Matters of Scale

Land is power in rural Idaho, but careful how you wield it.

Late in the summer of 2003, after the lambs had gone to market, Mike Stevens ’90, then president of Lava Lake Land and Livestock, packed a sleeping bag and a shotgun into his pickup and drove north from his home in the Sun Valley of Idaho to the North Fork of the Big Lost River. A colleague at a federal agency had called him that evening after spotting a pack of wolves not far from Stevens’s sheep band. The year before, a similar call had come from a forest ranger: Did he know wolves were killing his sheep? He hadn’t; nor had he any clue a pack was in the area. By the time he made it into the field, he had lost 18 ewes and lambs. This time, knowing wolves were near, he wouldn’t take the risk.

The sheep camp was on the north end of the valley, tucked into a grove of lodgepole pine. Stevens found Ernesto there alone. The young Peruvian herder had left the flock on a rocky outcrop by the river bottom. Normally, the sheep would spend nights on a high ridgeline and wander downslope the next day to find water, but on this fork, the canyon walls were steep, and sheep grazed the lower benches and meadows. Stevens sat with Ernesto a while, and at dusk, headed toward the sheep band. He laid his sleeping bag under a pine and the shotgun beside him. The ewes shifted and sighed in their sleep. His own sleep was restless—a guard dog, circling the band, visited routinely to lick Stevens’s face. When he woke at dawn, he found the dog beside him. Together, they walked the band’s perimeter. There were no signs of wolves, but at the far end lay a mangled ewe, killed by coyotes. Stevens looked down at the dog, and noticed, then, the sheep blood crusted on its snout.

He never intended to shoot a wolf; that night, he meant only to deter the pack with his presence and make noise if any came near. Stevens is a conservationist at heart, a believer that all things, hoofed or sharply teethed, can coexist. He is, you might say, a purveyor of the happy medium: common values, collaborative approaches. But what he sees as reasonable, others in the environmental community have considered traitorous. He will not condemn grazing on public lands, and believes, rather, that livestock can have a minimal impact if managed carefully. A master of the positive spin, he reasons rhetorically: “Most people look at sheep ranching as the problem. Well, can it be part of the solution?” It was for this ideology—and not for his ranching experience, of which he had none—that he was hired to run the operation at Lava Lake.

The ranch is the brainchild of Brian Bean, a wealthy San Francisco investment banker, and his wife, Kathleen, who formerly worked at the Nature Conservancy. In the late nineties, the Beans were looking to buy a small allotment in the West to place under conservation easement—an agreement that limits development on a property in perpetuity, even when the land changes hands. But the Beans realized that unless they worked on a bigger scale, their conservation efforts would be to little effect. Large wildlife, such as antelope and wolves, move over vast areas, weaving through a patchwork of public and private holdings, each managed according to the rules and whims of various agencies and landowners. “If we wanted to have a conservation impact, we had to work on a landscape scale,” said Kathleen. “And to do that, we had to be livestock operators.” Running sheep would allow them to lease—and practice low-impact grazing—on federal property. By 2002, when the Beans hired Stevens, they had acquired roughly a million acres of ranchland, a quarter private and the rest by public lease, stretching from the Craters of the Moon National Monument into the Pioneer and Boulder Mountains.

At the time, Stevens worked for the Nature Conservancy in the Sun Valley and was tasked with negotiating the Beans’ first easement. “I knew immediately that this was someone with a highly developed collaborative instinct,” said Brian. When the Beans offered Stevens a job, the idea of working on a large scale excited him. “In Idaho, ranching is where the power is,” he said. “If you say, ‘we’re part of the sheep industry,’ people recognize that. It’s part of the culture and tradition of the state.” He also knew that as a rancher, his conservation efforts would have more leverage with government agencies than those of any nonprofit. “We would be part of the establishment,” he said. “To be fair, it’s the very thing that an environmental activist has to fight against, but we were able to use it to our advantage.”

Before he took the job, Stevens reminded the Beans that he had never ranched before. They assured him that among the ranchers whose property they had purchased, and the Peruvians who had tended the flocks for many years, there was plenty of institutional knowledge. They reasoned that it would be easier to teach Stevens to run a ranch than to find a rancher with as strong a conservation ethic as his; Stevens shared their values, and values were never something they wanted to argue about. But the Beans’ confidence did not allay Stevens’s concerns entirely. “I was never going to be a real rancher,” he said, “and I wasn’t a normal conservationist either. The implicit risk was not being good at either of those things, and not being part of either community.”

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