Whitehorse Ranch changes with the times, and preserves its heritage
By DAN WHEAT
WHITEHORSE RANCH, Ore. -- Roosters crow at sunrise, coyotes howl after sunset and the work in between barely disturbs the tranquility of Whitehorse Ranch.
Owner David Herman shows a guest around the 143-year-old ranch on horseback and then drives 130 miles north to Burns, Ore., to retrieve horses from training.
Ranch hands Jose and Joel Silva spend the day pushing cattle into upland grazing.
Carpenter Neil Chaney works to restore the buildings, including the main ranch house.
There's always work to be done.
But a visitor can still enjoy the shade of a willow while listening to the flow of Whitehorse Creek and think time has stopped, barely moving since the ranch was founded on the site of an Army camp.
The ranch sprawls across some 350,000 acres -- 63,000 acres owned and the remainder federal grazing allotments. Maximum distances across the deeded and allotment land are 35 miles from north to south and 27 miles east to west.
This is Whitehorse Ranch in the northern Great Basin. Large. Remote. Historic.
For Herman, 51, owning the Whitehorse the past six years is the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition.
"I call this the rawhide country," he said. "People work hard, are focused, are excellent stewards of the land and as honest as the day is long."
It's not the same ranch of several decades ago when cowboys crowded the bunkhouse and thousands of head of cattle grazed the land. Far fewer cattle graze on the region's ranches now. Instead Herman said he focuses on sustainability through efficiency.
Herman was raised in Portland and rode horses with his grandfather during the summers. He became a land-use attorney, a farm equipment dealer and owned a stable and horse-breeding business in Sisters, Ore. He provided horses for camps, resorts and wilderness riding programs in Oregon and California.
Looking for winter grazing, Herman bought a couple of ranches near Fields, Ore., not far from the Whitehorse Ranch. When the Whitehorse became available in 2006, he sold the others and bought it.
Herman had admired Whitehorse Ranch when first passing through the area in his 20s.
"In the Great Basin you can see a long, long way. You can see 40 to 100 miles in any direction," he said. "On predominantly clear days, it puts you in a different mindset. Time seems to go slower."
He likes the ranch for many reasons, including the productive soil. The high desert weather is milder than surrounding areas and little snow falls in the winter, making it good for early calving.
Operations and size
The Whitehorse is a cattle and hay ranch. About 800 calves were sold last December to California feeders. Born in March, they were weaned in September. Herman also sells grass and alfalfa hay and raises some barley.
Paying guests are welcome in the bunkhouse, guest cottages and primitive campgrounds. Attractions include wildlife, a hot springs and a subspecies of lahontan cutthroat trout, unique to the ranch's ecosystem. Creeks end on the ranch, not connecting to any other basins.
"Purist fishermen come from the Midwest and East for catch and release of the trout in Whitehorse Creek," Herman said.
Cattle are kept from creek banks at critical times, he said, and the Whitehorse and surrounding ranches work with the federal Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the environment.
Herman said running an efficient operation with available resources is the key the ranch's success.
"Most of us on the high desert try to raise really good product with a minimum of inputs," he said. "People think biggest is best, but people here do amazing things with very little."
But the Whitehorse is large enough that moving cattle often takes several days. Ranch hands trailer horses two to three hours to a jump-off point, then ride horseback another hour to reach the cattle. They may herd cows until sundown and repeat the process the next day.
"Up on a slope or plateau they stand out, but down in a canyon you can think you've seen them all and ride right by them," Herman said of cattle.
He has a small crew and hires additional help as needed for herding, branding or harvesting hay. Neighbors and outside volunteers with horses, looking for adventure, also help.
"There's not many places you can ride for a week and never cover the same ground," Herman said. "You can ride until your horse gives out. You can't pack enough water in the summer so you drink from creeks."
While not the largest, it may be the most remote Oregon ranch.
