass, healthy people.”

But not everyone around here thinks the new refuge and ranch management strategies are headed in the right direction.  Riders dressed in worn chaps unload saddled horses from a trailer. They’re here to brand calves, not far from where I was watching birds earlier.

Craig Neher is a cowboy. And he sees a whole lot of grass out here that could be chomped by cattle. “People got to eat. You know. You can shut down all the public lands, and pretty soon ranchers ain’t going to be able to afford to grow the beef. If you can’t afford to grow it, people can’t afford to buy it and then pretty soon people are going to be getting Japanese McDoubles I guess.”

For more than 100 years ranching has been a big part of the economy here in southeast Oregon. But these days cowboys are increasingly sharing the long roads with bird enthusiasts. These birders aren’t on their way to the refuge, they’re headed to Katie Baltzor’s family ranch. She’s part of a group of ranch wives trying to build closer ties with urban nature lovers. “Welcome, I’m glad you guys came out.”  The trip comes with baked cinnamon rolls and lunch. “I think education and just talking to people is just very important," she says. "I don’t think people understand. They haven’t been around it. We assume that people know what we’re doing and that they understand our way of life, but they don’t because it’s very different from growing up in town.”

Stirrup-high grass and water brought both the birds and cattle ranchers here to the high desert – now they’re making a bit of room for each other in the sagebrush sea.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio