Conservation on the Ladder Ranch, O’Tooles continue conservation traditions
Savery – In 1881, AW and Anna Louise Salisbury established the original Ladder Ranch near the confluence of the Little Snake River and Battle Creek.
“Ladder Ranch has been raising cattle since the 1920s,” says Sharon O’Toole. “We also raise commercial sheep, horses and working dogs.”
Sharon O’Toole grew up on the ranch and now runs the operation with her husband Pat, son Eamon and daughter Meghan and their spouses. Daughter Bridget helps with promotion and communications.
This year, Ladder Ranch was selected as the 2014 Environmental Stewardship Award and Leopold Conservation Award winner.
“It is an honor to even be considered for the award,” says Pat. “We are very honored to receive the award.”
“The Ladder Ranch was chosen as the 2014 Leopold Conservation Award winner for many reasons, including the family’s ownership since 1881, their public service to ranching and Wyoming, proper grazing techniques and for the conservation easements that support long-term ranching and protect an extremely important big game wildlife corridors and significant water resources at the junction of Battle Creek and the Little Snake River,” says Randy Teeuwen, a representative of Sand County Foundation.
Sand County Foundation sponsors the Leopold Conservation Award. Peabody Energy is also a major sponsor of the award.
“Ranching is fortunate to have a creative and powerful voice in the O’Toole and Salisbury family that promotes the conservation values and benefits of ranching and private land ownership in Wyoming and the American West,” adds Teeuwen.
Jim Magagna, executive director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, adds, “It is a real pleasure to have an Environmental Stewardship Award winner that is a family ranch that continues to bring the next generation into ranching.”
“I believe that there isn’t a contradiction between conservation and production,” Pat says. “As we look into the big picture of what we are trying to do on the land, it fits right in to what we are trying to do raising food.”
Pat adds that in looking to achieve balance on the ranch, rather than work for an extreme, they are able to accomplish more and balance conservation and production.
“My father always used to say, ‘Natural resources are too important to manage generically. They must be managed specifically,’” says Sharon. “It has always been the ethic in our family to manage our resources.”
Managing natural resources also makes financial sense, she adds.
“Growing up, I always took the landscape for granted, but if we take care of the land, it takes care of us,” Sharon continues. “Some years it is harder than others, but we try to keep things as healthy as possible while still making a living.”
Ladder Ranch is involved in a wide variety of conservation activities, and their efforts extend to every aspect of the ranch.
Battle Creek was recently named an Important Bird Area by Audubon Wyoming, and the ranch is enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship Program with the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS).
“George Salisbury helped establish a rotational grazing system utilizing private and Forest Service lands in the 1950s,” explains Sharon. “We have continued this tradition, implementing rotational grazing on all parts of the cattle and sheep pasturage.”
Cattle and sheep are trailed from pasture to pasture, requiring extensive coordination and innovative thinking to keep the tradition alive.
The O’Tooles have also worked with Partners for Fish and Wildlife, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Little Snake River Conservation District and others to improve their fisheries and irrigation practices.
“I am particularly impressed with the work Sharon and Pat have undertaken to address riparian issues on their ranch,” comments Magagna.
Their efforts have included the instillation of rock and wood structures on Battle Creek and the Little Snake River, as well as installation of structures to divert water.
“Ours was the first major creek project in our community, assisted by the Conservation District and other public and private partners,” she mentions. “We wanted to demonstrate that conservation and production can go hand-in-hand and educate those from outside agriculture on the role that ranchers and farmers play in protecting natural resources.”
“There is no inherent contradiction between production and conservation” says Pat.
In their conservation efforts, Pat notes that they partner with public lands agencies to make the largest impact.
“We’ve had so many great partners,” he comments. “We’re lucky to be in the right place at the right time to accomplish these goals.”
“We are utterly dependent on our public lands leases, so we work closely with the Forest Service and BLM,” Sharon adds. “They work with us and recognize that we are trying to do a good job on the landscape.”
One of the most important things the O’Tooles try to do is show up when issues are being discussed.
“If there is an issue, we show up so we can try to figure out how we can fix it,” Sharon says. “We never know what is going to come up.”
With a long history of conservation, Sharon notes that they will continue to manage the landscape and implement conservation measures.
