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Steep terrain

The Gills run 500 head of cattle in steep country. They joke that their cattle are equipped with low-range 4-wheel drive to handle the steep mountains.

LUCILE — At the top of Cold Springs summit, nearly 7,000 feet above sea level, Lucile rancher Marty Gill gets a charge out of the big view.

“From right here, you can see parts of four states and some huge country,” Gill, who grew up on the ranch, said.

It’s an awe-inspiring spot on this high divide between Hells Canyon and the Salmon River, north of Riggins, where generations of the Gill family have raised cattle for more than 100 years.

The Gill family has deep roots. They are the longest continuous white residents of Idaho County, going back to the 1870s. Now, Gill serves as the board president of the Idaho Cattle Association.

“It’s been a heck of a ride,” he said. “We had a record turnout at our mid-year meeting in Lewiston. Idaho is getting a lot of input on a national level.”

Since the 1940s, the Gill Ranch has operated on a big patch of private land above the Salmon River in Lucile and on a large grazing allotment that runs over the mountain into the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.

“I think there are some things that are moving in the right direction for long-term resource management for everybody,” Gill said. “The lock it up, and leave it alone, let-it-burn model of the last 20 years, I don’t think is a long-term sustainable deal.”

The Gills joke that their cattle are equipped with special built-in low-range 4-wheel-drive, or they’d fall off the mountain in the steep terrain.

“We’ve lost a couple of different bulls that fell out of the pasture right into the river,” Marty Gill’s father, Melvin Gill, said.

Back in the day

Melvin Gill, now 80 years old, worked for Bud Wilson at the Kirkwood sheep ranch from the mid-1940s to 1975, when Hells Canyon National Recreation Area was created by Congress.

A long-time rodeo rider, Gill was the grand marshal of Grangeville Border Days in 2017 and grand marshal of the Riggins Rodeo in 2007. He’s worked on the ranch his whole life.

“I had no time to play,” the lifelong rancher said. “Ever since I was 8 years old, I took a man’s place in the hayfield, driving teams. We hayed with horses. I used to think my parents were the meanest people you ever saw because the kids I was running around with were out swimming, or playing, and I was up here on a field on a hot day behind a team.”

Marty Gill and his sister, Shelley, are the fourth generation in the family to run the ranch. Shelley and her husband, Garrett Neal, raise about 500 cattle at the Gill Ranch in Lucile. Marty Gill works as a nutrition expert for Agri-Beef/Performix Nutrition in Fruitland while running a second ranch in Parma for the family.

The Gill family’s cattle are marketed as part of the Double-R brand. You might see a family photo in the grocery store.

“Most times our cattle will grade 85% to 88% choice; that’s the target market in trying to sell good product because you get paid a premium,” Marty Gill said.

Marty Gill works a four-state territory for Performix Nutrition, helping cattle ranchers increase protein and minerals for their livestock. He takes samples of their pasture grass and hay and provides an analysis.

“We’ll take what you have in your feeds, what type of animals you have, what kind of production you’re getting, identify the deficiencies,” he said.

At the Parma Ranch, Gill breeds ideal characteristics into their cattle through artificial insemination and heterosis — crossing Hereford mother cows with purebred Angus bulls and Angus mother cows with purebred Hereford bulls.

“Those of us in the commercial industry are trying to raise the most efficient animal that we can,” he said. “Take this grass and turn it into delicious protein with minerals that humans can use. So you look at traits like growth rate, pregnancy rates, fertility and more.”

The Gills also select characteristics in the breeding process to produce a slightly smaller animal that can handle the steep-faced mountain country next to the Salmon River and Hells Canyon.

“In our steep rugged country, you don’t want a bunch of 1,600-1,800-pound cows,” Marty Gill said. “They just can’t survive in that country as well as a 1,100, 1,200 or 1,300-pound cow. So it’s a lot about your environment.”

Cow amid downfall

National forest lands and trails can be choked with downfall, making it difficult for the Gills to manage their cattle.

While many Idaho ranchers sell their calves in the fall to the beef market, the Gills hang onto their cattle until they grow into yearlings, while feeding them a mix of hay, grain and minerals until harvest time.

