Right Place. Right Time. Oregon Rancher reflects on rangeland consulting in Mongolia.
Wallowa county rancher Dennis Sheehy has discovered a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Dennis joined the Marines in 1966 after, he admits, a failed first-year attempt at college. During his service in Vietnam, he developed an internal drive to provide more positive work for the Vietnamese people. However, his time in Vietnam was cut short when he was hit in the arm by a bullet, ending his military duty. After returning to the United States, Dennis realized his work in Asia was not ending, it was just beginning. Dennis took another go at school and in 1971 graduated from the University of Oregon where he received his undergraduate degrees in Asian Studies and Mandarin. Then receiving his master’s degree in Rangeland Ecology from Oregon State University and in 1985, wrapped up his doctorate in Large Herbivore Ecology from OSU as well. He did not know it at the time, but his choice in studies and degrees was going to lead him on a worldly adventure for the rest of his career.
While finishing his doctorate at OSU, Dennis met a department head who worked as a consultant and recommended Dennis for a first of its kind rangeland program opening with the government of China, conducted by the United Nations International Fund for Agriculture. Again, in the right place at the right time, Dennis jumped on the opportunity. Dennis lived in a primitive part of China for the next three years. When that study completed, Dennis rolled into a new study in Mongolia for three years, and it was a family affair because his wife Marci and
their three children, ages 6, 9 and 11 at the time, joined him on the journey. His work during that time would alternate 6-8 months living in inner-Mongolia and then coming home to the ranch in Wallowa. From then to now, Dennis has repeatedly spent time conducting rangeland ecology studies in Mongolia and working closely with the nomadic herders who have spent generations, spanning 1000s of years, grazing the land with livestock.
What is Rangeland Consulting?
One of my first questions for Dennis was, what exactly does rangeland consulting consist of? To which I learned that a rangeland consultant collects information about the symbiotic impact of plants, wildlife species, livestock use, watershed functions and land use policies to conserve or restore a healthy ecosystem for the land. Broad and diverse, a rangeland study could be conducted for several reasons, such as what should be the appropriate number of livestock on the land? Or what is the stress caused by grazing animals on the land?
When Dennis is hired for these studies, it is his job to take his knowledge and investigate the sustainable health of the land with all the factors at play – the task is not easy, he remarked there is a lot more at play than you might think, including the indigenous people with their
cultures and traditions, and the impact their habits have on the environment. These studies are ordered usually by a national organization such as the World Food Bank and Agricultural Development or United States Agency for International Development to take a look at environments from an economic standpoint. Dennis remarked that it has taken him years to feel comfortable looking at an environment and saying it just might work.
Dennis described the Mongolian landscape and people as not much different from what you would find at home in eastern Oregon. The land is diverse with scaling mountain ranges, desert plains, low basins, and thick forested areas. The Mongolian herders are people of the land. They have developed a way of life which tends to the land for the viability of their herds. The herders are nomadic which means they move their herds strategically to graze on the land. They live in yurts and ride small, hardy Mongolian horses with strong legs and heavy necks. There
are five main livestock species in Mongolia – Cattle, Camels, Horses, Yak and Sheep/Goats.
The herders’ grazing practices are also like those of ranchers in the United States. Not only that, but their culture and values are also similar – they offer hospitality, and they are in tune with nature. Unlike the United States, Mongolia’s regulations on herders’ use of public lands are few. Dennis remarked that grazing practices have been developed over 1000s of years in Mongolia and the government there prefers to let the herders continue to care for the land as they have for generations.
Concerns for Mongolia
Dennis pointed to a few specific concerns he has. Like what we are seeing in the United States, many younger generations are leaving the lifestyle of herding and opting for the growing infrastructure of urban living. Leaving behind the nomadic life on the land will have consequences on the ecosystem, which as mentioned, has been maintained by ancient grazing practices. There has also been an uptick in illegal mining, which has led to unregulated or unknown impacts on streams and rivers and an increase in violence, Dennis mentioned it is like the “Wild West” over there right now.
Finally, Dennis pointed to the increasing trend of raising cashmere goats. Many herders are finding a niche market in raising cashmere goats rather than larger livestock because the animals are easier to raise, demand is high, and the price is right there with it. The rise in these goats is throwing off the equilibrium of the environments because they are causing a lot of damage to plants, particularly in forested areas. The goats are meant to be grazed in shrubbery, but they are now being grazed in the forest and wreaking havoc on the species of plants living under the canopy. Only time and studying will determine how the increased popularity of grazing cashmere goats will shake out.
A Problem Closer to Home
Dennis has slowed down on his trips to Mongolia and has honed-in on a problem closer to home, taking the opportunity to focus his expertise on a species all too familiar to Oregon ranchers – elk. Dennis is currently OCA’s Wildlife Committee Chair, a role he took on three years ago and he has discovered the primary talking point among the committee is elk damage, so he decided to do something substantive about it.
For those who may not know, elk were almost non-existent in this area in the early 1900s, over decades populations grew and in the 1990s researchers noticed a change in the elk’s behavior. A species that normally moves through forested, high mountain regions was becoming commonly observed in pastures and open valleys. Fast forward to now, and the rocky mountain elk population in Oregon has grown to over 17,000 with most herds taking up residence on private lands in bountiful pastures meant for livestock. You can imagine the devastation
these large animals in large numbers are doing. Dennis has been looking closely at why the elk have moved on to private lands – a proactive approach rather than the more commonly used reactive approach.
During this legislative session, Dennis presented a discussion paper to public agencies titled, An Approach to Resolving Rocky Mountain Elk Depredation in the Blue Mountains Region of Oregon. Dennis mentioned instead of focusing on how to remove the elk, we should be asking why are they there to begin with? He points to deterioration of natural habitat on public lands and the increase in natural predators, such as wolves. When the root of the problem is examined and handled, there is likely to be better results and a decrease in damage. Dennis also drafted an OCA Position Statement on Controlling Elk Depredation in the Blue Mountain Region, which was adopted at the 2020 Annual Business Meeting.
In His Spare Time
I am sure you can imagine after reading this article that Dennis Sheehy has a lot of spare time on his hands – just kidding. While Dennis juggles being a world traveling, mandarin speaking, rangeland conservationist while putting in volunteer hours for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, he is also managing his cattle operation in Wallowa. However, he does admit that he has a little help these days. Dennis is fortunate to have his family living close and working on the family ranch. His grandkids are the sixth generation in this traditional ranching
family. Six grandkids in total, four of which are going growing up directly on the ranch, Dennis is confident the family operation will be sustained for many more generations to come.
It is hard to know in the present if you are in the right place at the right time, and we may not always see blessings for what they are, but I think there is a lesson here in this wise cowboy’s tale. When opportunities arise, say yes, because you may not be able to see the future, but you can certainly be thankful for the adventures of your past.
~ Lifestyle coverage by Robyn H. Smith, OCA Communications Director