Dawn Nottingham: Colorado rancher improves sage grouse habitat with juniper control, wildlife-friendly fencing near Dinosaur National Monument
September 19, 2014
(Photo: Dawn Nottingham inspects her ranch with Justin Shirley, NRCS district conservationist, Craig, Colorado, NRCS photo)
This is the sixth in our rancher success story series. (See list at bottom of page).
PRESS CONTACT: Deborah Richie, SGI Communications Director, 406-370-7556,
By Steve Stuebner
Rancher Dawn Nottingham raises 300 cow-calf pairs on Douglas Mountain in the cool, high desert of northwest Colorado — close to where the Gates of Ledore on the Green River merges with the blond canyons of the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument.
She did so under the Sage Grouse Initiative, a national partnership that aims to proactively conserve sage grouse habitat on private ranchlands in 11 western states. The sage grouse is a candidate species for listing and protection under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in 2015.
“We’ve had a good little crop of sage chickens (grouse) for years and years,” says Nottingham, a third-generation rancher. “No one realized we had them. I figured it might not be a bad idea to hang onto them and take care of them.”
Nottingham’s primitive cabin with a tin roof on Douglas Mountain has been the subject of several feature stories in the Colorado media, including the Denver Post and the Craig Daily Press. Dawn is an only child, and after her father died 1993, she and her mother, the late Wanda Walker, ran the ranch by themselves without any electric power or running water.
Since that time, big game hunters who are friends of the family have installed a water system and a generator-driven electrical system. Nottingham says her son and his friends often help her take care of the livestock. She takes care of the Black Angus and Red Angus cattle for two different owners; she doesn’t have any of her own cattle anymore. “That works out a lot better for me,” she says. “Work-wise in the winter, the overhead was just too hard on us.”
Nottingham was jawing with a logging contractor about two years ago, Davy Cox, of DC Pro Limb’n, and Cox told her that the NRCS had cost-share funds available for ranchers to reduce the density of juniper trees encroaching on sage-steppe habitat, a measure that benefits sage grouse by reducing perches for predators such as ravens. Cox is a Craig, Colorado-based contractor who performs juniper control work for a number of ranchers in the area. She was intrigued.
Nottingham met with Brandon Miller, a private lands wildlife biologist with NRCS, and learned that there were several measures that she could consider to improve the plight of sage grouse on her roughly 8,000 acres of deeded land. Miller’s position is in partnership with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory.
In a field visit to Douglas Mountain, “We looked around and looked at what could benefit sage grouse,” Miller said. “It’s an area of interest to us because it’s good habitat and there’s an active lek on her property. The challenge is, it’s a tough area to access and extremely remote.”
Nevertheless, Nottingham worked with Miller to craft a plan to benefit sage grouse and her ranch. The plan includes treating approximately 1,880 acres of private land to remove encroaching juniper trees, fencing improvements, and improving a spring development for wildlife and cattle.
The NRCS and Nottingham contracted with Cox to grind up
the juniper trees with a process called “juniper mastication.” The results of that work look favorable, says Chris Yarbrough, a Sage Grouse Initiative range and wildlife conservationist in a partnership position based out of the NRCS office in Craig.
(The partners supporting his position are the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, along with the Intermountain West Joint Venture, Conoco Phillips, and NRCS).
“We went out there to check on the results, it was looking good, real good,” Yarbrough said. “There’s lots of grass and forbs coming in where the junipers used to be. We’re real happy with it.”
Juniper-removal projects have been going on for several decades in the West, largely to stem the march of juniper into sage-steppe habitat. Junipers have expanded their range some 600 percent since the 1800s. When junipers converge on sagebrush rangelands, they crowd out other native plant and animal species, consume untold amounts of water and
convert wet meadows to dry landscapes devoid of diversity.
SGI experts categorize juniper density by the different phases of woodland succession:
- Phase I – Early juniper encroachment; low density.
- Phase II – Mid-succession; medium density.
- Phase III – Late succession; high density.
Yarbrough said the juniper encroachment on Nottingham’s property was in the Phase I and Phase II level. Targeting those trees fits with the SGI’s national strategy of preventing juniper invasions in the early stages, while also focusing conservation dollars on areas where sage grouse populations exist nearby. Because Nottingham has a local population of birds and a documented lek, it made sense to move forward with juniper control.
The remote location on Douglas Mountain is 18 miles from the nearest plowed road. Cox started the project in late February and continued for 3.5 months. “It’s been the most challenging project I’ve ever done,” he said.
The travel logistics were difficult. Cox would commute to the site from Craig on a daily basis, either using a snowmobile or a four-wheeler to access the juniper-control project area. He’d work all day chewing up juniper trees with a piece of heavy equipment that has a large blade attachment that grinds up the trees from top to bottom, leaving wood chips in its wake. The NRCS is
using juniper mastication methods to control juniper in several western states. It works well at a large-scale.
Removing invasive junipers has multiple benefits for the sage-steppe ecosystem beyond the predation issue, officials say. It increases forage for livestock and wildlife, conserves water for other plants, and increases plant diversity.
Near Nottingham’s remote cabin on Douglas Mountain, she took out over four miles of old fence and installed 5.5 miles of wildlife friendly fence, creating a new rest-rotation pasture system for the 300 cow-calf pairs that she tends to during the summer months. “From our cabin, we have a big pasture where the cattle like to graze,” she says. “With the new fence, we’re able to keep them in the other pastures. We herd the cattle on horseback and keep them scattered all the time. And then in the fall, we have more feed for them close to the cabin. That’s a big improvement.”
The wildlife-friendly fence is 42 inches high. There is a 12-inch gap between the top wire and second wire, to prevent deer or elk from getting their legs caught in it as they jump over, and the bottom wire is smooth, 16 inches
above the ground surface, to allow antelope and other wildlife to crawl underneath it without getting caught by the sharp barbs.
The spring development project on her property involved removing juniper around the spring and piping water to a rubber-tire tank and pond for cattle and wildlife. The water source of the spring will be fenced to improve water quality.
Nottingham likes seeing the results of the SGI projects on her property. “The grass is growing really well in those areas where the junipers were before,” she says. “We have a lot of elk, and they really love those spots. It’s making a big difference, and the sage grouse like those open areas, too.”
Her flock of sage grouse is doing well, she says. “This year, we have a
really good flock. I saw 10 young ones in one group. That’s quite a batch of chickens! We’ve been seeing them quite a bit this year. We’ve had quite a few wild turkeys, too. Every day you ride, you see the wildlife around the water hole.”
The big spring is aptly named “Chicken Springs.”
The improvements on Nottingham’s place would be worthy of a tour to show other ranchers the potential for improving sage grouse habitat, Yarbrough says. But unfortunately, the site is way too remote. Even so, all of the locals are fond of Nottingham.
“Dawn is really a great person to work with. She really likes the SGI program,” Yarbrough says, adding. “I suspect she’s tougher than most of the guys around here.”
(Steve Stuebner is a longtime journalist based in Boise, Idaho. He is also the author/producer of stories for Life on the Range.)
MORE PHOTOS OF THE DAWN NOTTINGHAM RANCH & WILDLIFE-FRIENDLY PROJECTS FOR SAGE GROUSE & OTHER WILDLIFE:
Rancher Success Stories Across 11 Western States (In Progress, 2014 Project)
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.