Scientists had identified the Upper Henry’s Fork Basin as one of the top protection priority sites in the West. In fact, in 1991 the National Office of TNC designated the Henry’s Fork as one of its "Last Great Places." Only 75 ecosystems were recognized by Conservancy scientists for such national recognition.
So, in 1994 the Nature Conservancy purchased the 1,450 acre Flat Ranch, located seven miles west of Yellowstone National Park. The Upper Henry’s Fork Project was a $3.3 million campaign to purchase the ranch, and protect and restore the headwaters of the legendary Henry’s Fork River.
At the time, the 3.3 million dollar project was the most audacious, far-reaching one ever attempted by an Idaho conservation group.
The Conservancy secured a low interest loan from New York Life… and received huge challenge grants from Michigan’s Kresge Foundation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Corporations as diverse as Monsanto, Basic American Foods, Patagonia and Orvis all contributed generously, as did individuals and foundations.
In just three years, The Nature Conservancy successfully completed the $3.3 million dollar Upper Henry’s Fork campaign.
"It’s a good learning experience for the Nature Conservancy, says Louise Kellogg, the first project manager of the Flat Ranch. "We can take what we’ve learned by actually working on a cattle ranch and disseminate that information to other conservation groups that might not be able to have the same experience that we are of running a ranch. That is going to be really beneficial to the environmental community."
"There’s a tendency to point the finger, to say you should do this differently, and we’ve done that, too. And then you get out on the land and there’s all these other factors that come in; and it’s difficult to do a lot of what you say you’re going to do. We’ve learned how hard it can be."
"Even though we’re only dealing with 1500 acres, it’s an incredibly strategically located parcel," explains Trent Stumph, stream restoration specialist. "It has 4 1/2 miles of upper Henry’s Fork that flows through it, plus tributaries and springs that pop up on the ground. So, even though it’s small, it carries a lot of weight."
"The Henry’s Lake flats area has been studied extensively," explains Louise Kellogg. "The flats provides a critical migratory corridor for big game leaving the Yellowstone high country in the winter… as well as migrating waterfowl. It’s really a huge nursery ground. Elk calve in the area, moose calve in the area, over 100 pairs of sandhill cranes nest and raise their young on the flat, as well as long billed curlews, which are a "threatened" species.
"It’s also been historically one of the most important spawning tributaries for Henry’s Lake and the upper Henry’s Fork river for native cutthroat trout."
"One of the things that we set out to show is that you can run a productive cattle operation while at the same time maintaining a thriving habitat for fish and wildlife," says Kellogg.
"While our cattle operation pays for capital improvements on the ranch, we are fortunate to have a wide base of support throughout Idaho and the nation; this enables us to take some risks that other land owners can’t afford to take. It enables us to experiment with different grazing methods, different fencing methods… and show you can make it work, or if you can’t make it work, show that too.
"I think there was initially – and probably still is – suspicion about the Nature Conservancy being an environmental group, and what our motives are.
Owning the Flat Ranch and continuing to run cattle has hopefully eased some of those suspicions."
"This is New Zealand electric fence. A lot of ranchers in intensive grazing management have used it to make their life a lot more simple," says Trent Stumph.
"As the season progresses, the cattle will see the stakes and won’t even come close to it. The idea to take this pasture of 250 acres and partition it up. Currently we have 500 pairs with 100 acres. We’ll go in and get uniform cut on all forage types, then sit on the pasture for 5-8 days, then move to the next pasture. It’s really good for forage productivity, and before we come back to this pasture, it will have a 65 day rest.
"If we weren’t doing this, we’d put them in on the whole side. They’d eat the grass they like, come back after a couple weeks, get that grass again and that’s when you’re real susceptible to overgrazing, if they keep on taking the grass when the root reserves are trying to push all the energy back up to generate leafy matter. And if the cattle keep taking it down, that’s when you can run the risk of really hurting the plant.
"So we’re actually boosting our productivity, and that’s hoping to offset some of our rest rotation with our riparian pastures. We’re not taking our riparian pastures out of production, but it’s a little bit more intensely managed because we have another resource – the Henry's Fork -- that we’re looking at also."
Neighbor Don Salisbury has also been experimenting with intensive rotation grazing: a lot of animals on a small pasture for a short amount of time. He says it’s the way the buffalo would have grazed the land hundreds of years ago.
"It’s managing the grass. Carrying a large number of cattle for very few days on rather small tracts of pasture," says Salisbury, "and monitoring that grass to make sure the cattle are being moved when the grass gets down to 3-4 inches in height. Not overgrazing, but utilizing the animal impact to improve the quality of the grass."
Has it worked? "The grass quality has improved greatly, which means greater carrying capacity, which means a more successful ranch. There were lots of people telling us this thing probably was not going to work. But it has."
"If it weren’t for the ranching community, we wouldn’t have this land to work with," says Louise Kellogg. "The ranching community has protected open space and natural areas. Maybe they’re not as pristine as we’d like, but we can work with that. But we can’t take a ranch that is subdivided, and put that back. Ranchers and conservationists have quite a bit in common. We have to work together."
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