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Cowboys see ranching challenges in Zuni Mountains amid virus

In this June 11, 2020, photo, ranchers Wyatt Gibson, 24, from Thoreau, N.M., and Kevin Marquez, 28, from Bluewater, N.M., survey a herd of cows grazing on the Zuni Mountains in McGaffey, N.M. New Mexico cowboys are see ranching challenges in Zuni Mountains amid the global pandemic and environmental changes. (Vida Volkert/Gallup Independent via AP)

MCGAFFEY, N.M. (AP) — Two cowboys rode their horses on a pasture below the McKenzie Ridge in the Zuni Mountains a recent afternoon checking out the cows.

They rode gently to avoid scaring the herd that was grazing at the center of a 320-acre pasture Kevin Marquez has been leasing along Forest Road 50. Wyatt Gibson stopped on one side of the herd, while Marquez rode carefully through it, looking at the cows, one by one.

The cows looked fat and healthy, Marquez thought. He hoped for rain. Clouds were forming in the sky on the mountain, but there was no rain in the forecast until the weekend. That same pasture looked greener and better at the beginning of the spring, soon after all the snow from winter melted down.

“It’s getting really dry,” Marquez said. “If it don’t rain, it’s really gonna get bad. Last year it was better than this year. We got lots of moisture from winter, but summer wasn’t that good. Mother Nature would let us know, I guess.”

Marquez, 28, from Bluewater, and Gibson, 24, from Thoreau, drove to the pasture pulling a trailer loaded with horses twice or three times a week to check on the herd.

Marquez said they have noticed more traffic on the forest road these days, since the coronavirus-related lockdowns started. He guessed more people had the time to cruise around the mountains. Asked about the shortage of meat or beef in the local markets, also resulting from the current pandemic, he said he didn’t think that was a problem.

“I don’t know. My freezers are stocked, so I’m good,” he said, adding he has a buyer that buys all his cows at once, but the market for ranchers is not what it used to be.

“The market is awful now,” he said. “The highest bid wins, but the market changes every day. You can expect to sell a calf for $500-$600, if you are lucky.”

Both Marquez and Gibson have been ranchers in New Mexico all their lives – going on third generation. The challenges include drought, extreme weather, predators and vandalism. Last year Marquez found a cow shot dead. He believes someone drove by and shot it.

And last summer he saw a Mexican Wolf chasing antelope about 20 miles away, at a location known as Sawyer Section.

“Wolves are the main problem up here. They are starting to release them. It’s not cool. They kill cows, they’ll kill anything.”

Gibson said the biggest challenge for him was the wind. Just a couple days earlier, they were riding on that mountain against 20-30 mph winds, with 45 mph gusts.

Asked how they endured such weather, Marquez answered: “You cowboy up.”

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