Little Snake River Valley conservation efforts

07 Mar

Rock structure in Battle Creek to enhance fish habitat and irrigation

Our valley, the Little Snake, is an area blessed with abundant natural resources. Community members recognize the value of the abundant wildlife, habitat for all sorts of fish and fowl, and rich agricultural lands.  Many folks who live here have made a commitment to working with a number of partners in order to enhance these resources.

On our ranch, we have worked extensively with the U.S, Fish and Wildlife Service’s program, Partners for Fish and Wildlife. as well as the Wyoming Game and Fish, the Little Snake River Conservation District, the USDA conservation programs, and many other interest groups to keep our operation healthy and productive.

Here is an article written by Mindy Meade Vohland, a wildlife biologist and our go-to person on our Battle Creek fishery project.

Mindy Mead Vohland

Land Ethic Fuels Public-Private Conservation Efforts in the Little Snake River Basin, WY
By Mindy Meade Vohland
Communities within The Little Snake River valley have a long and remarkable history of natural resource conservation. Conservation partnerships in this region demonstrate not only that wildlife and agriculture are mutually compatible, but that restoration efforts can reap positive rewards for both.

The Little Snake River drains the western slopes of the Sierra Madre Mountains and snakes westward along the Wyoming-Colorado border, ever broadening until it reaches the Yampa River and ultimately, the Green River Basin in Colorado.

The Little Snake River Valley has always supported productive wildlife and game populations. In 1844, explorer John C. Fremont said of the area:
“The country here appeared more variously stocked with game than any part of the Rocky Mountains we had visited: and its abundance is owing to the excellent pasturage…”

The excellent pasturage led to the establishment of viable livestock operations, starting with cattle in 1872. Today, ranching and energy production are the primary land uses.  An abundance of game, including some of Wyoming’s largest populations of elk, deer, and antelope, still thrives alongside existing ranches.

The waters of the Little Snake River are fertile grounds for Colorado River cutthroat trout and other fish. This intact aquatic ecosystem and its associated riparian and wetland areas provide habitat for over 150 bird species, including a large, stable population of Greater Sage-Grouse and the largest population of Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse in Wyoming. Regionally, these extraordinary wildlife populations have engendered a community land ethic that links the viability of lifestyle and working landscapes to natural resource stewardship
and conservation. Indeed, local residents and agricultural community members typify this ethos, having established in 1954 the Little Snake River Conservation District (District), a property tax assessment to fund conservation work within the Basin (in 1990), and the first locally led collaborative effort for a 500,000-acre watershed improvement project (in 1993). In 1996, they established a national “Seeking Common Ground” project that demonstrated how livestock operations can positively co-exist with fish and wildlife.

To be sure, landowners, along with government and non-profit partners, possess the willingness and drive to further landscape-level conservation in the Little Snake River Basin. For example, the Muddy Creek Wetlands near Dad, WY, a project of the District and its partners, is the largest constructed wetland complex in Wyoming. Hundreds of species of waterbirds, shorebirds, and waterfowl from both the Pacific and Central Flyways utilize the area for breeding and migration; the site is a WY-Audubon Important Bird Area.

Another project, the “Little Snake River Basin Aspen Conservation Joint Venture,” is set to restore over 12,000 acres of aspen woodlands.  Over 16 miles of river and stream projects have been completed on the mainstem of the Little Snake River and within its tributaries.  These projects include improving fish passage and riparian plant communities as well as restoring hydrology to perched water tables to enhance oxbow slough wetlands and streamside cottonwood galleries.

Lastly, three area ranches have undertaken conservation easements in order to protect natural resources, keep agricultural operations and economic benefits intact, and protect the scenic landscape from subdivision.

“We are proud that we can provide for both wildlife and our agricultural operation, and enhance them both,” said Patrick O’Toole, a private landowner (and IWJV board member) whose Ladder Ranch partnered with The Nature Conservancy in a conservation easement. Ladder Ranch is a sustainable ranching operation that also serves as an ecotourism destination.

Successes such as these were spurred by a communal land conservation ethic, but realized by a body of collaborative, private-public conservation efforts, many of which were led by the Little Snake River Conservation District. Accordingly, the District received the National Association of Conservation District West Region Collaborative Conservation Partnership Award in 2008 and was named “Conservation Partner of the Year” by the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust board in 2010.

Larry Hicks, Resource Coordinator of the Little Snake River Conservation District, describes his work and the magic of the Little River landscape:  “I came here looking for a job. In my 21-year journey, I found my soul, a community and a new way of life – one that exemplifies the moral principles of the land ethic. It’s who we are.”

Mindy Meade Vohland is Wildlife Biologist for Partners for Fish & Wildlife (a division of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Editor’s note: In 2010, the Intermountain West Joint Venture helped catalyze a small NAWCA grant for oxbow wetlands restoration in Wyoming and is looking forward to helping catalyze more conservation partnerships in the region.


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