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Cattlemen still riding fence line

Courtesy of Animas Museum

Cattle operations were an important part of the economy in La Plata County in the early 20th century. In 1950, La Plata County Cattleman’s Association formed to protect ranchers from rustlers looking to steal their livestock. Today, the group defends ranchers’ interests mostly in the halls of government. Here, cattle are driven north on Main Avenue in Animas City in 1915. Missionary Ridge is in the background.

By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer

Livestock rustling was a major factor in the founding of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association in 1867 and was a driving force in the creation of the La Plata County Cattlemen’s Association in 1950.

“There is always the temptation of illegal activities,” said Barbara Jefferies, the only woman to lead the La Plata County association. “But there are still good reasons for our existence today.”

Cattlemen continue to protect their interests, she said, but now through the halls of local, state and national governments, and by working to protect the land and water that they need to exist.

“We keep track of all legislation that can affect grazing,” said Kyle Beebe, a third-generation cattleman and current president of the La Plata-Archuleta Cattlemen’s Association. “We want to make sure the industry is represented in the right way.”

The hyphenated name appeared about 1998 – no one is absolutely sure – when the Archuleta Cattlemen’s Association merged with its neighboring group.

Brice Lee and Tom Compton have led the state organization.

Lawrence Huntington, a charter member and president of the association in 1968-69, sees the organization as necessary to protect the industry.

It’s a deterrent against encroachment by development or government policies that are detrimental to livestockmen, said Huntington, who’s still active in ranching with son, Dan, southwest of Hesperus. He turned 95 on Tuesday .

Federal regulations that could crimp private-property rights are generally the biggest challenge, said Compton, who ranches near Breen.

“There was a time when the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) was considering regulations for confined feeding operations,” Compton said. “The target was large commercial feeding operations, but because of loose definitions, the regulations could affect cattlemen like me who enclose stock in the winter for feeding.

“We have to keep a close eye on such things so as not to be squeezed out by unintended consequences,” Compton said.

Estate taxes, which can force heirs to sell all or part of a property to meet obligations, can be onerous to ranchers, Compton said. Immigration reform, which could prevent cattle and sheep raisers from hiring a sufficient number of guest workers, also is important, he said.

Cattlemen at times face problems out of their control, said Marvin Conrad, who has a ranch north of Bayfield. He dropped out of the livestock business in 2011 when he sold his livestock as the price of hay went out of sight, making feed prohibitively expensive.

Conrad, who was cattlemen’s association president in 2000-03, is in the process of developing an irrigation system. He plans to buy stock in the spring, feed them through the summer and sell in the fall.

“We used to dryland farm alfalfa and got two cuttings a year, sometimes three,” Conrad said. “But not anymore.”

Defending themselves against other interests isn’t the only activity of cattlemen.

“Shortly after we organized, members wanted to encourage youth to participate in agriculture,.” Jefferies said. “One of the first supporting efforts was to give a plaque, trophy or belt buckle to the 4-H member with the grand champion market steer.

“The Cattlemen’s Scholarship Program was started in 1965 when the organization joined the CowBelles, the corresponding group for women, to award a $125 scholarship to Fort Lewis College,” Jefferies said. “The program has grown. Until last year, we gave eight $1,000 scholarships and the CowBelles have two.”

daler@durangoherald.com

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