Stitching habitat together across public and private lands

  • Pronghorn have thin stilt-like legs built for running rather than jumping. "This fence has five strands, but the bottom one is buried in snow, so this doe had to jump, and she got her wrist caught in the wire," says photographer Joe Riis. "I pulled the wire apart, but most pronghorn that get caught like this don't make it."

    Joe Riis
  • This old woven-wire sheep fence is an impenetrable obstacle to migrating pronghorn, who could freeze or starve if they get stuck behind it when a storm comes through.

    Joe Riis

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When the Beans bought the land, they commissioned biological assessments to better understand its condition and inhabitants, using what they learned to develop a grazing protocol. They've since implemented a monitoring program to track the impact of grazing, and they've been leaders among livestock producers in developing non-lethal methods to reduce wolf predation on livestock. But over the years, their vision for the landscape -- which has faced relatively little development pressure -- outgrew even their 900,000 acres. "We're really proud of the restoration work," says Tess O'Sullivan, who heads the ranch's scientific research arm. "But those things will never be enough."

The Beans, O'Sullivan and Mike Stevens, another member of the ranch's leadership team, wanted to find a way to get more local landowners involved in conservation. "We knew that our neighbors loved this place, and so do we. But we didn't have an iconic way to identify it," says Brian Bean. They zeroed in on the groups of pronghorn that pass through the ranch every spring and fall. "Here are these pronghorn, and nobody knows where they go," says Bean, who helped fund a migration study in 2008 with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the National Park Service, a local landowners group called the Pioneers Alliance and Idaho Fish and Game. "I just kept my fingers crossed that something interesting would come of it."

It did: The researchers discovered an unusual west-to-northeast migration route, stretching from summer range in the southern Pioneer Mountains to winter range near the Idaho National Laboratory, that those few hundred pronghorn appear to follow as religiously as their cousins in Wyoming do. The route skirts the Lava Lake Ranch and covers an average 85 miles one-way. A few thousand pronghorn winter near the lab, and researchers are now studying how they disperse come springtime.

"It gave us something special," says Brian Bean. "I was really excited about it. If I'm excited, other folks may be excited, too." The effect it's had is a little hard to pinpoint. But both Bean and O'Sullivan say the Pioneers Alliance -- which aims to protect working land in the area -- gained momentum in the wake of the corridor discovery. "(It) helps people understand the connection to their neighbors," O'Sullivan says. Though the corridor isn't solely to thank, she says, "more interested landowners are participating (in the alliance) and seeing the benefit of conservation easements and other collaborative programs." Some easements have been put in place west of the Lava Lake Ranch to protect both sage grouse and pronghorn habitat.

The growing alliance is cast in the mold of a couple of longstanding landowner-led cooperative conservation groups: the Malpai Borderlands Group on the Arizona-New Mexico border and western Montana's Blackfoot Challenge. When the latter formally incorporated in 1993, some local rangeland was riddled with invasive species, which wasn't good for cattle businesses, and residential development threatened to tranform the valley's agricultural character. Blackfoot Challenge landowners were the first to participate in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program that allows the purchase of conservation easements on private land with federal Land and Water Conservation Fund money -- a vital tool for many similar groups today. The Challenge has completed extensive riparian and rangeland restoration in collaboration with public-land managers, and has shielded about 50 percent of the private land in the Blackfoot Valley from development, bringing total protected public and private acreage there to 1.2 million acres.

Giving wildlife a boost was never the group's primary goal. But, says Seth Wilson, a biologist who coordinates the Challenge's wildlife committee, "If you protect it, wildlife will thrive." Riparian restoration improves habitat, and keeping road densities low allows animals to move. And the Challenge's big-picture goal -- keeping 1.5 million working and wild acres as intact as possible -- represents the type of landscape-scale effort conservationists say is increasingly necessary to buffer wildlife against habitat loss and the uncertainties of a warming world. It's helped inspire similar efforts in valleys near and far, making grand visions such as the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor -- a loosely organized effort to protect habitat connectivity throughout the Rocky Mountains -- seem a little bit more possible.

Yet these success stories present new challenges. In the Blackfoot Valley, for example, recolonizing grizzly bears found easy meals in ranch boneyards, and helped themselves to feed, garbage and calves, too. The Challenge used public and private grants to implement a livestock carcass-removal program and installed electric fencing around calving areas and beehives to discourage bears. Not all the landowners are participating, but enough have bought in so that between 2003 and 2010 grizzly conflicts dropped by 96 percent. More recently, when wolves reappeared, the Challenge hired range riders to reduce predation and has worked with ranchers to remove weak cattle, discouraging easy kills. But wolves still prey on cows, and Wilson says many landowners remain angry about wolf reintroduction.

"Can you co-exist with large carnivores at a socially acceptable level?" asks Wilson. "That's what we're trying to achieve. (But) we have a lot more to learn about how to fit people and wolves into these agricultural landscapes." And if grizzly populations continue to rise, he says, carcass collection and fences may not be enough to stave off conflict.

It's easier to learn to cohabitate with species like pronghorn. And few landowners have proven as hostile to the quick-footed ungulates as Taylor Lawrence. Though pronghorn still have trouble navigating the congested ranchettes near Pinedale, says Berger, "for the Path of the Pronghorn, we've gotten pretty far." The Conservation Fund recently secured a suite of easements on a ranch that one of the migration route's three natural bottlenecks passes through. And at no cost to landowners, the Wyoming Land Trust installed 82 miles of wildlife-friendly fencing on private land. Getting there wasn't easy, though; many locals feared that a corridor designation on public land "would morph into something that would constrain property rights," says Berger. Some worried that wolves or brucellosis-infected elk and bison would use the corridor, heightening human-wildlife conflict. "We kept asking ourselves, 'What if we can't get buy-in from Sublette County or landowners?' " Berger says. "We just hit a point and said, 'Let's get 92 percent of it protected and hopefully the other 8 percent will come along." Those pieces are slowly falling into place, he says: "We got lucky."

Cally Carswell is High Country News' assistant editor.