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INSIDE STORY

The Last Roundup

For the First Time in a Century, Ranching Is Gone From Santa Rosa Island. Environmentalists argued that the herds hurt the ecosystem. others aren't so sure.

October 11, 1998|ANDREW RICE | Andrew Rice is a Santa Monica-based freelance writer and the author of Outside magazine's "Adventure Guide to Southern California and Baja," to be published this spring

The five vaqueros and I split up and encircle the 6,000-acre pasture. Our plan is to ride the fence lines and the steep sea cliffs until we've pushed all the cattle back to a central watering hole. Then we'll drive them home. Jose Marquez and I ride along the southern fence. If it weren't for the ocean in the distance, this could be Wyoming. Grassy hills roll away in all directions. Here and there, an island poppy or an Indian paintbrush blooms between cow patties and hoof prints. From where I sit in the saddle, there's not a ship, a plane or a man-made structure to be seen, just the crystal blue ocean surrounding Santa Rosa Island off the Southern California coast.

We drive the herd down a draw toward the ranch compound. The only sound is of hooves and the little "cha's" and whistles the vaqueros use to keep the cattle moving. A few renegades bolt but are quickly chased down and returned. One breaks toward me, obviously understanding that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I give my horse Matilda a little "hyahhh!" and she lunges between the steer and freedom. He feints left then spins right, but Matilda's moves are better. Bred and born on this island, she's clearly an old hand at these games. Pancho Castillo rides over in a cloud of dust and congratulates me. "I can see you know how to ride a horse," he says. I smile and think to myself: I could do this forever, except I can't. Too soon it will be over. With the dawn, when these last steers and heifers depart for the mainland, a way of life on this island will end.

Ever since a settlement in January ended a bitter three-way legal contest between a national parks advocacy group, the Channel Islands National Park and Vail & Vickers, owners of the ranch, over grazing rights, public access and endangered species protection, each day has been a countdown for the cowboys of Santa Rosa. For 97 years, while the mainland coast changed from wilderness to megalopolis, time stood still at this island ranch. Now, when the last of 6,500 cattle leave, the ranch will close.

"I wish you'd come here last year," says Bill Wallace, a laconic, weathered cowboy of 70 who has been foreman of this 54,000-acre spread for two decades. "I could have showed you thousands of fine cattle. We used to ship 4 million pounds every year, but that's all over. All that's left now are the cripples and crazies, and those are leaving tomorrow. What kind of story is that? That's a tragedy is what it is."

*

To be a cowboy there must be cows, that much is a given. And cowboying is what Wallace and his crew of Mexican vaqueros do best--waking at 5 a.m. seven days a week, riding all day leaning into winds that blow around Point Conception and howl over Santa Rosa with such force that it's a favorite island joke that when the wind stops, the cattle fall over.

With the nearest city, Santa Barbara, 27 miles across the Pacific, the Vail & Vickers ranch is a model of self-sufficiency, a place where an old boat propeller is pressed into use as a lawn-mower blade, where no problem is so big it can't be solved with a little common sense and a lot of hard work. In an age when many mainland ranches have replaced horses with pickups and helicopters, the island vaqueros continued to breed, raise and train their own horses for this rugged terrain.

Cattle first set foot here in 1844 when Alpheus Basil Thompson took 270 head across the Santa Barbara Channel on his schooner the Bolivar. Before that, the last large grazing animal to wander Santa Rosa was the pygmy mammoth. In the absence of grazers and predators, a unique ecosystem evolved. Most of the island was covered in sage scrub. Tiny foxes the size of a house cat were the largest land mammals on the island other than the Chumash Indians whose kitchen middens, villages and burial grounds still dot the landscape.

During the Civil War, wool was in great demand, and as many as 100,000 sheep replaced the cattle. The wool market collapsed, and soon half-wild sheep roamed unmanaged and the entire island was overgrazed. That was the condition the ranch was in when Walter L. Vail and J.V. Vickers bought the island in 1901 to turn it back over to cattle. Since then, one Vail after another has managed the ranch, with the Vickerses remaining silent partners.

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