Fighting for the Brand

RaeLynn Ricarte
Staff Writer

The American cowboy has long been a symbol of the nation's spirit; the embodiment of freedom and rugged individualism.
Since the turn of the 19th century, cowboys have ridden the vast open ranges of the west, living and working by a code of unwritten rules passed down to each generation.
One of these rules is to “ride for the brand.” The brand is a trademark of the ranch, used not only to document ownership of livestock but to represent the cowboy's loyalty, pride and stewardship.
Today, the culture of ranching is not commonly understood because just 1.3% of the U.S. population is employed in some aspect of agriculture. A century ago, about 70% of the workforce held jobs in the industry.
There are now about 2 million farms and ranches in operation in the U.S., less than a third of the number from 1935, when farms peaked at nearly 7 million.
Each year, about 2% of family-owned ranches are lost, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Ranchers don't leave because they want to, they leave because they can't make it anymore,” said Len McIrvin, the third generation to run the Diamond M Ranch in northern Stevens and Ferry counties.
He believes the disconnect between those who work the land and those who don't has become problematic enough to threaten even well-established operations.
“Too many people now just don't understand how government policies are playing out on the ground,” he said.
The Diamond M sits on the Kettle River and the Canadian border and is part of the scenic view from the porch of the ranch house where Len and his wife, Patti, raised their five children. The residence is the headquarters of their family operation.
The four-way partnership includes: son Bill and his wife, Roberta; grandson Justin Hedrick and his wife, Kaleigh; and granddaughter Natasha Knapp and her husband, Mathan.
Diamond M is one of the biggest cattle operations in Washington, running 2,000 cow/calf pairs alone. Although they hire a limited amount of contract labor, the family does the bulk of the work involved in tending to the herd that forages on their private holdings, leased properties and public lands.
In recent years, several environmental groups have filed lawsuits to stop Diamond M from exercising its deeded property rights to graze 735 cows/calves on five allotments in the Colville National Forest. An allotment is a piece of property owned through a split estate with the rancher and state or federal government.
The plaintiffs in those suits are seeking to protect wolves from being killed after repeated depredations on cattle.
Since 2012, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has removed 34 wolves from 10 packs in response to wolf-livestock conflicts and 88% of these kills were in response to attacks on Diamond M cattle in the forest.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has joined the call to reduce grazing on public lands as a solution to conflicts. In 2019, Inslee asked the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to reduce the number of wolves that were being euthanized.
“They now want to protect wolves over cattle,” said Len.
State officials report a minimum of 178 wolves in Washington, a population growth of at least 24% since 2019. More than 100 of those wolves are concentrated in the tri-county area.
Len said their operation now loses about 70 head of cattle each year to wolf attacks that have brought more than $1 million in losses since 2008.
He said every possible non-lethal deterrent has been tried, but they do not work because the apex predators are growing more aggressive in the face of state inaction to change their behavior.
Non-lethal measures used by Diamond M have included installing alarm or scare devices, putting up more fences, reducing attractants, changing birthing cycles so vulnerable calves are older before being turned out into remote grazing lands, and having more of a human presence.
“The state is not living up to its own wolf management plan, they are putting that job on the ranchers, but we aren't allowed to go after problem wolves,” said Len.
When their cattle are turned out on federal lands, there are rules to follow, he said. Forest Service officials determine by conditions on the ground how much forage is allowed for each cow. The cow/calf pairs arrived in June and have four months to graze before they must be rounded up.
Even on the home range, cattle are not safe, said Len, because wolves follow the herds onto private property at lower elevations to hunt and kill.
Getting wolf depredations confirmed is difficult, said Len. He said sometimes carcasses are too badly decayed by the time they are found to collect evidence about the cause of death. But, even when the kill has all the signs of a wolf attack, state officials hesitate to call it one because that is a step toward a trigger order.
When wolf depredation is confirmed, Diamond M refuses state compensation for the injury or death. Along with the cash comes strings about how you raise livestock and what your ranching practices should be, said Len.
Plus, he sees compensation as “blood money” that, if accepted, condones the policies of the state that tie the hands of ranchers from protecting their livestock.
“If a wolf is killing my cattle, I should have the right to kill it,” he said. “They are not an endangered species, this is just out of control.”
Under the state's wolf management plan, the animals are listed as an endangered species and given special protection. However, there are threshold limits for wolf packs that habitually attack livestock. If a pack kills four cows or steers in 10 months, or three in a 30-day period, a kill order can be issued.
Due to the political will of Olympia, Len said state officials try to avoid following through on their own wolf management rules. For example, Kelly Susewind, director of Fish and Wildlife, issued a kill order in August for one to two wolves from the Togo pack in response to repeated depredations of cattle on public and private grazing lands in Ferry County. It was the fifth kill order against the pack since 2018 due to the relentless aggression of the wolves.
The agency later reported that its hunt had been unsuccessful and no further action was taken.
In states where problem wolves are euthanized, Len said the predators learn to stay away from domestic livestock.
When the state has eliminated problem packs, the McIrvins have found themselves facing backlash from wolf advocates. Their cows have been shot in retaliation and they have received harassing and threatening phone calls. The FBI has investigated death threats against their children and grandchildren.
“One of the callers said, ‘I'd much rather have a wolf alive than you,’” said Patti about the tone of calls. She long ago stopped answering the phone unless she recognizes the number.
Len said many wolf advocates see the animals as spiritual beings instead of a primal hunter that kills for sport and not just for food.
He said one of the calls he and Patti received clearly showed the disconnect between the idyllic view of wolves and the reality of the carnivores.
