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New conservation tools help WY ranchers stay sustainable

Snake River Ranch

Ranchers have always planned for the next season and the next generation…and as such have been natural conservationists. But new management tools in the conservation toolbox are making it easier for land owners to be successful stewards of their land. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports that ranchers are up for the challenge. 

IRINA ZHOROV: On the Snake River Ranch in Jackson Barbara Hauge is looking at a map of the property. She’s one of the original founder’s grandchildren, who manage the operation today. The map she’s looking at, drawn in 1937, shows the fence lines of the ranch from back then.

BARBARA HAUGE: See they go by 40-acre pastures for the most part and they’re very geometric. 

ZHOROV: She then shifts to a modern map of the ranch. She traces one of the pasture fence lines with her finger.

HAUGE: One thing that might strike another person is how irregular some of the pastures are.

ZHOROV: Today, they let stream banks and vegetation dictate fence locations. The decision was made when the family noticed that young trees weren’t doing well on their property.

HAUGE: It was because the grazing animals made it very difficult for the young trees to get a start and to survive. So the family decided that we valued those trees and when we had to replace the fences we wanted to replace the fences so that they would protect the woody vegetation that we had.

ZHOROV: The family does it because they enjoy the trees and to provide habitat for wildlife like moose, elk, owls, bears, and deer. Hauge drives out into a pasture shaped like a craggy claw. It’s all neatly trimmed grass. But it’s surrounded by overgrown, woody stands, which she calls tree pastures. There’s an enormous elk in the brush.

HAUGE: And that’s what the bull elk needs and that’s why we’re protecting that pasture. So you see the payoff right here as you’re here on the ranch.

ZHOROV: The fencing project is just one of several conservation-minded management practices the ranch has instituted over the years. And the Snake River Ranch isn’t alone, either.

BOB BUDD: It’s nothing new really.

ZHOROV: That’s Bob Budd, Executive Director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, which helps people with conservation projects on their land. He says ranchers have always operated with an eye to sustainability.

BUDD: What is new is the range of alternatives that are out there that people can look at.

ZHOROV: It’s not just fencing. There are improvements in irrigation methods and technology, grazing practices that are easier on the land, river bank restoration projects, and things like conservation easements, which protect land in perpetuity.

Timmery Hellyer ranches with her family east of Lander. Ranching is a traditional occupation, but she says ranchers evolve willingly.

HELLYER: As technology has advanced and people’s information and realm of possibilities has advanced then we have these different opportunities and each one is a level that’s more efficient and conserves more than the last level. 

ZHOROV: In her area she’s seen many people install center pivot irrigation, which is costly but conserves a lot of water.

Budd says those advances in technology, and ranchers’ willingness to use them, are a good thing for conservation on a landscape scale.   

BUDD: A lot of our best winter habitat is on those lands, a lot of our best nesting habitats/ The stuff that’s vast blocks of public land tend to be a little more arid, or a little higher elevation, and those all have their practical limitations.

ZHOROV: There are difficulties with private land, too. Randy Williams is the Executive Director of the Teton Conservation District, which also helps ranchers. He says they need help navigating new challenges.  

WILLIAMS: A lot of what they’re facing a lot of times is surrounding development that in the old days simply wasn’t present. So learning to get along with neighbors and subdivisions and increased transportation routes and those types of things.

ZHOROV: All of the conservation assistance programs are voluntary, in contrast to many industries today.

Hellyer, the Lander rancher, says it’s nice help for things they do anyway.

HELLYER: I think that most ranchers that you would visit at any given time do practice what the rest of the world calls conservation practices. But I think that ranchers for the most part view it as taking care of their business properly.

ZHOROV: Because ranching often spans generations, making sure that the resources are in good shape ensures continuing returns on the investment.   

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Irina Zhorov.

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