MONTICELLO — When he's out on the range herding cows, Matt Redd looks every inch a traditional cowboy. In fact, he's so iconic-looking that National Geographic recently put Redd on the magazine's cover astride his horse.
But lately he's been riding herd on a bunch of cows that look distinctly nontraditional. The animals appear shorter, leaner — and maybe a little tougher — than most cattle seen around the West.
"They're Andalusian cattle from southern Spain," Redd said, sitting tall in the saddle on his horse Delilah. "They came over with Columbus and the other conquistadors."
The cows are part of a breed called Criollo, which traces at least some of its ancestry all the way back to Christopher Columbus' second voyage to the Americas. The cattle are now on duty in southeastern Utah, grazing their way across one of the most beautiful ranches in the West. It's an experiment to see if Criollo cattle can be the savior of ranchers who are facing a very tough future.
"Drought and increasing temperatures," said Redd as he took a break from punching cows. "We're all looking for different ways to adapt."
Redd's longtime family ranch is on the doorstep of Canyonlands National Park, just across the park boundary from the famous Needles District. The famous Dugout Ranch has such spectacular scenery that wealthy celebrities Ralph Lauren and Christie Brinkley both tried to buy it in the early 1990s. Instead, the family struck a protection deal with the Nature Conservancy to preserve the ranch from development.
Redd runs it now as director of the Canyonlands Research Center. It's a laboratory for the future of ranching, a future that looks troubled.
"Longer warm seasons, shorter cold seasons," Redd said. "We're definitely noticing a difference."
For generations, the Redd family has typically raised the so-called "English" breed, Angus cattle. But some researchers think Criollo could be the cow of the future.
"They can journey farther from water, spend more time without water," said scientist Mike Duniway of the U.S. Geological Survey. "They're more heat tolerant."
Isolated herds of Criollos were found a few years ago in the possession of Indian families in Mexico's Copper Canyon. In recent years scientists have been trying out Criollos on the arid ranges of the southwestern United States to see if they're better suited to the increasingly harsh environment.
"The name the Tarahumara Indians gave them was 'Raramuri,' which is 'light of foot' or 'light on the land'," Redd said.
Duniway is running experiments on the Dugout Ranch to assess the impact of climate change. An array of dust traps has shown a trend toward a dustier environment and a remote camera trained on nearby South Six-Shooter Peak has captured photos of dust sweeping across the ranch.
"We have caught some phenomenal dust storms in this area, kind of like the haboobs of the Middle East," Duniway said. "We're seeing hotter, drier conditions now. Forecasts for future climate suggests that it's likely to continue."
Another experiment simulates the effects of drought on a small patch of rangeland by using an array of rain-shields to reduce precipitation by one-third. The plants that are typically eaten by Angus cattle are not exactly thriving. "Some of them are actually succumbing to the drought experiment and dying," Duniway said.
But Criollos can roam more widely than Angus to support their diet so they may fare better in a drought.
"They can use rugged terrain, "Duniway said. "They also have a pretty varied diet, more so than the English breeds we're used to having."Comment on this story
There are those who claim that the "new" old breed may have some marketing advantages over Angus cattle. Some say the beef tastes better, and is healthier.
But there are also significant marketing hurdles. American slaughterhouses — not to mention American tastes — are set up for the larger English breeds. It's not clear if industry economics will permit a major shift toward the Spanish cows.
So even if Criollo are better and perhaps more contented cows — "They seem to be more affectionate toward one another," Redd said — there's no guarantee ranchers will ever make this particular adaptation to climate change.