Kennedy Ranch Conservation Improvements Benefit Both Livestock And Wildlife In Utah

August 23, 2016

“Our family is tied to the land and if we do a good job of tending it, it will take care of us,” says Utah rancher Bill Kennedy.

Watch this short video featuring Bill and the Kennedy Ranch!

Photos and story by Jesse Bussard

Bill and Deborah Kennedy run a multi-generational working ranch spread out across a combination of public and private lands in the Bear River Valley of far northeastern Utah. Located just a stone’s throw from the Utah-Wyoming border near the town of Randolph in Rich County, the view from ranch headquarters displays a valley dotted with irrigated hay meadows and shadowed by the Crawford Mountains that lie to the east. Along the valley’s lush perimeter, dry sagebrush country extends into the distance, making this landscape an ideal home for greater sage-grouse.

The Kennedy Ranch’s 2,200-acre base property, which serves as ranch central, was settled by Bill’s grandfather, Will Kennedy, and his brother-in-law during the 1930s. Bill took over management of the operation at the young age of 24, buying out his father Ernest Kennedy’s share, as well as a portion of his uncle’s lands. Today, he and his son, Matthew, share the responsibility of ranch management on the approximately 600 mother-cow operation. In addition, they raise about 100 replacement heifers annually and harvest a hay crop for winter feed each year.


Over the years, Bill’s land ethic and commitment to improving natural resources has led him to expand and improve upon the ranch by adopting better management strategies such as rotational grazing and low-stress livestock handling.

“Our family is tied to the land and if we do a good job of tending it, it will take care of us,” says Bill.

In 2013, an opportunity arose for Bill and his family to lease a large tract of grazing land located a short drive south of the ranch. The tract was comprised mainly of private lands, as well as one Bureau of Land Management piece. However, a lack of sufficient watering sources on the 6,500-acre parcel would make grazing here a challenge. Despite this fact, Bill was determined to figure out a way to make the lease opportunity work.

With the help of SGI Coordinator, Taylor Payne (left), the Kennedys have put in place several conservation improvements, such as this solar panel to power a water pump.

SGI field staffer Taylor Payne (left) helped the Kennedys put in place several conservation improvements, such as this solar panel that powers a water pump.

To find a solution, Bill approached Utah’s Northwest Region Grazing Improvement Board. A member of the group’s board for over 20 years, Bill knew Utah’s Grazing Improvement Program (GIP) and its boards were responsible for funding conservation projects on private, state, and federal lands throughout the Beehive State.

With the help of GIP’s area representative, Taylor Payne, Bill was able to put together a plan to implement several conservation projects to improve water access and grazing on the leased lands. Bill and Taylor began work on the projects with the help of contractor, Jed Heaton of Water Solutions, LLC, during the summer of 2014. Improvements were finished a little over a year later.

Conservation improvements put into action on the Kennedy Ranch’s leased lands began with a deferred grazing system and installation of cross-fencing to break the leased lands up into three pastures.

“Because of the fencing, we are now able to defer grazing and do a better job at managing the land,” says Bill.

Fencing improvements have allowed the Kennedys to better manage livestock grazing while also improving range health.

Fencing and water improvements have allowed the Kennedys to better manage livestock grazing while also improving range health.

Taylor Payne, who also serves as the Sage Grouse Initiative’s coordinator for the region, concurs. He notes that in less than one year’s time, Bill has been able to increase the stocking rate across the leased acres while still improving range health. Deferring grazing until July 1 also ensures wildlife ranging from big game to sage-grouse get the habitat they need.

“Having the cattle here to graze will help the vegetation which in turn makes it better for the wildlife,” says Bill. “If the wildlife do better, the hunting will be better.”

The Kennedys solved the water problem on the leased parcel by installing an eight-mile pipeline system with troughs that provide water throughout each pasture. The addition of a spring development, solar pump, and a water storage tank completed the system.

Sagebrush country extends into the distance on the Kennedy Ranch in Utah's Bear Valley.

Dry sagebrush country extends into the distance on the Kennedy Ranch in Utah’s Bear Valley.

Thanks to these water improvements, says Bill, livestock are better distributed across the landscape. Instead of only grazing specific areas, his cattle now graze spread out and stay in upland areas longer, keeping sensitive riparian areas healthy. Increased water availability also means wildlife can now disperse more evenly across the landscape.

“Private landowners have sent us a ton of trail cam photos of big game–elk, moose, and deer– watering at the troughs,” says Taylor. “They’re really excited about that.”

Along with these projects on the Kennedys’ leased tract, the BLM also completed lop and scatter work of juniper trees on the parcel it owns within Bill’s project area. Also known as hand thinning, this method involves felling trees, cutting them into shorter lengths, and spreading the severed woody materials over the ground. Removing the conifers improved overall wildlife habitat and helped to increase understory rangeland plant species, which are important to both livestock and sage-grouse.

Healthy native plant species like this Great Basin wild rye are important for both livestock and sage-grouse on the range.

Healthy native plant species like this Great Basin wild rye are important for both livestock and sage-grouse on the range.

Funding for the conservation efforts was provided by a variety of agencies including GIP, the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative, U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, and the Utah Department of Water Quality. In addition, a neighboring ranch–Deseret Land & Livestock–donated a water storage tank to the project. Ryan Foutz, one of the private landowners Bill leases from, also contributed funds to assist with the pipeline project.

Throughout the entire process, Bill credits honesty as the key to success in his work with the multiple partners included.

“The project is a long-term success in my opinion,” says Taylor. “We’ve been able to highlight the benefits to his cattle, as well as the range health and wildlife needs.”

Bill Kennedy believes that there's always room for improvement on his family's sagebrush ranchland.

Bill Kennedy believes that there’s always room for improvement on his family’s sagebrush ranchland.

In the future, the Kennedys hope to continue their conservation efforts. Potential projects on the horizon include removing more juniper in key areas, and the addition of more cross-fencing and watering points to further enhance grazing utilization and distribution.

“There’s always room for improvement and doing things better,” says Bill. “Through trial and error you learn. We’ll continue to learn to do it even better as we go forward.”

Read more stories from SGI-enrolled ranchers

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.