Cattle being displaced by prairie dogs on 4W
A wide and wrinkled 500,000-acre chunk of Earth’s crust, now known as the Thunder Basin National Grasslands, surrounds and includes today’s 4W Ranch. In fact, about 50 percent of the surface fenced into the ranch is state or federal.
Grazing livestock within those boundaries strips owners of autonomy over many decisions which can severely impact their personal success or failure, along with the welfare of the grasslands and livestock they are responsible to steward. For the first few 4W Ranch generations it hardly made any difference. But in today’s world ranchers sometimes feel like they are viewed as enemies, thieves and robbers by anti-grazing groups and some government agencies; and endangered victims in their own eyes.
Vast tracts of land have to be jointly administered with state and federal entities, whose many and varied priorities are written in regulation books handed down from government headquarters. Such priorities rarely coincide with the belt-tightening financial planning and land, livestock-friendly priorities of ranchers. Sometimes they’re almost totally at cross-purposes.
Chad Sears, representing the sixth generation of Sherwin family descendants living on and operating the 4W Ranch said, “Just trying to keep up with the prairie dog situation is defeating. We have to keep our cow numbers up to make a living. We own the same acres as we did a decade ago, and the same amount of cattle, but it won’t work.”
The only thing missing is the vegetation, tons of it gone from the land. The only reason it is missing is that huge colonies of ravenous prairie dogs have eaten it, leaving even the soil that nurtured it so damaged all it can do is be blown or washed away by voracious erosion.
A variety of wildlife graze the 4W, including whitetail and mule deer, American pronghorn antelope, some elk and wild turkeys, but none of them are destroying it. Only the insufferably overstocked destructive prairie dogs
Hunting is a 4W Ranch staple. Steeped in strong Western traditions of hospitality, for decades they hosted an area-wide party the night before season opened. A whole hog was barbecued, car lights had the dirt road glowing for miles, and dozens carried in side dishes for an old fashioned country party of visiting, feasting and card playing in the airplane hangar. The tradition continues as 4W Ranch makes hunting of all legal wildlife available to the public.
Bob Harshbarger, whose wife Jean (Chad’s mother) is the third generation of her family to own and steward the 4W Ranch, grew up in Illinois farm country. Rangeland renovation is an ongoing practice on the 4W, starting with his arrival on the ranch. He abhors the vastness of destruction the untenable prairie dog situation has wreaked upon these once verdant grasslands now stripped, eroding and heavily cactus-infested
“As the ranch had heavy equipment, small areas of prickly pear removal was started in January and February while the ground was frozen and little or no snow cover,” Bob said. “A road grader was used to lightly blade the heavily infested areas of cactus into windrows. This is very effective in immediately removing and killing the cactus. The native grasses responded the coming spring stronger and more dense than previous to the treatment.”
“Later, a 15 foot Aeroway was purchased and mounted on a Massey 1130 tractor along with a Leon Dozer Blade on the front,” Bob said. “This machine is very effective in leveling the prairie dog mounds and aerating the soil in the numerous colonies that infest rangeland on the ranch. Again, the native grasses respond to this treatment, but it is an ongoing battle keeping the prairie dog population low enough that they do not completely destroy the rangeland as they do on the unmanaged, untreated federal national grasslands which are a big part of the 4W Ranch Unit.”
Chad said, “I’ve worked with Bob some in springtime to no-till-drill oats in the prairie dog towns, and that’s worked very well for us. It creates shade and ground cover to help native plants recover, and the oats restore soil nutrients, plus creating some root structure to deter the awful wind and rain erosion.” The oats also attract grazing cattle, further fertilizing and stabilizing the barren ruination.
The 4W management team is tireless in trying to improve the land for both livestock and wildlife. Bob said, “In 2007 some sagebrush treatments were done in prime sage grouse habitat on the deeded lands that proved effective for the sage grouse population on the ranch. Overall, we try to do about 40 acres of Rangeland Renovation annually, including the hay meadows that are in the Cheyenne River Valley. The Cheyenne River meanders six miles across the lower portion of the ranch unit.”
Bob Harshbarger, along with his wife Jean, have devoted countless hours to in-depth study and planning toward the goal of protecting their property against mismanagement and destruction.
“Bob has done a tremendous amount of research and has catalogued a wealth of knowledge in volumes of paperwork,” Chad said. “He’s become involved in many organizations and been elected President of the Association of National Grasslands (ANG). I’m becoming involved in some organizations as well, to be informed on issues and keep up with all the change. I’ve been elected Vice President of Weston County Farm Bureau, and the entire family goes to State Farm Bureau Convention annually. I was recently put on the board of the Thunder Basin Grazing Association, too. It’s important to understanding the working of that, since we’re about 50 percent through the Forest Service.”
They say “time is money” and Bob Harshbarger has literally devoted years to researching and documenting the so-called “public lands” from their very roots and beginnings. His quest is always to define and interpret the true original intent of rules and regulations enacted for landowner benefit, which have over decades been twisted into chains that now separate landowners from their God given rights. Across the last few years literal months of Bob’s life — and Jean’s — have been spent traveling to and from meetings, then sitting for hours on hard chairs in stuffy meeting rooms.
“I’m thankful our being here and ‘putting out fires’ on the ranch enables Bob and Gramma to have the freedom to be at so many meetings and take care of that side of the business,” Chad said. F
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