Whitehorse Ranch Road is maintained by Harney and Malheur counties and is 50 miles of gravel between State Highway 205 on the west and U.S. Highway 95 on the east. The ranch is in the middle. The nearest neighbors are the Yturriondobeitia Ranch 12 miles to the east and the Defenbaugh Ranch a similar distance to the west.
The nearest towns are Fields, Ore., and Denio, Nev., some 25 miles away. McDermitt, Nev., is 73 miles by the best roads to the southeast. Burns, Ore., the Harney County seat, is 130 miles to the north.
When Herman goes to town, normally once a month, it's to Caldwell, Idaho, 165 miles to the northeast. He makes a day of it, with a semitruck to haul and pick up equipment for repairs, groceries and supplies. He also takes care of any other errands, like dental appointments.
The U.S. Postal Service delivers mail to the ranch on Mondays and Fridays. The ranch got electricity in 1962. It has never had telephone service but once had a radio phone. Now cell phones, though sometimes intermittent, suffice.
There's no television. Herman could get it with a satellite dish but doesn't want it. Wireless Internet access works for email and websites but chokes on video.
"You can't watch 'Dancing With the Stars' on YouTube, but the sun comes up the next morning and the cows get fed and life goes on," he said.
The ranch sometimes receives unexpected visitors.
"Here comes this group of motorcycle guys," he said. "We were right in the middle of a preferred route they found on a map for off-pavement trips from California to Canada. They showed up right at the peak of hay time. We fixed a tire for one."
The greatest danger posed by miles of gravel roads can be flat tires. Keeping the speed under 45 mph helps prevent them.
Beside motorcyclists, fishermen and wildlife enthusiasts, the ranch has seen visits from hikers, history buffs, archeologists, seismologists, bicyclists, geologists and people protesting the BLM's gathering of wild horses.
The Whitehorse Ranch winter range is part of the BLM's wild horse management area that runs from the Alvord Desert to Highway 95.
"The horses are prolific. Their survival rate is high," Herman said. "BLM engages in control measures including gathering for adoption and we've helped with it. They've used our fences."
Remoteness brings challenges. The ranch hands improvise to repair equipment. A steel fence post is fashioned into a tie rod to keep a truck running. Most planting and tillage equipment is modified.
Herman buys about 10,000 gallons of fuel -- 85 percent diesel and 15 percent gasoline -- each December to last a year. It's stored in above-ground tanks. The best bids in recent years have been from a company in Eugene.
"We are very careful how we use fuel. We don't let engines idle. We use the smallest vehicles to check irrigation canals," Herman said.
Irrigation water is always a concern, and the BLM has gotten better to work with as it has recognized that there can be different ways of reaching goals.
"What makes our corner of the world interesting is that most of us manage conservative, high-efficient systems," he said. "The discipline of running these things at a very narrow revenue base makes managers very focused and efficient. You can't make very many mistakes and stay in the cattle business.
"You don't see people spending large. There are no grand houses."
A constant challenge is educating the public that ranches "are not raping the land" and that grazing improves forage and range health. Outside range magazines, the popular press has a negative view of cattle ranching and BLM range management, he said.
Herman hopes to keep ranching as long as he can.
The Whitehorse Ranch has been going 143 years. Ranching, he said, is the best use of the high desert.
"I wouldn't be surprised," he said, "if it's not here for another 143 years."
Watch in a coming edition for what the Whitehorse and other area ranches say about an environmental agreement they've worked under for 20 years.
Whitehorse Ranch at glance
* Founded 1869
* 63,000 deeded acres, 287,205 acres of federal grazing allotments
* 800 cattle, 46 horses
* Wildlife includes deer, antelope, coyote, cougar, rabbits, many bird species
* Base elevation: 4,380 feet
* 73 miles of fences; 135 miles of gravel and dirt roads; 250 miles of water ditches and canals.
* Primary and secondary water rights.
* 12 livestock wells, 7 irrigation wells, 1 domestic well.
* Air strip.