After 30 years, this award-winning Wyoming ranch family sees no reason to give it up
By: Melissa Hemken
If we’re going to ranch in this country, we’ve got to learn to get along with the federal agencies,” says Keith Hamilton, a fourth-generation rancher near Hyattville, Wyoming. “Our CRM [Coordinated Resource Management] plan is how we accomplish that. The CRM brings all parties to the table to discuss management strategy for our federal leases.
“We run on about 75 percent federal land,” Hamilton continues. “One downside to federal is that the government could strike a pen in [Washington] D.C. and say no grazing leases. Then half the state of Wyoming would be up the creek.”
Established in 1915 on the western side of the Bighorn Mountains, the Hamilton Ranch is a diversified operation running Rambouillet and Hampshire sheep and Angus cattle, along with an irrigated farm.
“My great-grandparents started out running cattle only,” Hamilton says, “They brought sheep to the ranch in 1928. We scaled the sheep operation down in the 1990s and took up the gap with cattle. If the sheep market hadn’t improved, we were going to convert fully to cattle.
“Sometimes, when we have had as much snow during lambing as this spring, we wonder if we should have sold them. When the next generation comes along, maybe that decision will be made.”
Three generations of the Hamilton family work together to ranch on federal, state and
private rangelands. Their livestock begin the warm season at the lower elevations near Manderson, Wyoming, at about 4,000 feet, and range to the top of the Bighorns at 10,500 feet.
“Both cattle and sheep have their pluses and minuses,” Hamilton says. “It takes a lot of effort to lamb, but when we’re done, our sheepherder, Florentino Espinoza, takes care of them the rest of the summer. We tend camp to give him groceries and feed for his horse. With the cattle, three people can calve them out fairly easily. When they need to be moved it takes five guys [on horseback] to gather and trail, and day help isn’t always easy to find.”
CRMS INVALUABLE FOR FEDERAL GRAZING
First begun in Nevada in the 1950s, the CRM process is voluntary and initiated by private landowner(s) to bring together neighbors, public agencies and other stakeholders.
In the early 1970s, the increasing demand for natural resources intensified the conflicts between interest groups, land users and land management agencies. This prompted the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and Cooperative Extension Service (CES) to encourage CRM planning nationwide.
The year 1982 saw the state of Wyoming endorse the use of CRMs, now coordinated by the Wyoming Department of Agriculture. The Hamilton Ranch was one of four operations to initially enroll in the program. The private landowner(s) who initiate the CRM are responsible for inviting the needed members, and it is essential to include all stakeholders from the beginning to establish investment.
The Hamilton’s CRM group, involving five agencies plus themselves, met regularly early on; now, over 30 years later, they meet annually.
“It took us a long time to put this together,” Hamilton says, “the time commitment is why agencies aren’t always excited about CRMs. A key to a successful CRM is local people who have the authority to make decisions. Everyone gets around the table to gain consensus, and that’s what makes it work.”
CRM decisions are made collaboratively; there is no voting – discussion continues until all members can support the management plan being developed. Within the CRM approach, local people familiar with the planning area make the decisions regarding natural resource management. Specialists from outside the local area may only assist by providing technical information.
The CRM plans include the acreage of each pasture; designating the animal unit months (AUMs) for livestock; and monitoring point locations for grass and forb health, among other grazing management methods. Having a CRM can be very beneficial as public land agencies look to reduce AUMs in drought years.
GRAZING FOR HEALTHY LANDS
In 1998, the Hamiltons received the Environmental Stewardship Award from the Wyoming Stock Growers Association for their dedication to healthy grazing lands.
“We use a rest rotation system to manage grazing for our sheep and cattle,” Hamilton says. “During dry years, when other ranchers have to move off their allotments early, we are still able to graze as we have conserved grass.
“As we coordinate our grazing plans through years with different rainfall amounts, sometimes we’ve got to run later on BLM than we normally do, or earlier on the [Bighorn National] Forest, and it is nice to have everybody there to make it all work. We’ve built a lot of flexibility into our grazing program.” The challenge with grazing on public lands is their multi-use purpose—ranchers, recreationalists and energy developers must find ways to use it together.
“The frustrating part with federal grazing leases is that the agency people come and go,” Hamilton says. “They may be here five years or 10, but we’re still here. We’re the ones on the ground making the day-to-day decisions about what is good for the land. The CRM helps to provide some management continuity. A new person is hired and we hand them our CRM plan.”
Another beneficial aspect of a CRM is that it complements regulatory processes, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), national and statewide initiatives to conserve Greater Sage Grouse habitat, and mandates to incorporate the public in decision making regarding public lands.
Hamilton says their CRM experience has been very positive and has opened up lines of communication that would have remained closed. “We’ve developed trust, and a plan everybody can live with. We’ve had our CRM for about 30 years now, and we don’t have any reason to give up on it. It still works for us and the land.”
Compiled from the Wyoming Department of Agriculture
• Voluntary, private landowner initiated and perpetuated.
• All interested or concerned stakeholders must be involved. Participants must have decisionmaking authority for their constituencies.
• Experienced, neutral facilitators are key initially to focus discussions on goals and interests, etc.
• Determine common goals early by group consensus; foster commitment by creating ownership by all members in the plan.
• Create a team. Develop an understanding among CRM members and build trust.
• Focus on what management practices are currently needed to improve the natural resource(s) and not the agency policies or positions that have been implemented in the past.
• Monitoring is very important to provide baseline data and to accomplish goals and objectives.
• Make the plan flexible to allow for drought, floods, ownership changes, etc.; yet rigid enough to provide for accountability