NRCS sage grouse investment spurs conservation efforts in LanderWritten by Melissa Hemken
Lander – The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is under contract to purchase the 3 Bar X and Double A Ranches, adjacent properties located southwest of Lander. Comprising a total of 3,600 acres, these private lands hold high ecological and agricultural values, and face mounting housing development threats.
“Our hope is that this land will stay in agriculture operations,” says Andrea Erickson Quiroz, State Director of TNC in Wyoming. “Our intent is to very temporarily own these properties for the purpose of protecting them from subdivision. We very much want them to stay in agriculture, for which the land is completely compatible and has been traditionally used.
“We are seeking an agriculture buyer to purchase these properties in March 2012 when the title transfer is complete. We will hold and manage the ranches for agriculture as long as we have to, but we would like to sell fairly quickly at an agriculture price point. Until we legally own the property we can’t legally sell it, but we would love to talk to people right now who are sincerely interested in purchasing these ranches.”
A conservation easement will be placed on the property at, or before, out-sale, to prevent future subdivision, but it will allow agricultural operations to continue. The ranches will be priced differently than previously marketed because of the TNC conservation easement.
“When you do a conservation easement you’re removing the development rights,” Erickson Quiroz explains. “Here in Lander there is a lot of pressure from subdivision, and there is already a large subdivision on the backside of these ranches. Because of the subdivision pressure, the value of the land has gone beyond agriculture value. When the conversation easement is placed on the land, it removes that subdivision pressure and allows for future agriculture operations.”
Both the 3 Bar X and the Double A have been on the market for some time, and the owners recently decided to work with TNC to sell the ranches for agriculture conservation purposes. TNC has been working to conserve wildlife habitat and agriculture lands on the Lander Front, an important area of the Greater Yellowstone region, since 1993.
“We would not be able to even think about this project without funding from the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service),” says Erickson Quiroz. “This is a really unprecedented time for Wyoming, as the NRCS has garnered $73 million from the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program to protect land and water in our state. The reason for the large investment is for conservation easements and stewardship programs to help sage grouse and keep them from being listed as endangered species.”
The Lander Front is critical winter range for mule deer, elk and moose, and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has done field tests on both the Double A and 3 Bar X, and have found that collared sage grouse have core breeding and nesting habitat on the land.
“These ranches are part of the agriculture heritage of our community,” says Erickson Quiroz, “and they’re important to the watershed for the Lander Valley, as they feed the Middle Popo Agie River and ensure excellent water quality.”
TNC has served as a conduit for conservation and agriculture buyer transactions in Wyoming before. One such project was Jack Winchester’s Upper and Lower Ranches near Dubois. TNC sold the Upper Ranch, Ramshorn Ranch, with a conservation easement to ranchers Bob and Kate Lucas, who operate it in conjunction with their ranch along the Snake River near Jackson.
The Lower Ranch, the Winchester, TNC kept to pair with their Red Canyon Ranch as they needed more hay ground and winter pasture for their cow/calf operation.
“We have learned a lot regarding the hardships and economics of ranching through our cow/calf operation,” says Erickson Quiroz. “It’s not that we’re trying to be better ranchers, we’re trying to be better conservationists by really understanding what it takes by being in agriculture and working on the land. We also want to enhance wildlife habitat and produce other values, and that is a hard job to do. Actually being engaged in agriculture ourselves gives us a huge amount of humility and realism about what that truly means.”
TNC has to raise $1.3 million by March 2012 to complete the purchase of the Double A and 3 Bar X, for which the non-profit organization is looking to private philanthropists, community events, corporations and other conservation partners in the state. The properties are contiguous to a network of more than 500,000 public acres, land that provides crucial big-game migration corridors and winter range. There are also 14,000 acres of working ranchland already under conservation easement in the area.
“We know that fragmentation is the largest threat to sage grouse and their habitat,” says Erickson Quiroz. “The more we can remove the threat of fragmentation from new roads, subdivisions and infrastructure development, the better chance the sage grouse have of not becoming endangered. We have been given a lifeline, so to speak, to help remove the threat of fragmentation from private lands.
“Will $73 million be enough? Will all the conservation efforts be enough? I think it might be too early to tell. But if we fail to use the funding available to protect critical habitat for the sage grouse, then it is pretty clear that we will end up with a listing. We’re excited to help through purchasing the Double A and 3 Bar X ranches, which are a part of this larger story. We hope it will be a part of the success story that says Wyoming did it: we got together and actually pushed back a listing.”