A woman tearfully pleaded over the phone for the McIrvins to stop wolves from being killed despite their herd losses.
“Don't you understand what wolves do?” she asked. “If a child gets lost in the mountains, the wolves will find them, take care of them and protect the child until they can lead them back to safety.”
Len and Patti believe that woman, and many others, have internalized the “Jungle Book” story as true.
They wish these people could see things through their lens; could see fetuses torn from a cow’s womb or terrorized calves being eaten alive while they struggle to flee.
“Wolves kill whatever they want, and death by wolves is slow and horrible — and a long time coming,” said Len.
It goes against the culture of ranchers to see the herds they tend so traumatized by a wolf attack that, even if they are uninjured, they miscarry, become infertile or drop weight, said Len.
He wonders how even the Diamond M will survive the natural born killers and growing movement to stop the production of beef.
Environmentalists are pushing to get wolves federally relisted as an endangered species, which will make kills impossible unless there is an immediate threat. Len said the motivation of many of these groups is not simply to protect wolves, but to end cattle production. They believe that cattle should be banned from the U.S. because they are not a native species —and they are “climate villains” for their methane emissions.
He said it is difficult to understand the hostility toward ranchers, or lack of concern about their struggle to stay solvent under a growing burden of regulations. At a time when the world's population is growing rapidly, he said beef provides a plentiful and high-protein food. Plus, beef production is a major economic driver, contributing about $4.6 billion a year to Washington alone.
Len and Patti have decided it is time for ranchers to speak out about what is happening in their industry.
“This is a battle and you don't cower in the corner, you meet it head on,” said Len.
The story of Diamond M began in 1943 when Harry McIrvin and his wife, Edith, gave up their service station in Astoria, Oregon, and left behind anything they couldn't squeeze into their car for the trip to northern Washington.
Harry's three sons were serving in World War II as part of the Army's 1051st Engineer Combat Battalion under Gen. George S. Patton. It often took weeks to get communication from the frontlines, so worry about whether their sons were dead or alive was constant presence in the McIrvin home. Harry and Edith decided to find a peaceful place to settle while they waited for the war to end and prayed for their sons to come home.
They found that oasis on a 160-acre homestead that bumped against the Canadian border. Craggy rock cliffs fenced in the farmland and the Kettle River wound lazily through the property.
“They were ready for a rustic cabin with no facilities,” recalled Len.
Harry and Edith purchased 15 cows and began to grow the hay needed to feed them. They also sold milk to neighbors to add to their income.
After their military service ended, sons Clive and his wife, Ruby, and Bob and his wife, Shirley, moved onto the property to also work the ranch. Other homestead lands were acquired and the size of the family herd continued to expand.
“There has never been a dollar of outside income used to build the Diamond M,” said Len. “Whatever expansion we have done has been paid by the ranch itself.”
Clive and Ruby had five children; Len was the only son and they had five daughters. Their children were taught the value of hard work and a love of the land.
Upon reaching adulthood, Len left the ranch for about 10 years. During that time, he attended classes at Washington State University to learn animal science. On campus, he met Patti, who had grown up in Ritzville and was studying to be a teacher.
“I was trying to give her an MRS degree,” joked Len, who pursued Patti until she said yes and married him in 1963. The younger McIrvins moved onto the ranch to help their elders, who continued in the operation even at advanced ages.
Patti had not grown up on a farm or ranch but caught on quickly to a lifestyle that had long been part of America's heritage.
Len and Patti’s son and four daughters grew up in a time when ranching had come under threat by land-use and species protection regulations tied to the growth of the environmental movement.
The push to curtail grazing on public lands was one of the causes undertaken by environmental groups. Len said, fortunately, grazing rights are protected by a series of Congressional acts and attach to a property deed, so they transfer when there is a sale. Therefore, they cannot be abolished at the local or state level.
If public lands do end up getting taken out of the equation due to political pressure on Congress, Len said beef production will face a new challenge: It will be difficult to find enough private land for grazing when the federal government owns 47% of all property in 11 Western States.
There are more than 610 million acres of public lands in the US and 92% are in the West. These parcels are owned by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and State Land Boards.
The federal government owns 28.51 percent of Washington's total land mass, or 12,173,814 acres. However, only about 57% of the state is in private ownership when Department of Natural Resources lands and those held by local governments are factored in to the equation.
To overcome this challenge, Diamond M has been transporting cattle to other locations for forage since 1974. During the winter months, most of the herd goes to Horse Heaven Hills, a long range of high, rolling hills in Klickitat, Yakima and Benton counties in Washington that provide warmer conditions for newborn calves.
On average, it costs about $5 a mile to haul a trailer of cattle, so transportation has become a major production expense for the longer distances, said Len.
The spirit of independence that has kept Diamond M able to adapt to changing conditions has played out in every aspect of their operation.
Instead of sending steers and some cows to a stocker farm to fatten them up, and then a feedlot to pack on those final pounds, Diamond M transports cattle to a custom feedlot in Nebraska to finish out production. The cattle are then slaughtered and processed at several packing plants.
“They get a lot of miles,” said Len of the transportation situation.
Patti said the hostility to ranching is difficult to understand because most of these families are generational and only by being good stewards of the land could they keep the lifestyle they love.
“We know that natural resources come as a gift from God,” she said.
There are 14 grandchildren in the McIrvin clan and 15 great-grandchildren, so there are plenty of cowboys and cowgirls to ensure the continuation of Diamond M. Len and Patti would like to see the family legacy go on, but worry about what lies ahead when their way of life is under assault.
“Everything we use to produce goods is either grown or mined,” said Len. “And those two industries are taking it on the chin right now.”