For the first time since 2017, grazing will be allowed at Conway Ranch, a continuation of a ranching history in the area that stretches back more than a century.
On Tuesday, the Mono County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to approve a five-year cattle grazing lease for Conway Ranch, granted to Hunewill Land and Livestock Company.
County staff stated that the agreement would “keep the aesthetic and environmental values we’ve come to enjoy and appreciate” while also promoting commercial cattle grazing activities.
The agreement also leaves open options for multi-use recreation and cultural activities for local tribes.
Getting to the actual lease agreement stage of the process was far from simple. When the county cancelled the previous sheep grazing lease at the property in 2017, due to concerns over disease transmission to local Bighorn Sheep populations, it directed staff to explore sale options for the property.
In February 2018, after gathering letters of interest and consulting with wildlife agencies, the board directed staff to construct a grazing management plan for the property that would reflect conservation goals.
After some delays in 2019, when responsibility shifted from Tony Dublino (who became county public works director) to Justin Nalder, the Hunewill company was chosen as the proponent of the lease.
Mono County originally purchased Conway Ranch to prevent a large scale development on the property, which would have included a resort and golf course.
The goal of invasive weed control remains the same.
There are some changes from previous iterations of the grazing lease and management plan: the grazing area overall has decreased in size which protects some sensitive habitats on the property, the number of animals allowed has been capped (it was not before), and the county’s revenue for the property drops to $5,000/year, down from $20,000 for sheep grazing.
Ultimately, the changes to the lease were deemed negligible from the previous use, which means Hunewill and the county are able to avoid undergoing additional environmental certifications before the land can be used.
“We’ve really done everything we can to preserve property in current condition,” Public Works Director Dublino said at the meeting
As part of the consulting process with wildlife and land agencies, the county added a prohibition on rodenticide as well as a clause allowing county officials to cease operations on the land for any reason.
There was a hope that there was ultimately ecological benefit to what we were trying to do,” Dublino said.
Dublino also took time to respond to comments submitted about the project.
In regard to concerns about water quality degradation, Dublino said that none of the cattle will be able to approach the creek running through the property at all. While there are irrigation ditches on the property, Dublino said “there is no intention of providing or irrigating in any way so that any water from Conway ranch would flow into Wilson creek.
As for the aquaculture area, it will remain as open as it currently as, with no restriction on access to historical structures on the property.
The fire hazard presented by the thatch buildup at Conway Ranch is a concern, as it has gotten worse over the years with no efforts to mitigate growth.
“The idea that we can continue what we’re doing is not an option in my mind,” Dublino said. Mowing and controlled burns are not currently options for the ranch because they are not existing activities and would require additional state review before such activities could be permitted.
Mowing is frowned upon because it effectively acts as a clear cut that runs the risk of destroying habitats/environments that are essential to wildlife on the ranch. Controlled burns in the area, where high winds are routine, is a risk to the environment and the residents of Mono City.
Conway Ranch, for the uninitiated, is located north of Mono City and below 395 as it snakes its way up to Conway Summit.
“It seems like a long process but a very thorough one,” said lessee Jeffrey Hunewill, “I think it’s the right thing to to do … I think Conway Ranch will benefit from having cattle clear that thatch off.”
Hunewill, who also operates Hunewill Ranch in the Bridgeport area, said that he’s seen firsthand the effects that proper grazing managment can have on the land.
Hunewill said that once the cattle have grazed, other animals like deer and sage grouse come in and eat the freshly growing grass, creating a habitat and food source for multiple species.
A number of public commenters took issue with the timeline of the lease process, among other things.
Lisa Belenky, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said that her organization had only heard this agenda item a week before it was set to occur, with “many documents that show discretionary decision making.”
Belenky raised issues with grass stubble height, stating that while the plan called for a 3-4 inch minimum, sage grouse habitats require 7 inches of existing stubble.
She also took issue with water quality assessments, arguing that there is no baseline in the management plan and that cattle can impact water quality from a ways off.
Brian Judge with the Lahontan water board also talked about water quality, raising the issue that cattle specifically can have a detrimental effect on water resources nearby, as well as effects on soil erosion, nutrients, and bacteria.
He advised that flood irrigation be held off for two weeks to allow cowpies to dry sufficiently.
Another caller, Ilene Mandelbaum, took issue with the county’s process as well. She claimed that county officials had made promises to provide additional updates that ultimately never came.
Mandelbaum asked the board to consider Mono City residents in their decision as they are “in for a rude awakening when fences go up, no trespassing signs go up, and the cattle come in.”
She also raised concerns about impacts to butterfly habitats.
Dr. Orrin Sage, a former Eastern Sierra Land Trust board member and owner of Sage Associates, stepped in to field some of these questions and provide answers.
Sage has been involved with the grazing management process at Conway Ranch in the past.
“I think it’s a very good lease,” Sage said, “it requires the lessee to do a great amount of fencing, water development areas, and basic stewardship managemen … fortunately, the Hunewills are exemplary managers.”
In response to the cowpies/water quality comments, he said that rotation of pastures can be used to ensure that any manure is dried out prior to irrigation.
Sage’s biggest concern was the thatch buildup: it’s created a veritable tinderbox at the ranch that could threaten nearby communities if sparked.
Not clearing out the thatch, he said, could actually impact the buttefly habitats that Mandelbaum was concerned about.
He also noted that the lease calls for a four inch minimum stubble height at the end of the season and reasoned that stubble could be as high as two feet when grazing begins.
“I think that we’re potentially trying to modify something that isn’t there as problem,” Supervisor John Peters said, “I have a high degree of confidence that this will be sucessful.”
The board voted to approve the lease agreement and grazing management plan, while directing Dublino to block off irrigation ditches to prevent contaminating Wilson Creek and to ensure water quality measuring as part of the deal.