Almost FinishedWritten by Christy Hemken
Weston County — Although Bob Harshbarger didn’t join his wife Jean on her family’s outfit until 1987, where she’s lived for 70 years, he’s wasted no time joining in on new projects since his arrival.
Some of the couple’s biggest projects in the last two decades have been a variety of water developments throughout their ranch and a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA), which has been ongoing for 10 years and is reaching completion, pending a take permit from the Denver, Colo. office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
Jean’s grandfather bought their ranch in 1924, but never lived there himself. He also owned two ranches in Colorado, and Jean’s parents moved to Wyoming in the 1930s when she was a toddler. “I think this place is one of the nicer ranches in this part of the country, because it’s on the Cheyenne River,” says Jean of their location. “There are big ravines for the cattle in bad weather, so it’s a good winter ranch, and it’s just a really neat place.”
“Bob came from Illinois, and how we met is one of those funny things,” says Jean of Bob’s hunting trips to Wyoming. “We met in 1968 and one year when he came out we decided he should stay.”
“He’s a real quick study,” says Jean of Bob’s adjustment to life in the West. “He says he didn’t know the front end of the cow when he came out. I always say he didn’t yet know the rules of the West.”
“Ever since Bob’s been here we’ve been doing a lot of water development because it’s such an important thing is this country,” says Jean. “We’ve put in a lot of wells, and many of them have been solar units and we really like them. They’re cost-effective now, and they’re no more expensive than a propane generator pump or a windmill.”
“We have a lot of wells, and it takes a lot of hard work to keep them going,” she says of the ranch’s main water supply. Although the Cheyenne River runs through their ranch, it’s ephemeral and for the last several years has only run a few days out of the year.
One of Jean’s daughters now lives down the road from the home ranch, while the other works as a lawyer in Arizona. Jean says the one nearby used to help out on the ranch, but hasn’t had to as much since the return of a grandson and his family to the ranching operation.
“When he was a kid he’d come out for the summers, and he and his wife came back to the ranch after he served nine years in the Service,” says Jean, joking, “He does the heavy work now and we sit here and watch him.”
The Harshbarger family runs a Red Angus cow-calf operation and half their cowherd is bred to Charolais bulls. “We just returned from Illinois, and I jumped up and down when we came back because I was so sick of seeing black cows,” jests Jeans. “We like Red Angus. Cows at 1,100 pounds are big enough for us, and the smaller cattle are more thrifty and we can run more of them.”
The ranch supports hay ground and millet for hay on good water years. “With all the years of drought our crops have been very poor, and most of the alfalfa, which used to be really good, has pretty well died out,” says Jean. “We’re hoping for a few good years to get another stand established.”
She says one of the hard things about their country is the Forest Service grasslands they use to run their cows. “They can do a little dictating if the drought starts to look bad. Sometimes they have regulations that don’t make a lot of common sense and when I’ve been on this ranch for over 70 years I know there are a lot of things that aren’t perfect, but we have to work around them and they don’t understand that.”
Jean was the first woman to graduate from the University of Wyoming with a range management degree. “The first thing I learned after graduation is that practical sense has a lot more to do with things than book learning,” she says.
“The CCAA is 99 percent complete,” says Jean of their efforts to protect their ranch’s way of operating should the prairie dog become listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. “It’s been published in the Federal Register, and we were pleasantly surprised that it didn’t receive a whole lot of comments like we were expecting.”
Bob says they continue to wait for the take permit to be issued from the Denver FWS office. “If the species is ever listed as threatened or endangered we’ll need the take permit to continue our population control on the species listed in our CCAA to maintain the population level we agreed upon,” he says.
The Harshbargers have made an agreement with the FWS to maintain 3,000 acres of prairie dog habitat on their lands and to allow the prairie dog at certain populations. The Harshbargers’ biologist will monitor the 19 management areas on the ranch. “When the prairie dogs reach about three per acre we’ll start population control,” says Bob, adding they hope to maintain the population between three and five prairie dogs per acre. “When that population is met we’ll attempt to keep them in check.”
The CCAA, in addition to prairie dogs, will cover mountain plover, burrowing owls and ferruginous hawks. “Sage grouse require a completely different habitat than prairie dogs, so they couldn’t be in the same CCAA, but we hope we can add them on later if they are going to be listed,” says Jean.
“I’ve been ready to throw up my hands on the whole thing many times,” says Jean of the CCAA’s decade-long duration. “I have great hopes that when we finally get this one through other people will be able to start something similar, and not have it take 10 years.”
She says staff with the Wyoming Department of Agriculture and the Cheyenne FWS office have been good to work with and have done a lot of work on the project.
“This is the last hoop we’ve got to jump through, and then it’s ready for signing,” says Bob of the take permit. “We’re just hanging in there right now. Everybody’s asking us about the CCAA’s progress, but Denver is dragging their feet over the take permit.”