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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Researchers at New Mexico State University and ranchers from Jemez Pueblo have been awarded a grazing contract that will allow them access to the Valles Caldera National Preserve next summer.
One environmental group has concerns about returning cattle to the 89,000-acre preserve after more than a third of it was charred last summer by the massive Las Conchas fire. However, preserve officials said the grazing partnership meets congressional mandates for how the property should be managed.
"This is hitting on all cylinders," said Terry McDermott, a spokesman for the preserve. "There's a cultural piece, it will help with the local economy and with NMSU, it helps with the science and education piece as well."
Made up of sprawling meadows, mountain peaks and one of New Mexico's most famous elk herds, the preserve was bought by the federal government in 2000. The idea was to protect the area and develop recreational opportunities while keeping it as a working ranch in the hopes that it would sustain itself financially by 2015.
Critics have called it a failed experiment in public lands management and have been pushing for the preserve to be turned over to the National Park Service. For now, it continues to be managed by a board of trustees.
New Mexico State University and Jemez Pueblo were among three groups to submit proposals for the 2012 grazing season. The other proposal involved a $35,000 payment from the Santa Fe-based environmental group, WildEarth Guardians, to keep cattle off the preserve.
Bryan Bird, the group's wild places program director, said he was disappointed with the trustee's decision. He contends that cattle will harm riparian areas and erode soils that are recovering from last summer's record wildfire.
"This incredible landscape needs time to fully recover," he said.
Entire tree-covered hillsides within the preserve's boundaries were denuded, but portions of the grasslands that had been scorched by the fire had already turned green again by the fall.
Preserve biologists estimate that some meadows had a 30 percent boost in their nutritional value from having years of vegetative litter burned away.
How many cattle will be allowed on the preserve during the 2012 grazing season will depend on range conditions come this spring. With continued drought, officials expect close to 540 animals this year.
Under the joint contract, Jemez Pueblo can graze up to 250 cattle while New Mexico State University will account for the rest.
"Everybody will get a chance to play, but the thing is we have to understand what the playing field is going to look like," McDermott said. "Let's hope we have a considerable amount of precipitation that is beneficial and just doesn't run off."
The contract will help ensure that NMSU can continue its research related to the risks that stem from grazing cattle at high altitudes.
For the past three grazing seasons, NMSU has been researching bovine high altitude disease at its Top of the Valle testing center at the preserve. The potentially fatal illness costs the beef industry some $60 million a year.
Researchers are trying to determine which genes are responsible for the illness and what ranchers can do to reduce the chances it will develop.
NMSU and the pueblo were notified of the contract award Friday. The details, including the grazing price for each animal, still need to be worked out.
McDermott said the preserve has also had discussions with WildEarth Guardians about projects aimed at keeping grazing cattle away from the preserve's sensitive areas.