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Cattle drive: From lowland pastures to mountain meadows

Ranchers are transitioning to summer in the Central Sierra Nevada. That means moving cows up to higher-elevation grazing allotments in the Stanislaus National Forest.


Guy McCarthy / Union Democrat Dick Gaiser, Daryl Larsen and Michael Engler sort calves and cows at 7 a.m. Friday at Gaiser’s ranch outside Chinese Camp.

Dick Gaiser, Daryl Larsen, Michael Engler and other ranch people with descendants that go back generations in the Mother Lode woke before dawn Friday to round up cattle for truck-and-trailer transport from outside Chinese Camp to forest grazing land south of the North Fork Stanislaus River in Tuolumne County.

Between 6:30 and 9 a.m. they separated cows from calves to check them for pink eye, counted, calculated and accounted for about 240 head for transport on five different big rig trailers. They did a truck convoy of more than 50 miles to reach land where Gaiser’s descendants have been grazing cattle for more than 90 years.

The occasional cacophony of cowbells, noisy calves, barking herd dogs and clouds of dust kicked up when cattle moved around in corrals and chutes set up for loading.

“This is a co-op deal,” Rich Lokey, of Angels Camp, said before he helped load one of his cattle trailers at Gaiser’s ranch off Highway 120. “We’ve all been in the cow business for decades.”

Lokey said he and others have been busy with cattle transports by truck and trailer the past six weeks.

“We’re running about two weeks late this year because of the snow” at higher elevations, Lokey said.

Sue Forbes, a rangeland management specialist with the Stanislaus National Forest since 2003, said there are about two dozen grazing permittees who are allowed to graze livestock in the forest.

“We have 36 allotments on the forest and, out of the 36, one is vacant,” Forbes said Monday. “There’s about 356,000 acres on this forest that are considered suitable for livestock grazing. Of that, about 37,400 acres is considered primary range, and the rest is considered secondary.”

The Stanislaus National Forest was created in 1905, and grazing has been permitted in parts of the forest since then.

Some local ranchers still move their cows up to the mountains the old-fashioned way, by cattle drives on less-traveled roads. Gaiser and most others have been using trucks and trailers to transport cows to their grazing allotments for decades.

Family business

Dick Gaiser, 68, and his brother, Bill Gaiser, 70, are part of a family business involved in ranching in Tuolumne County since 1918. The “GH” brand on their cattle was first registered that same year.

“The older families, the Englers, the Rosascos, we all help each other,” Gaiser said Friday near his allotment.

Jerry Rundle, Terri Arington and Nathan Rosasco were among the people who showed up Friday afternoon near Gaiser’s grazing allotment, south of Sourgrass Bridge on the North Fork Stanislaus River. Rundle worked on foot, while Arington, Rosasco and others worked on horseback with Engler and the Gaisers.

“When we were kids, we used to start down around Don Pedro and drive cows all the way to Twain Harte,” Gaiser said. “We were doing that in the early ’60s. We’ve relied on trucks and trailers since then.”

Challenges local ranchers face each year include striving to break even, Gaiser said.

“In the cattle business, you expect price fluctuations,” Gaiser said. “Feed, hay, supplements, and that’s reflected here, too.”

Environmental concerns

Some environmental groups, including the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte, are critical of grazing in the Stanislaus National Forest and other parts of the Sierra Nevada.

In some areas, grazing has not caused major problems, but in other instances, livestock have over-grazed sensitive meadows, caused streambanks to be damaged and stripped some areas of riparian plants, according to CSERC.

“Like many issues, however, this is not a black-and-white situation, because national forest grazing produces benefits for local ranching families who use public forest lands to supplement their foothill ranches’ forage — thereby keeping more foothill ranch lands in agriculture, instead of new subdivisions,” a CSERC webpage devoted to livestock grazing states.

The group used to advocate from “improved grazing practices” but has shifted to opposing all livestock grazing above 7,000 feet elevation. CSERC staff say meadows found at higher elevations provide habitat for the federally listed Yosemite toad and Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog.

Lokey said he’s fed up with environmental groups and their attention to grazing.

“The biggest thing these ranchers are battling up here in the mountains is mismanagement of the forest right now,” Lokey said. “Some of the activists have agendas. They want the cows out.”

Gaiser said he’s seen changes in approach from the Forest Service and grazing management over the years.

“They say the pendulum swings,” Gaiser said. “Things have gone toward the environmental way for a bit. Now it’s more back to center. The rules we have to live by are probably stronger than they’ve ever been. Sometimes it seems there’s a lack of common sense.”

Forbes, the rangeland management specialist with the Stanislaus National Forest, said her experience tells her ranchers and environmentalists ultimately want the same things.

“It is my personal belief that reasonable people, whether ranchers or environmentalist, have the same goals and objectives, that being proper care and sustainability of our natural resources,” Forbes said. “Grazing is one of the uses of our public rangelands and an important tool for controlling fires and brush encroachment. We continue to use the best available science to manage grazing into the future.”