Science and Solutions for the Range
An old barn rests in a field surrounded only by rangeland and blue sky outside Hailey, Idaho. This is the front door of Rock Creek Ranch, a 10,400 acre property owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Wood River Land Trust (WRLT). It is the scene of a unique collaboration between the landowners and the University of Idaho.
In 2014, TNC and WRLT purchased the property from the Rinker family, who had been ranching there for almost three decades. The new owners invited UI to collaborate with them as the research arm in a demonstration of the group’s shared vision of conservation, sustainable ranching and creating healthy landscapes.
The initial phase of this collaboration is the Rock Creek Restoration and Reconnection Project, intended to improve water quality, stream function and provide fish passage between Rock Creek and the lower Big Wood River. A second phase of the project, addressing the needs of the northern part of the ranch, is slated for later this year.
Along with the UI Rangeland Center, The College of Natural Resources (CNR) and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) have already begun collaboration efforts with TNC and WRLT on this project. CALS has moved 150 cow/calf pairs from the Nancy M. Cummings Research Station at Salmon to the ranch as part of a nutritional study. An assessment of the sage-grouse habitat has also begun.
Tracey Johnson, an assistant professor in the Fish and Wildlife Sciences Department in CNR, is leading the effort, along with CALS professor Tim Prather, to develop a comprehensive plan for the research and outreach efforts, at Rock Creek. Johnson joined the UI faculty in the spring of 2016 and her areas of specialization include wildlife habitat ecology and management and wildlife-grazing interactions. Her background in private consulting gives her valuable experience in balancing the preservation of natural resources with the economic need that communities have to utilize those resources.
UI students are already getting involved at Rock Creek. Melinda Ellison, CALS assistant professor in Range Livestock Research and Johnson will be co-advising graduate student Brittany Deranleau in the spring of 2017. Deranleau’s research will focus on livestock grazing in meadows and the effects that it has on sage-grouse brood rearing habitat. In the fall, Johnson’s undergraduate Wildland Habitat Ecology and Assessment class was at Rock Creek collecting pilot data and learning the framework of sage-grouse habitat assessment. As the data is collected and analyzed, it will be shared with TNC and WRLT and used to make decisions about how the land is used and what restoration projects are undertaken.
The UI team is currently in the process of identifying what information and resources will be needed to complete long-term research projects, including infrastructure at the ranch and baseline monitoring data for soil, vegetation, riparian areas and key wildlife species. Data gathering will begin in earnest in the spring of 2017 and Johnson intends to involve the community in the process.
“There are many citizen-scientists and stakeholders in the Wood River Valley who could get involved with efforts like species inventories and monitoring,” said Johnson. “We intend to involve the community as much as possible. I’m really excited about what we can do at Rock Creek. This is an opportunity for us to find balance between research, conservation, recreation and maintaining working landscapes.”
More information about the collaboration at Rock Creek can be found at The Nature Conservancy.