Sustainable Ranching in Utah: A Boon For Wildlife And Livestock
June 12, 2019
Kris Ellis meets some neighbors out riding the range.
Story and photos by Brianna Randall
Stephen and Kris Ellis keep their family tradition alive and strong on the Circle Bar Ranch
Stephen Ellis walks along the Utah range in northern Utah, the snow-draped Uinta Mountains rising behind him.
He kicks a boot at the juniper branches scattered among the sagebrush. “I cut down these trees myself last summer to make more room for sage grouse.”
His wife, Kris, smiles. “We used to see sage grouse all the time out here when I was young, and now we’ve started seeing them return.”
The Circle Bar Ranch was homesteaded by her great-grandparents, William and Agnes Coleman, and has been handed down through four generations. When Kris was young, her father and three uncles ran thousands of sheep on the ranch.
“I quit this ranch dozens of times over the years,” Kris confides. “I headed back to Heber City every time my dad made me cut weeds with a scythe, or chase down runaway sheep, or brand too many lambs.”
She looks around at the green pasture bordered by red rock cliffs, gauges the storm clouds gathering against the mountains. Then she smiles. “But I keep coming back.”
Preserving the family legacy
Today the ranch is run by Kris and Stephen and their four grown children. Much of the original property was sold, but the Ellis still manage 6,000 acres in Fruitland, 90 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. The Circle Bar includes creeks and wet meadows, forests and grasslands.
“Our main goal is to keep the tradition going on this ranch,” says Stephen. “We want to preserve the family legacy.”
The invading conifers Stephen cut down are part of a suite of conservation projects funded through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) ‘Working Lands for Wildlife’. The Circle Bar Ranch is prime habitat for greater sage-grouse, along with a host of other critters.
“One day while we rode the ridge line to put out salt for the herd, we kept a list of all the animals we saw in just one day: bald eagle, porcupine, moose, badger, elk, deer,” says Kris.
Stephen grew up in the city, and was introduced to ranching through Kris. Riding and raising horses has since become one of Stephen’s passions, along with running cattle.
After Kris’ father died a decade ago, the land sat empty for a while. But the family knew they wanted to run livestock again.
“It brings the ranch alive to have animals on it,” says Kris. “This ranch is a gem, and we didn’t want to discard it.”
First, Stephen decided to plant alfalfa. He contacted the local Duchesne County NRCS office to ask for advice and began working with district conservationist Jeremy Maycock on irrigation improvements. He switched from flood irrigation to pivots in order to conserve water. Right away, he noticed a healthier hay crop.
Jeremy Maycock has been working with landowners in the Uinta Basin for 14 years. He helped put in place some of the first projects funded through the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative—part of Working Lands for Wildlife—back in 2010.
“The Ellis’ commitment to sustainable range management is key for the long-term health of working rangelands,” says Jeremy.
Wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching
Through the Sage Grouse Initiative, Stephen agreed to remove over 650 acres of encroaching conifer trees to improve forage for his herd and nesting habitat for the birds.
Woody species like juniper or cedar have expanded onto sagebrush rangelands over the past century, providing perches for predators of sage grouse. Research has shown that the birds won’t nest near conifers, but that they return to use the restored habitat once trees are removed.
Plus, removing water-thirsty conifers improves water availability, a huge boon in Utah’s desert climate.
In addition to conifer removal, the Sage Grouse Initiative has funded other conservation projects on the Circle Bar Ranch. The Ellis’ have treated invasive weeds on 60 acres using herbicides. They also graze cattle early in the season to help keep invasive cheatgrass down.
This year, Stephen is taking out a wire-mesh sheep fence that has caught—and, sadly, killed—wildlife in the past. Since sage grouse congregate at leks on either side of the old fence, this will reduce bird collisions and other wildlife mortality.
The Ellis’ also partnered with several conservation groups to construct a two-mile-long, wildlife-friendly fence on their property adjacent to the state-owned Currant Creek Wildlife Management Area to help with pasture management.
As part of their contract with NRCS, Stephen records any sage grouse he sees on their property.
“Now that I’m out on the land, really looking at it and working on it, I see the beauty of conserving their habitat,” says Stephen.
A stepping stone for migrating birds and herds
According to biologists from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), the Ellis’ ranch has had three active sage grouse leks for decades, where the birds gather each spring to mate. Birds strut and dance less than a half-mile from the conifers Stephen felled. Now that the trees are gone, it opens up more safe sites for hens to nest after they mate.
As Stephen moved forward with NRCS conservation projects, he also began talking with Charlie Holtz, an SGI field conservationist with Pheasants Forever, about ways to benefit their ranch as well as the upland birds that live there.
“This ranch is also a great area for raising sage grouse chicks,” says Charlie. “It has lots of bogs and wet meadows where the hens can take their broods to look for food.”
The Circle Bar provides critical year-round habitat for resident sage grouse. In addition, radio telemetry research shows that migratory sage grouse move down from public lands to the west to spend the winters on the Circle Bar Ranch to use its lower-elevation sagebrush range.
The Ellis’ allow researchers to track and tag birds (as well as deer, elk, and other wildlife) on their ranch.
Randall Thacker, regional wildlife biologist with the Utah DWR, built a trusting relationship with Stephen and Kris after working for several years with Kris’ father. He says that the Circle Bar is particularly valuable as wildlife habitat because it is a stepping stone between tens of thousands of acres of undeveloped public land.
“This property is a key piece of the puzzle for wildlife,” Randall explains. “Hundreds of elk and mule deer pass through as they come down off the mountain in the summer and then head back up in the fall.”
Randall partners with ranchers like the Ellis’ to encourage sustainable grazing practices that benefit wildlife and keep working ranches intact.
“The real threat out here is ranches subdividing into 5 to 10 acre ‘ranchettes’,” he says. “That’s tough for animals, since it means more roads and noise and weeds that disrupt the wildlife.”
Keeping agricultural lands working for everyone
Looking forward, Stephen and Kris are interested in continuing to partner with NRCS, DWR, Pheasants Forever, and other groups on more projects that will boost the ranch’s bottom line as well as enhance habitat for wildlife.
Future projects under discussion include: building off-creek livestock watering troughs, re-seeding native plants after weed treatments, and restoring wet meadows.
“Keeping agricultural lands working is good for wildlife, good for local taxpayers, and good for our community,” explains Charlie.
Kris and Stephen agree. “We’d like to keep this ranch in our family,” says Kris. “Once it’s gone you can’t ever get it back.”
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.