OK, SO MAYBE THERE ARE NO ROSES TO THIS STORY, BUT THERE ARE YAKS, GUNS AND GOLD
My great-great grandfather moved from Ireland to Wisconsin when he was eight years old. Feeling the pressure to succeed and hearing about the possibility of easy riches during the Pikes Peak Gold Rush, Thomas D. Burns set out from his home in Wisconsin at age 14 to the wilds of what today we call Colorado. Along the way he traded pamphlets on animal cures for food and shelter in people’s homes. Upon arriving he did not find gold, but instead encountered land...and lots of it. TDB made and lost several fortunes throughout his life in the west, but ultimately he acquired tens of thousands of acres in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Sheep were the original domestic grazers on these lands until post-WWII when the army ceased needing wool for uniforms. Through the succeeding familial generations these lands in the high country of Colorado and New Mexico eventually were split amongst family members. Today I am the only member who has not sold out to wealthy individuals or exclusive partnerships.
Prior to Robert’s and my ownership of yaks and cattle, we leased our two ranches to cattle owners. Yet, it’s never a good idea to lease land to people who simply want to profit off it. For years we dealt with overgrazing and poor stewardship until finally we’d had enough and ceased all leasing. But what should Robert and I do instead with our ranches?
Craigslist can be a delightfully dangerous thing, and I fell prey to it in the fall of 2014, “Oh, look honey, someone is selling yaks.” Well, before I knew it Robert and the kids were off to pick up four females and one bull yak, whom Gabriela (our daughter) named Poseidon. Little did I appreciate how that purchase truly would change the entire course of our ranching business – for the better.
These “foundation” yaks remained at our home in Durango through the winter of 2014-2015 when we moved them to our ranch in Chama. That summer and for the next few years Robert slowly built up the yak herd, purchasing yaks from different ranches in New Mexico and Colorado. Today we own around 160 yaks that we breed and raise on our properties. Did you know that yaks love to perch themselves upon big rocks, like sentinels viewing their domain? It’s a pretty awesome site seeing them on top of these rocks.
Through trial and error we’ve learned so much about raising these animals. For instance, yaks love the high country and its lush grasses but as the saying goes, the grass is always greener…. Yaks are strong animals and fences are merely a suggestion to them. We rotate the animals through our pastures all summer, keeping them from overgrazing any one area. Yet, every year at least once we’d get a call from neighbors, motorists or friends that some of our yaks were on their land or simply walking down the road next to our property. So, we’d have to gather our crew, saddle up and often spend hours, if not days gathering up these strays. One year we had to wait until the snows came for the animals to come off the high forests adjacent to our ranch.
Well, maybe we’re slow learners but finally this year we solved the problem by hiring Omar, a full time herder, to work with the yaks (and cattle). Every morning on horseback he moves them to the area where we want them to graze and throughout the day monitors their movements. Now the yaks no longer have the opportunity to stray, and we no longer are receiving phone calls about wandering yaks (or cattle!).
There definitely have been some interesting characters along our journey. One year Robert sold a yak to a lady who wanted a pasture pet. When Robert dropped off the yak, the lady informed him that she didn’t have sufficient cash to pay him. Instead, she led him into a room-size walk-in safe and asked to trade for either collector guns or German gold coins! He took the coins, which we still have in our (much smaller) safe. The next year she decided that the animal was too much work, so she called Robert wanting to return the yak. We don’t have any return policy for live animal purchases, but Robert agreed to take back the yak.
No one knows the future, but I’m sure we will collect many more stories and meet more fantastic characters along the way.