“This group is weighing 850-870 pounds, so we’ll be looking to market them in the next several weeks to a feedlot,” Marty Gill said. “They’ll put them on feed for 120-140 days, and these cows will be harvested in January 2020 to go into the beef chain weighing 1,300 pounds, and hopefully, close to 90 percent will be grade choice and produce some really great steaks.”

The Gill Ranch in Lucile

Melvin Gill used to love herding cattle on horseback as a kid on the family ranch.

“I loved horses, cows and dogs,” he said. “That was my highlight. I just enjoyed it.”

As a youngster, he rode on horseback to the Cow Creek school down the road. He learned how to break horses and shoe horses from his dad.

Shelley Neal loved to ride horses and always wanted to tag along with her dad.

“She always had her own horse to ride when she was a little itty bitty girl. It didn’t matter if it was storming or cold or whatever, she had to go with me, all the time,” Melvin Gill recalled. “So it doesn’t surprise me when she calls me up from college and says she’s coming back to help me. I’m sure glad she’s here too.”

Up on the mountain at the Gill Ranch cow camp, Shelley Neal discussed running the ranch.

“It’s a huge allotment, there’s almost 30,000 acres,” she said. “It’s a lot to cover. We’ve had a lot of forest fires that make it hard to get around. A lot of changes. We’ve got a lot more hunters and recreationists to deal with, we’ve got wolves to deal with. A lot of different dynamics that have changed over the years.”

In general, the Gills’ cattle herd follows the green up on the Salmon River side of the mountain and spends six months on the forest allotment from June through November.

“Just follow the grass,” Shelley Neal said. “That’s why a lot of ranches have a low-country and a high country.”

With hunting season coming up, the Gills are bracing for impact.

“Since the wolves have really hit the Lochsa and Selway country, we have a lot more hunters coming down here,” she said.

Frequently, hunters don’t respect the difference between private and public lands, she said.

Hunters and ATV

Large numbers of big game hunters pursue elk and deer in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest and Hells Canyon NRA.

“What we find is they cut the deeded fence if the gate’s locked, and just go through. I think it’s more about getting the big antlers that they see over the fence. They don’t respect the private ground,” Shelley neal added.

The Forest Service doesn’t do much maintenance on their lands either, which hurts their ability to manage cattle.

“They don’t do the trailwork, recreation signage is falling down, road signage, just a lot of neglect,” Shelley Neal said. “Trees are dying. Weeds are coming.”

Jeff Schinn, district ranger in the Salmon River Ranger District office, countered.

“The Salmon River Ranger District partners with Idaho County and the Nez Perce Tribe to treat weed-affected areas across the district on an annual basis,” Schinn said. “Recreational trail maintenance on the Salmon River Ranger District is limited due to budget constraints. Forest Service grazing permittees are partners in ensuring the health and sustainability of U.S. Forest Service rangelands.”

Modern day times

Melvin Gill and his wife, Midge, mainly spend their time overlooking the Salmon River country, enjoying retirement. And Marty Gill is sprinting to the finish of his service as ICA board president, pushing the issues of the day.

Idaho ranchers have strong political support, with five former ICA presidents serving in the Idaho Legislature and Emmett rancher Brad Little serving as governor. Those former ICA presidents include House Speaker Scott Bedke of Oakley, Sen. Carl Crabtree of Grangeville, Rep. Laurie Lickley of Jerome, Sen. Bert Brackett of Three Creek, and Rep. Jerold Raymond of Menan.

As ICA president, Marty Gill has worked to expand the network of ranching leaders in the West.

“I wanted to pull everybody together and make sure we’re on the same page,” he said. “We’re all talking about the same issues, whether it’s this climate, or the Bitterroot Range in Montana, the Steens Mountain in Oregon, or the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. They’re all a little different, but we’re talking about the same issues: grazing, water, human-wildlife interaction.”

He aims to improve the current situation.

“Let’s bring the best science and best methods to the table that work for society,” Marty Gill said. “I think there’s something to be learned by looking at the big-picture view.”

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Steve Stuebner is the writer and producer of Life on the Range, a public education project sponsored by the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission.

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