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Orange County

That Echo Is the Last Hoof

With Irvine Co. Set to Build, 2 Centuries of Ranching End

July 15, 2002|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The outraged bellow of a lone cow is the first clue, followed by the faint cries of cowboys.

Half a dozen men and women pop up on horseback over a far ridge. Moving daintily on their high-stepping horses, they gather the cattle into one molten brown mass flowing up over the ridge and down.

The setting isn't Wyoming or Montana. It's the last cattle roundup on Orange County's storied Irvine Ranch. It is a deliberately unremarked-upon event by the Irvine Co., the land's developer--no press releases, no television news cameras, not even many cattle left after so many years.

There have been cattle here for almost 200 years, since Spanish monks claimed a knobby ridge sticking up between the Santa Ana Mountains and the Pacific Ocean and christened it Lomas de Santiago.

Until this year, the old ways have lingered along Loma Ridge off Santiago Canyon Road, out beyond the miles of shopping malls and tract homes.

Each November, the best beef cattle money can buy have been shipped from Idaho to winter here at the back edge of the county, on some 20,000 to 30,000 acres of rain-fed grass and sagebrush-clad hills. Now, they're being moved out--for good.

Irvine Co. owner Donald Bren is proceeding with final build-out plans for the ranch and getting out of the cattle business. His livestock will be auctioned, fattened for a year and end up on American picnic tables by next Fourth of July.

The cattle aren't the only ones going.

"They don't need us anymore," said Mike Bias, 44, a cowboy who has grazed as many as 950 pairs of cattle on the ranch. Like many a superstitious cowboy who has seen too many young animals die, Bias doesn't count the calves individually until they are sold. They are "paired" with their mothers until then.

When Bias started working on the ranch in 1993, the herd was mostly on the bluffs above Pacific Coast Highway. Development has gradually pushed ranching operations inland.

Each fall, when Bias and his family return from Idaho, where they care for Bren's cattle through the summer months, they try to figure out what else is gone.

"We came back one year, and to see what they'd done to Mare Pasture, it made you sick to your stomach," said his wife, Shawn Bias, 37. "It's where they put in that golf course, what do they call it now? Shady Canyon."

Here along Orange County's back edge, a world apart has remained, at right angles to the busy suburban streets and highways. The old dirt two-laners follow the land's curves, and their names reflect a genuine past.

"When you shut that gate behind you, the whole world goes away," said Mike Bias, looking at the turnoff to his family's lane from Santiago Canyon Road.

Now, it is their turn to leave.

The Irvine Co. declined to comment on the end of cattle ranching operations and plans for the area. But county planning records and company maps show the teacup-shaped canyon where the Biases live half the year--a farmyard filled with towering live oaks, rambling roses and sweet honeysuckle--becoming a six-lane extension of Jeffrey Road out of Irvine, dotted with hundreds of multimillion-dollar homes.

"Every day when I ride out now, I think 'last chances,' " said Shawn Bias: "Last chance to see this hillside. Last chance to see this mama bird and her little baby in that nest."

Her husband earned $22,000 gross this year as a top cowboy. They live rent-free in the old farmhouse, which, if the legend is true, was moved up from the dry bed of nearby Irvine Lake during the Depression. She supplements their income by breeding palomino horses.

With development not set to begin for at least a year, Mike Bias had asked the company in April if he could lease the house and a small pasture. His wife could continue to raise her horses, and their two girls would be able to finish out the school year.

"They just couldn't see clear to doing it," said Bias, adding that the company's director of agricultural operations told him, " 'They're afraid people will like what you're doing, then oppose 'em when it comes time to develop.' "

They were told they could stay two weeks after the last cattle were loaded onto trucks, then the power would be cut.

*

Head 'Em Up

The day of reckoning arrives. On a misty morning in late May, the Bias' border collies have scrambled onto their kennel rooftops, barking and whining furiously, fearful of being left behind. The farmyard is full of dust from horses' hoofs, and the chatter of half a dozen ranch hands saddling up for the last roundup.

A short reprieve has come, in a phone call from the boss the night before. They can stay on the ranch for up to 90 days while they look for other work. The ranch foreman and president also wrote Mike a reference, calling him "an outstanding horseman and cowboy."

This morning, though, all that matters is the ride.

The plan is a familiar one after so many years: They'll drive the cattle over Loma Ridge from a skinny valley called Shoe String Trap, let the cattle spend a final day in the open, then herd them to Bee Flat.

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