CODY, Wyo. — Improving 200,000 acres of rangeland and 164 miles of perennial streams isn’t an easy task, unless you have a small army of volunteers willing to help and a team of ranchers to make it happen.
The Nature Conservancy and several Wyoming ranches will join forces next week to improve wildlife habitat, water quality and range conditions in the Grass Creek and Cottonwood Creek drainages between Meeteetse and Thermopolis.
Katherine Thompson, the Conservancy’s northwest Wyoming program director, said the five-year project involves stewardship efforts that include replanting key riparian areas and fencing off vulnerable streams to prevent livestock grazing.
The project was launched in 2009 and has already achieved goals such as finding off-creek water sources for cattle. The sources were developed last year, allowing ranchers to avoid watering their animals directly from area streams, which helps improve water quality.
“As grazing pressure decreases in these riparian areas, we should see stream banks stabilize as vegetation recovers,” Thompson said. “Cattle that don’t have to trail long distances to water also gain weight faster.”
Thompson said an estimated 200 volunteers have signed up to build fences around aspen stands adjacent to the area’s off-creek water sources. The fencing will prevent cattle from grazing in sensitive areas while efforts are made to regenerate the trees.
Aspen stands are somewhat rare in the Absaroka Range, Wyoming Game and Fish has stated. They remain a high priority in habitat improvement projects.
Several aspen rejuvenation projects were also identified by the Shoshone National Forest for other parts of the Bighorn Basin and Absaroka Front.
“Maintaining aspen stands will improve habitat for wildlife that we value for hunting,” said Mike Healy of the LU Ranch near Meeteetse. “Better distributed livestock water also improves the ranch’s bottom line, and it enhances the condition of the range.”
The project area is large, scenic and relatively undisturbed. It encompasses almost 200,000 acres along the Absaroka Front and 164 miles of perennial streams.
Thompson said the Conservancy will use the Grass and Cottonwood creek projects as a blueprint for similar efforts in other parts of the state, especially areas linked to the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
The Conservancy’s partnership with area ranchers was established in 2009 with funding from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.
Thompson said additional funding from the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Fund will help the project expand this year.
“It’s inspiring to work with ranchers like Mike Healy and Dee Hillberry on this project,” Thompson said. “They understand that investing in off-creek water improves water quality and the efficiency of their livestock operations.”
The list of project partners is as diverse as it is long. Partners include a host of area cattle companies, including LU Ranch and the Spring Gulch Cattle Co.
Marathon Oil, state and federal agencies, the Wyoming Conservation Corps and the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust are also involved, along with others.