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Meet Grand County’s environmentalists: Ranchers

TONYA BINA/SKY-HI DAILY NEWS

The Whitmer Ranch in Kremmling is welcoming to nature. Ducks and geese are making homes out of four new irrigation ponds constructed last year.

They purposefully have shallow ends where water fowl can easily forage.

Eventually, riparian habitats around the ponds will create more wildlife benefits.

Temporary fencing that can be removed in the spring when sage grouse are present on nearby breeding grounds keeps grazing cattle from disturbing the new habitat.

The fencing, which takes a half day to take down, also is designed to have limited places for eagles and hawks to perch ” predators of sage grouse.

These new improvements on the ranch “really makes irrigating a pleasure,” said ranch owner Kent Whitmer. To divert water out of the draw before, Whitmer said he had to dig a trench. Having the water in ponds makes irrigation easier.

“And we wanted to provide habitat for water fowl because that’s something that is important to me personally. And if we can get some fish in there, that’s good, too.”

It would have cost the ranching family $40,000 to create these improvements, were it not for the involvement of the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Kremmling, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program through the National Wildlife Refuge in Jackson County, and the Colorado Division of Wildlife in Hot Sulphur Springs.

These agencies covered about 85 percent of the cost of the ranch ponds and temporary fencing, according to Kent.

Not only did they provide financial help to the project, but they brought expertise ” balancing the needs of rancher and natural habitat.

“There really is just tons available that is a real win-win for the land owner and the environment,” Kent said. “People just have to take the initiative.”

Private Lands Coordinator of the Colorado Division of Wildlife wants all large-tract land owners to know what ranchers seem to have known for generations: there’s value in preserving and creating wildlife habitat when making land improvements.

Morgan and his team host workshops all over the state to inform land owners the opportunities available to them through a “myriad of programs.”

For example, “Most of them are aware of the Farm Bill, but don’t know all the finer nuances of the bill, which is what we bring to them,” Morgan said.

Agencies usually piggy-back on the financial help of another to “increase the number of projects we can do and the size of projects we can do,” he said.

Matt Barnes, rangeland management specialist with the Natural Resource Conservation Office, said the Kremmling branch has about 25 active contracts in Grand County and one in Summit County.

The two-person office, a subsidiary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, works with ag and timber producers’ conservation plans on 40-plus acres, free of charge.

The office also provides cost-sharing with willing landowners on projects such as implementing livestock ponds to improve grazing distribution, providing wildlife-friendly fences and provide vegetation treatments for sage grouse.

Such financial help reduces the burden on ranchers already struggling with increasing production costs and decreasing cattle prices.

“It’s a way for the public to invest in ag and keep ranchers in ranching and not in subdivisions,” Barnes said.

Another option for landowners are conservation easements through the Colorado Division of Wildlife, which purchases development rights.

This year, up to $15 million is being made available for land easements that provide winter range for big game, preserve migration corridors, have wetlands or habitat for threatened species or border other public lands. Since 2007, the DOW has preserved 7,761 acres in Grand County with four different easements.

“Our approach is non-confrontational and it’s totally voluntary,” Morgan said. “They’re not for everybody, and we don’t force anybody. But we’ve been very successful developing management plans that parallel with what the landowner is doing and what the landowner wants to continue to do.”

Reasons vary for why landowner choose to put their property in perpetual easements ” many times for financial and tax reasons.

And, “A good number of landowners don’t want to see their land developed. It’s that simple,” Morgan said.

– Tonya Bina can be reached at 887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail tbina@skyhidailynews.com.