Partnerships equal Saratoga country conservationWritten by Jennifer Womack
While Budd was talking about sage grouse when he made the statement, the words rang true over the course of the daylong tour hosted by the local Saratoga-Encampment-Rawlins Conservation District (SERCD) in conjunction with the Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Land Trust (WSGALT).
Standing on the banks of the Encampment River, Glen Leavengood, SERCD Resource Specialist shared the story of a diversion improvement that’s prevented erosion and improved irrigation practices along the river. Ending any doubt that stream restoration is a science, Leavengood said that as rocks were placed in two A-shaped formations in the stream channel, the engineer overseeing the project sought adjustment if they were so much as two inches off.
Once in place, the project ended the rancher’s annual practice of damming the river with flows now directed toward a headgate by in-channel structures. The slightest misplacement of the rocks that make up the structure can compromise its longterm stability.
Irrigation and its associated benefits were discussed at multiple tour stops. “The number of wildlife and waterfowl this valley attracts because of irrigation is absolutely stunning,” said John Lunt, MD, a member of the WSGALT board of directors. “Return drainage well into the winter provides flows to a river that would otherwise be gone by November or December,” he said.
In addition to his service on the WSGALT board, Lunt has played an active role in the conservation easement arena by placing an easement on his own ranch. Lunt originally completed an easement with The Nature Conservancy and later had it transferred to WSGALT. He explained the easement concept from the ridge above the area he helped preserve noting, “You can be assured this property will never be developed. Indeed we did realize tax benefits from placing the easement, but I think our main reason was to keep it intact as a working ranch.
Of his easement and nearly a half dozen others held by WSGALT in the Valley Lunt explained, “The easement allows for unfettered operation of the ranch without any interference from the owners of the easement.” Third party ownership of an easement, he said, ensures long-term compliance.
While an easement partner is sought largely based on the goals of the individual seeking to complete the easement Lunt said, “In the end there’s very little difference.” Open space, he noted, provides everything from working landscapes to wildlife habitat. “Our easements are much more agriculturally friendly so if you’re primarily interested in ranching then you pick WSGALT.”
Budd highlighted the importance of irrigation to the state’s sage grouse population. Breeding in bare areas near ample forage to nest and raise their young, he said, “When it gets hot they fall down into these irrigated bottoms.” Late summer and early fall they work their way back toward winter range, which Budd said is largely comprised of sagebrush.
Studies done by the U.S. Forest Service, explained Joe Glode, have shown that at least 80 percent and in some cases 95 percent of water distributed via flood irrigation makes its way back to the North Platte River. “There’s some science on this, it isn’t just paradigms and how you think you feel,” said Glode.
He further explained, “We see this river getting extremely warm late in the season, late July and early August. During a drought the phenomenon of return flow drops the temperature almost immediately when the sun goes down. That’s probably the biggest benefit to the fishery, that bank storage return flow.”
Glode and his family have also subscribed to the benefits of conservation easements. “If you’re truly into ranching,” he said, “an easement has literally no affect on ranching.”
Three busloads of people ranging from ranchers to conservation professionals to congressional representatives were in Saratoga for the tour.