Conservation Integral At O’Tooles’ Ladder Ranch in Wyoming

April 19, 2016

Habitat on O’Toole ranch is as good as it gets for antelope, deer, elk and grouse

Pat and Sharon O’Toole make their living by ranching on the sagebrush sea along the Wyoming-Colorado border. They raise sheep and cattle, sage grouse and trout, as well as children and grandchildren on their Ladder Ranch.

The O'Tooles, granddaughter included, join conservation talks in D.C.

The O’Tooles, granddaughter included, join conservation talks in D.C.

Not only are they leaders in on-the-ground conservation practices on their property, Pat donates time to serve on the board of the Intermountain West Joint Venture, a bird habitat conservation organization. On a recent trip to Washington, D.C. on behalf of IWJV, Pat and Sharon brought along their granddaughter to participate in conservation discussions at the Capitol, engaging the next generation in taking care of the land that sustains them

The O’Toole’s ranch has been enrolled in Sage Grouse Initiative conservation programs since 2010.Each year, hundreds of sage grouse frequentthe leks on their land, drawn by the healthy habitat and productive range that this family works hard to conserve.

The following excerpt about the O’Tooles, written by E&E reporter Phil Taylor, is reprinted from Greenwire with permission by E&E Publishing, www.eenews.net. Copyright 2016.


‘A really nice balance’

Pat and Sharon pose with their Partners for Conservation plaque.

Pat and Sharon pose with their Partners for Conservation plaque.

Conservation is integral to the ranch’s operation, Pat O’Toole said.

Much of that work has focused on Battle Creek, whose water irrigates hay fields that feed the family’s livestock in winter months.

Over the past dozen years, the O’Tooles, with support from FWS’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program and NRCS, have installed a handful of rock structures that help channel water to the center of the creek. That reduces stream bank erosion and keeps the water deep and oxygenated — a plus for fish.

At the confluence, the O’Tooles plan to restore willows and cottonwoods by fencing off grazers — both livestock and elk — to help stabilize the banks, cool the water and provide habitat for birds.

The family is also leveraging support from Trout Unlimited and NRCS to switch one of its fields from flood irrigation to a sprinkler system, which will leave more water in the Little Snake. The project is set to begin this summer, said Brian Hodge, a fisheries biologist and restoration coordinator for Trout Unlimited in Steamboat Springs who works in the watershed.

“The O’Toole family has struck a really nice balance,” Hodge said. “They’ve found a way to have a sustainable ranching operation while also being mindful in conserving wildlife and fisheries resources.”

Photo by Sharon O'Toole

McCoy and Eamon work the chute. Photo by Sharon O’Toole

Some conservationists aren’t so complimentary. Andy Kerr, an environmental lobbyist who has worked for decades to secure third-party buyouts of ranching permits from willing sellers, called the O’Tooles’ fisheries work laudable. But he added that “the only reason Battle Creek needed the help was because it was being cow-bombed.”

The family has also worked closely with the Nature Conservancy and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust to put about 2,600 acres of its private property into conservation easements, which ensures they won’t be developed for oil and gas drilling or trophy homes.

Last year, the family took the unusual step of lobbying to have its private lands included in Wyoming’s “core” areas for sage grouse, a designation that sets strict caps on disturbance like drilling, mining and road building. The move helped secure added protections for grouse breeding grounds near Muddy Mountain and could burnish the ranch’s recreation value.

“My land values are based on that area being pristine, great hunting country,” Pat O’Toole said.

Just last month, the O’Tooles ponied up $2,500 for a pair of state oil and gas leases under Sheep Mountain, about a mile west of the ranch home, to ensure they won’t be drilled for at least the next five years. Habitat on the mountain — an extinct volcano with a lopped-off top — is “as good as it gets” for antelope, deer, elk and sharp-tailed grouse, O’Toole said.

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The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.