A Natural Alliance

Buck Island Ranch is home to the threatened caracara, and it's a laboratory where ranchers and conservationists are learning to work together

Buck Island ranch manager Gene Lollis is convinced that the two groups will resolve their conflicts only with communication and calculations. "Until we have the numbers on a piece of paper that says 'This is what [the problem] is,' we're not going to change somebody's mind, because they always have that preconceived idea that we're doing terrible things as far as water quality is concerned," says Lollis, politely indignant, then repentant. "But on the flip side of that, if we are causing a problem, we want to know it so we can fix it."

In the living room of the red house that serves as the ranch office, the 30-year-old Lollis sits at a conference table. The walls are covered with topographical maps, drawings of cowboys, and a sign that proclaims, "Beef: Real Food For Real People." Stripped of his Stetson, spurs silent, he now appears slight, out of place. To learn the language of the scholarly types who visit the ranch, Lollis, who laces his mild twang with "Yes, ma'am," has been taking a course on food and the environment taught over the Internet by his alma mater, University of Florida. He studied animal science in the hope of becoming a veterinarian but returned to the work he began at age 14, toiling on ranches around St. Cloud to bankroll his rodeo dreams.

Now Lollis breeds bulls instead of riding them. But like most Florida ranches, Buck Island is barely eking a profit out of its cattle sales. For the last three years, its calves have fetched 50 to 55 cents per pound, at least a dime below breaking even. Declining beef consumption and increasing competition from Canadian and Mexican ranchers due to the North American Free Trade Agreement have contributed to the drop in calf prices from a national average of a dollar per pound in 1990.

The ranch supplements its cattle production with a 160-acre citrus grove, 200 acres of sod, and a group hunting lease signed by five members this year, each paying $3500 to take a maximum of four deer and a few wild hogs. These extra sources of income net enough money to pay the research budget of $100,000 to $150,000, which includes the three staff researchers' salaries and some equipment and expenses, supplemented by grants and visiting scientists. Staff biologists' awareness of the struggle behind their paychecks grounds the research in the financial reality of cattle ranching. Alternative management practices must be affordable for ranchers to comply and remain in business, and Lollis' accounting tests the effects of the research on ranch profits. Lollis acts as a liaison, shuttling between his colleagues in the office and his crew in the field, translating scientific data into ranch management.

Lollis aims to gain respect for ranchers by telling their story in terms both the policymakers and the public can comprehend. He is not satisfied merely showing Audubon and cattlemen's groups around Buck Island; he also wants to take the average urbanite on a tour of the ranch. "People come here and think it's a desolate wasteland: 'All they're concerned about is their cattle. They don't care about nothing else.' Well, that's not true," Lollis says, the perceived stereotype a personal affront. "Most cattlemen are stewards of the land. I enjoy taking my kids around and seeing deer and turkeys and water birds." His quiet pride is characteristic of "crackers," traditional Florida cowmen nicknamed for the cracking sound of the buckskin whips used by the Spaniards who introduced cattle to the peninsula -- and the future United States -- in 1521.

While Florida has changed dramatically over the years, a cracker's work has remained much the same. Up since dawn the Buck Island ranch hands spent the morning herding cattle into a pen for a veterinary checkup. The herd of cows and calves that were already examined is agitating for the open range, pushing up to the gate and mooing adamantly, waiting for the cowboys to rope a wayward calf. Finally Lollis lifts the chain, and horns and hides blur as they rush past. Ranch hands shepherd the stragglers with paternal regard, one dipping his horse into a ditch to help a calf out of the shallow water.

Abstract concepts have little place in their routine. While the cowboys grudgingly admit the results of some experiments at the ranch could prove helpful, they are skeptical of conservationists. They bristle at receiving orders from government agencies, which in their view consist of pale men in suits who regulate ranches from air-conditioned cubicles. If one of these officials even visited Buck Island, he would surely wither "like a vampire in the sun," mocks one ranch hand, a white cowboy hat barely shading his ruddy face.

While they complain about regulators and conservationists who don't know what their life is like, the cowboys' sardonic comments about researchers, played to impress their peers, reveal the limitations of their own understanding. "They're doing an experiment on the water, and they're doing an experiment on the grass," jibes Boo Addison, a recent addition to the ranch staff. Resting callused hands on his saddle horn, Addison elaborates. "They take a piece of grass and put a fence around it, and they watch it." Laughter rumbles across the row of mounted men.

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