FEATURE AND PHOTOS BY
CALEY COOK, ELKO DAILY FREE PRESS
The five cowboys at the Dean Ranch knock off work around 6 or 7 p.m., but they rarely bide their time with TV. Instead, as the sun sets over the Cortez Mountains and the heat begins to die down, these cowboys fire up a makeshift mechanical roping bull, and set to showing each other up with a lasso.
“Since I hurt my shoulder, I’m not as good with the rope as I have been,” says Sam Kaster, the manager at the Dean Ranch. Kaster is a tall drink of water who is generous with his laughs and firm with a handshake. He’s been a cowboy for decades. But for the past three years he’s been a cowboy working for a mining company.
Kaster is a part of Barrick’s contemporary push to purchase and operate ranches in northeastern Nevada. Ownership of the ranchlands helps Barrick address some of its biggest challenges, such as managing water rights, land acquisition and wildlife sustainability. The ranches also serve as a security buffer between the public and the company’s mines.
Barrick’s six major ranch operations cover more than 200,000 acres of land and cost $50 million to purchase, to say nothing of operating costs, such as grazing and water permits. The company employs about 18 people full-time and some seasonal workers to run the ranches and manage 1,500 head of cattle.
The Dean Ranch is the jewel of the bunch. Its ability to reuse water that is pumped out of Barrick’s Cortez Hills underground mine allows the company to keep that water in the basin, as required by its water permit, while still using it for its own agricultural purposes. The water is piped out of the underground mine and into mechanical pivots that keep crops like alfalfa hay and feed barley growing each season.
Barrick has hired cowboys, like Kaster, who have deep ties with the local ranching community. Kaster has years of ranching experience in southern Idaho and northeastern Nevada. Doug Groves, who started as the manager at the Hay Ranch in January, has been a local rancher for decades.
“We find people who work these ranches, know the lay of the land, know the people here and understand the culture because they’re the best people to do it,” says Gary Sundseth, Surface Resource Manager, who oversees Barrick’s ranch properties.
The ranches are not without their own challenges. Wildfire is a huge risk, especially in a drought year. Wild or feral horses live on the property and take a toll on the crops and water supply each year. The ranch managers work constantly to control invasive weeds and other non-native plant species. There’s also never enough water for farm usage because of irrigation permit restrictions.
Barrick’s foray into Nevada ranching is progressing well. On the Squaw Valley Ranch, Barrick has had some success in helping to increase populations of Lahontan cutthroat trout in Willow Creek. The environmental division of Cortez Hills has grown native plants on a swath of the Dean Ranch for the last two years. The operations are, so far, mostly financially sustainable on their own, says Sundseth, who has some novel ideas about the type of livestock that should be imported to the ranchlands.
“I know I’m going to get rocks thrown at me, but I’d love to bring camel out here,” Sundseth says without a hint of a smile. “Camel will eat absolutely the opposite of what every other thing is eating. They eat greasewood. And we’ve got a lot of that out here.”