Working with other stakeholders is the norm for the Sun Ranch west of Casper, Wyo. Like any ranching operation, it is multi-faceted and complex at times. A series of cause and effects reflect on the landscape showing change regularly, some good and some bad. It is important for Dennis Sun, owner of the Sun Ranch and publisher/owner of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, to make daily strides toward a healthier ranching operation.
One of the components to the Sun ranch’s stewardship is ensuring healthy habitat for sage grouse. The sage-grouse is a ground-dwelling bird native to the sagebrush ecosystem of the American West. It has experienced a significant decline in population over several decades.
Approximately 40 percent of all sage-grouse are found in Wyoming and The Sage-Grouse Initiative (SGI), spearheaded by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), is proactively addressing habitat loss and working to keep populations healthy enough to avoid an Endangered Species Act listing. Sun implemented the SGI on his ranch and has already been successful in raising bird populations. The Sun Ranch houses a large wintering area for over 600 sage grouse, as well as annual habitat that is extremely important to the overall population of this species. For example, over 300 birds have been counted on one sage-grouse lek (breeding areas).
Scientific studies and Master’s senior thesis projects conducted by Cheryl Mandich, who holds a Master of Science in zoology and physiology, began on the Sun Ranch. In recent years, the sage-grouse population has increased, but the numbers are still low compared to 2005. Like many species, environmental factors, such as habitat and weather, can affect populations. According to Mandich, the estimates of sage-grouse annual survival range from 35-85 percent. A main concern is loss of sagebrush habitat and protection that the birds rely on for survival, including survival from predators like coyotes, fox, ravens and raptors.
Findings from Mandrich’s thesis project and help through the SGI may further benefit the sage-grouse population. Grazing management practices have benefited the population by leaving more sagebrush behind. Retired NRCS State Range Conservationist Everet Bainter had previously developed intensive monitoring programs for the Sun Ranch. Monitoring provided a detailed inventory of habitat and grouse, inventory of ecological sites, potential growth of plant diversity and inventory of sagebrush height and density. Through SGI and Mandich’s work, Sun has implemented additional practices to reach higher sage-grouse numbers.
Traveling out to the Sun Ranch, miles and miles of sagebrush stretch out to the horizon leaving the city of Casper far behind. Joint efforts from agencies such as NRCS, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Natrona County Weed and Pest and Wyoming Game and Fish have helped Sun reach rangeland goals. Sun explained that he only made a few simple changes to become a suitable candidate for SGI, including adding fence reflectors and more escape ramps on stock tanks to help diminish the risk of bird death. In the past 10 years, the ranch has implemented numerous range improvements including five solar-powered water wells, spring development, stream bank restoration, invasive weed management and over 20 miles of new fenceline to divide large pastures for grazing management.
Sun’s future plans to improve habitat and production of his ranch consist of a series of check dams on Casper Creek that raise the water table in the riparian area and eventually lead Casper Creek to flow year around. Earlier construction of these check dams in the upper reaches of Casper Creek resulted in increased forage along the creek from 2,200 lbs of forage/acre to 5,500 lbs of forage/acre. This created more habitat and wildlife use in the area along with improved grazing.
The success of SGI is dependent on individual producers like Sun. Increased sage-grouse numbers and improved sagebrush habitat happens in the field on ranches. It is through the efforts of producers like Dennis Sun that will help prevent sage grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act.
From RealPartner Haley Lockwood, NRCS Wyoming Public Affairs Intern