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Sage-Grouse a Good Fit for Sun Ranch

Buffalo Cultural Resources 045-WEB

Story and Photos by Haley Lockwood, NRCS Wyoming public affairs intern Working with other stakeholders has been the normal for Dennis Sun and his family, daughter Andrea and son Jeff. Sun and they are operating daily towards a better environment. Like any ranching operation, it is multi-faceted and complex at times. A series of cause and effects reflect on the landscape showing change regularly, some good and some bad. Luckily, for Dennis Sun, owner of the Sun Ranch west of Casper, Wyo., and publisher/owner of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, he has made those strides towards a healthier ranching operation.

The Sage-grouse is a ground-dwelling bird native to the sagebrush ecosystem of the American West. It has experienced a significant decline in population over several decades. Approximately 40% of all Sage-grouse are found in Wyoming.

The Sage-grouse Initiative (SGI) spearheaded by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) pro-actively addresses habitat loss and works to keep population healthy enough to avoid an Endangered Species Act listing.

This relatively new program, which Sun implemented recently, has already been successful in raising bird population. The Sun Ranch houses a large wintering area for over 600 grouse, as well as annual habitat that is extremely important to the overall population of this species since on one Sage-grouse lek over 300 birds have been counted. Scientific studies and Master’s senior thesis projects, conducted by Cheryl Mandich who attended the University of Wyoming and Casper College, began on the Sun Ranch and provided some insight about these birds.

In recent years, while the Sage-grouse population has increased, the numbers were still low compared to 2005. Like many species, environmental factors, such as habitat and weather, can mean increased or decreased numbers. According to Mandich, who holds a master of science in zoology and physiology found that the estimates of Sage-grouse annual survival range from 35% to 85%. A main concern is loss of sagebrush habitat and cover that the birds rely on for winter and summer survival. This translates into survival from predators like coyotes, fox, ravens, and raptors. Findings from Mandrich’s thesis project and help through the SGI may further benefit the Sage-grouse population. Grazing management practices have benefitted the population since more cover can be left for bird cover. Intensive monitoring programs by the ranch in the past developed by retired NRCS State Range Conservationist Everet Bainter, have created a detailed inventory of habitat and grouse, inventory of ecological sites, potential growth of plant diversity as well as inventory of sagebrush height and density that is extremely important to grouse population. Through SGI and Mandich’s work, Sun has implemented additional practices to reach higher Sage-grouse numbers.

Traveling out to the Sun Ranch, miles and miles of sagebrush stretch out to the horizon leaving the city of Casper far behind. Joint efforts from agencies such as (NRCS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Natrona County Weed and Pest, and Wyoming Game and Fish have helped Sun reach rangeland goals. Sun explained that he did not have to make many changes to become a suitable candidate for SGI. Several things like fence reflectors and more escape ramps for stock tanks were added to the Sun operation to help diminish the risk of bird death. In the past ten years, they have implemented numerous range improvements including five solar powered water wells, spring development, stream bank restoration, invasive weed management and over 20 miles of new fence line to divide large pastures for grazing management, thus adding to an improved ranching operation.

Sage-grouse may appear to be the key component with an emphasis on its habitat. Like any ecosystem, an invisible web connects the land to the resource users. In this case, other species like antelope, deer, coyotes, fox and raptors have a large impact on the bird as well. If the habitat that those species rely on improves, it is expected that the species living also thrive.

Sun’s future plans to improve habitat and production of his ranch consist of a series of check dams on Casper Creek that raise the water table in the riparian area and eventually lead Casper Creek to flow year around.

Earlier construction of these check dams in the upper reaches of Casper Creek resulted in increased forage along the creek from 2,200 lbs of forage/acre to 5,500 lbs of forage/ acre, this created more habitat and wildlife use in the area along with improved grazing due to the check dams.

The success of SGI is dependent on individual producers like Sun. Progress such as increased Sage-grouse numbers and improved sagebrush habitat happens in the field on ranches such as the Sun Ranch. It is through the efforts of producers like Dennis Sun that would help prevent the bird from being listed.

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