What do cattle ranching, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and Burning Man have in common? That would be Nick Etcheverry of Eureka Livestock, LLC, one of Panorama’s network of organic, grass-fed ranchers.
Etcheverry is a third-generation rancher in Maricopa, CA, just outside of Bakersfield. With his father Jim, he raises cattle over a patchwork of leased land spread from Southern and Central California through Nevada and Idaho. Some of the land is federal, leased from the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, some of it is private ranch land, and some is on a private wildlife refuge and preserve. The Etcheverrys have worked hard to build bridges with the landowners because they all have a common interest: land preservation for the benefit of endangered species.
“Essentially all of our land has endangered species on it,” says Etcheverry. “Down here [in Maricopa] we have California kit fox, there’s the giant kangaroo rat, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and then there’s the California condor. We also have a ranch in Eureka, NV, and there, it’s all about the greater sage grouse.”
You might wonder how grazing cattle can save endangered species, but Etcheverry explains that it’s about good management and allowing the cattle to eat just the right amount of grass. Too little grazing means the grasses form thatch that smothers the soil below, preventing the growth of native plants and destroying habitat for the grass-dwelling rodents, birds, and reptiles that make their home there. Lack of grazing also allows for the spread of invasive plant species like foxtail and cheatgrass that dries out and burns easily, feeding wildfires, of special concern during the prolonged drought currently hammering much of the West. Etcheverry talks about a time that a massive wall of tumbleweeds, an extremely invasive and non-native noxious weed, blew from a neighboring parcel of ungrazed land and knocked over a quarter mile of new fence he had just installed.
The action of grazing cattle mimics the action of large herds of elk, bison, and other ungulates that have largely disappeared from the landscape due to over-hunting (in the case of bison) and loss of habitat to development. Etcheverry says on parcels of land that they graze, native species thrive, but on ungrazed land nearby, the same isn’t true. “They’ve trapped kangaroo rats behind the cows after we leave a pasture,” he says. “There’s a lot of good science behind our grazing.”
Eureka Livestock wasn’t always an organic company, so why did Etcheverry decide to switch?
“My father and I decided about eight or nine years ago because we were fortunate enough to be on the preserve, which has thousands of acres and more feed. That allowed us the ability to keep cattle longer,” he says, “and then we really liked the idea of Panorama Meats. We were fortunate to be able to create an organic herd on the preserve, and then it kind of trickled over to the other two ranches.”
And then there was his experience at Burning Man, the giant festival in the Nevada desert, where he met plenty of urban dwellers who didn’t understand even the basics about where meat comes from. “Going to Burning Man and really listening to the people there about how important organic is to them opened up my mind,” he says. “It is important, and I decided I should do my best to create less of a carbon footprint and graze for the habitat of endangered species. The tool is cattle, and the byproduct is beef. To me, it’s like a whole circle of life.”
It’s not often that environmentalists and ranchers see eye-to-eye, especially in the Western U.S. The Great Basin, with its extreme topography—both the lowest point in the country and the highest are found here—sprawls from Mexico to Idaho and runs through parts of California, Utah, Nevada and Oregon. The tension between those who want to leave the land untouched and those who want to manage it is acute. But the two sides have more in common than they might think, and it is possible for the factions to work together.
“We’re really just trying to raise the best product that we can,” says Etcheverry. “We care about what people eat and we care about our cattle. And we do care about the future of the planet. I mean, I look at my two little boys and I sure want them to have the same opportunity that I had, to be on the same ranch and breathing the same clean air that that I get to breathe, not just for them, but for their kids or their grandkids that I won’t even know.”