Helmick Family Conserves Vital Habitat For Sage Grouse In Idaho

To the Helmicks, conservation and ranching are one in the same.

July 28, 2016

To this multi-generational family, conservation and ranching are one and the same

“We’ve increased the carrying capacity and grass production, which lets us leave more for the wildlife. Plus, we can run more cows.” -Neil Helmick

Story and photos by Jesse Bussard

Driving across Neil and Sandy Helmick’s 4,000-acre property near Hill City, Idaho, you might think you were visiting a nature preserve instead of a working ranch. Their property is located near the heart of the state’s Camas Prairie, an area named for the native Indian Camas lily which emerges each spring. Along with the abundance of wildlife and diverse plants which call the ranch home, the area is also prime habitat for the greater sage-grouse.

The Helmicks, along with their son, Chad, daughter-in-law, Sarah, and daughter, Darcy, are strong advocates for conservation and the ranching way of life. To this multigenerational ranching family, the duo is one in the same.

ranching sage grouse family

The Helmicks are all strong advocates for conservation and the ranching way of life. (Front: Chad, Sarah, Sandy, Darcy. Back: Neil.)

“It just makes everything better,” says Chad. “I’m extremely into hunting, and it seems like the animals that are here–the birds, elk, deer, and such–stay here longer and are getting progressively greater in numbers.”

Neil estimates the family operation, which is spread out across three Idaho counties, spans a sum of nearly 40,000-acres consisting of private, leased, state, and federal lands. In addition to a herd of approximately 600 mother cows and 170 replacement heifers, the family also produces potatoes, corn, and beans on their properties to the south near Bliss.

The family’s Hill City property, which is comprised of largely sagebrush steppe and some irrigated pastures, lies within a few miles of a well-known lek where sage grouse mate each spring. In addition, meadows across the ranch serve as essential habitat to sage grouse during their nesting and brooding periods.

In 2013, when there was high potential that the bird might be listed under the Endangered Species Act, the Helmicks chose to take proactive measures to ensure their lands and livelihood were protected.

With the help of SGI range and wildlife conservationist Ed Contreras, the Helmicks have put in place numerous conservation projects on their Idaho ranch.

With the help of SGI range and wildlife conservationist Ed Contreras, the Helmicks have put in place numerous conservation projects on their Idaho ranch.

The family implemented voluntary conservation projects in partnership with the Natural Resource Conservation Service-led Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) to ensure sensitive riparian areas and habitat remained undisturbed by livestock for wildlife and sage grouse during critical brood rearing periods in June and July.

Among the first steps the Helmicks took was to adopt a prescribed grazing plan. Now, the family waits until June 15th to bring cattle to the Hill City ranch to graze, keeping the herd on irrigated meadows in the lowlands before then. Come early August, they move the cattle to graze in upland pastures.

Deferring grazing in upland areas of the ranch allows sage grouse to use prime nesting and brood rearing habitat in June and July. In addition, keeping cattle out of the uplands until late summer also ensures plenty of residual cover is left to provide nesting areas for the birds, and that native grasses have time to fully mature and set seed.

Thanks to this new grazing system, says Neil, “We’ve increased the carrying capacity and grass production, which lets us leave more for the wildlife. Plus, we can run more cows.”

A water tank stores water for transport, ensuring cattle always have access to fresh water while leaving riparian and wet areas open to wildlife and undisturbed by livestock.

A water tank stores water for transport, ensuring cattle always have access to fresh water while leaving riparian and wet areas open to wildlife and undisturbed by livestock.

Along with prescribed grazing, the Helmicks have partnered with SGI on several more improvements across their Hill City property. The NRCS helped fund off-site water tanks, a spring development, a solar pump, pipeline, and water storage tank which now supply water to upland pastures for both livestock and resident wildlife. These improvements enhanced livestock grazing distribution and pasture utilization. In addition, the Helmicks put up post and rail fences around the springs to protect these sensitive riparian areas, which are important habitat for a host of wildlife species.

“The pipeline project really helped us disperse the cows,” says Neil. “It’s later in the year when we use that pasture, so it’s hot, dry, and dusty. With water tanks on top of the mountain instead of on the bottom, the cows stay there and go through the pasture a whole lot better.”

Most recently, the Helmicks finished a project with U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program to develop an overflow system that increases the productivity of a wet meadow on their ranch. During late summer, these wet areas become vital foraging ground for growing sage grouse broods.

Wet areas like this spring is important for sage grouse and wildlife, as well as ranching operations.

Wet areas like this spring are important habitat for sage grouse and wildlife, and vital to ranching operations.

“These improvements should last our kid’s lifetime,” says Neil.

To measure the progress of their conservation efforts and stay on track, the Helmicks voluntarily monitor their land with photo points to gauge how their management is affecting the landscape.

Beyond their work with SGI, the Helmicks also strive to protect the broader landscape of their community. Neil is also a member of the the region’s Mountain Home Sage Grouse Local Working Group, which is made up of a variety of community stakeholders concerned with sage grouse.

“Everyone has their own needs, but it’s important to have good working relationships with all stakeholders and always try to improve them,” says Neil.

Neil’s daughter, Darcy, is a public lands advocate on the state and national level for ranchers, and has been instrumental in starting a local Rangeland Fire Protection Association (RFPA) for the area. In 2014, the RFPA and Bureau of Land Management received the prestigious Pulaski Award, an honor given annually by the National Interagency Fire Center for outstanding contributions to wildfire-fighting efforts. Along with Darcy, Neil and Chad are also certified rangeland firefighters who do their part to protect their community and landscape from wildfires, one of the top threats to sage-grouse populations in the Great Basin region.

The Helmick's Hill City property is home to an abundance of wildlife.

The Helmick’s Hill City property is home to an abundance of wildlife.

The Helmicks are a shining example of dedicated land stewards in the Idaho ranching community. Their proactive conservation efforts are making a difference for sage grouse and other wildlife, and benefiting their livestock, too.

“Without willing ranchers like Neil and Sandy, the Sage Grouse Initiative program would not be able to improve sage grouse habitat to this quality and extent on private lands,” says Ed Contreras, SGI’s range and wildlife conservationist who works with the family.

Neil agrees, noting the success shows, “The ranch is 200% better today than when we purchased it 8 years ago. Working with SGI has helped reward us for what we’d already been doing.”

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.