“One of the things we are working on right now is a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) on sage grouse,” she explains. “We are part of the Sage Grouse Initiative, and our private lands are enrolled in the program.”
Because sage grouse are such a large part of managing their widespread ranch, Sharon adds that they have begun a mitigation project on their lands.
“Our largest contiguous piece of land is the best habitat that we have for sage grouse,” she continues. “We are working on the mitigation process because companies want to drill on our split estate lands.”
“The sage grouse has the potential to be the spotted owl of the Rocky Mountain West, so we continue to work on that issue,” Sharon adds.
Pat and Sharon’s work on the ranch is something they both remark couldn’t be done without the other.
“Our family prides ourselves on being a good team,” Sharon says. “We are really fortunate that two of our children are back on the ranch working with us, and their spouses are here, too.”
Each person working on the ranch is responsible for a different segment of the operation, but everyone works together to accomplish necessary tasks.
“Generally, Eamon has more of his responsibility focused on the cattle, Meghan and I work with the sheep and bookkeeping, and Pat works with every aspect, plus he is a good farmer,” she explains.
Sharon adds that every morning, the family has breakfast together to discuss ranch operations and keep in touch.
“It’s really key that everyone tells each other what is going on,” she mentions.
The agriculture industry is facing challenges, says Sharon.
“Where we live is very rural, even compared to much of the state,” she explains, “and we are under tremendous pressure. The home ranch is very scenic, and we have lots of wildlife. We have a resort ranch up the road, and a nearby forest inholding has been subdivided.”
Ladder Ranch focuses on keeping lands as intact as possible while making a living and working with the different partners involved.
“It’s often said, ‘You shouldn’t love something that can’t love you back,’ but this place has taken good care of our family,” Sharon says. “It is our goal and responsibility to take care of it, as well.”
Involved family members
“Community and political involvement is something that was certainly modeled by my parents,” says Sharon O’Toole of Ladder Ranch. “Mom was a 4-H leader for 32 years, and she was a community leader. My father was a county commissioner, president of the Wyoming Board of Agriculture and a Carbon County Representative.”
The O’Tooles continue the family tradition and remain active in their community and within the state.
“Pat served in the Wyoming Legislature and is presently the president of the Family Farm Alliance, which represents western irrigators,” explains Sharon. “He is also an advisory board member for AGree, a national think-tank that grapples with food and ag policy issues in an international arena.”
Pat is also active in western water issues, and the family works with the Partners for Conservation and the U.S. Forest Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife—groups which advocate for private and public partnerships which enhance habitat.
At the same time, Sharon actively advocates for agriculture and natural resources through her blog at ladderranch.com, and has been published in regional and national publications, including the Washington Post.
Pat and Sharon’s daughter Meghan Lally was the youngest member to serve on the Wyoming Board of Agriculture, has served on the local Conservation District Board and was recently appointed to serve on the Wyoming Environmental Quality Council.
Meghan’s husband Brian is a Carbon County Sheriff’s Deputy.
Son Eamon O’Toole returned to the ranch after graduating from the University of Wyoming. His goals include improving the genetics and production of the cowherd, and he serves on the Carbon County Planning Commission. Eamon’s wife Megan is a registered nurse.
Bridget O’Toole, Pat and Sharon’s youngest daughter, works to help the family promote the recreation part of the business. Bridget’s husband Chris Abel works out of Denver, Colo. for Shamrock Foods in their meat department.
“Participation is an important part of keeping the community functioning,” Sharon explains. “There is a lot to living in a rural community. Everyone has to play a role and be involved.”
Ladder Ranch is a balanced sheep and cattle operation.
“We believe rotational grazing of both species is the best way to manage our resources,” says Sharon O’Toole. “We pride ourselves on the quality of our cattle and sheep.”
The operation runs primarily Angus cows and heifers that are artificially inseminated by Angus and Hereford bulls. They also raise replacement heifers.
Their sheep are Rambouillet ewes, and the O’Tooles raise their own Rambouillet and Hampshire rams, as well as the replacement ewes.
“Our lambs and calves are marketed to a natural market,” Sharon says. “We also raise hay and alfalfa to feed our livestock in the winter.”
Additionally, Ladder Ranch raises Quarter horses and Border collie and livestock guardian dogs.
“We like to say that we raise cattle, sheep, horses, dogs and children,” says Sharon.