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Jessica Gwerder, NRCS Nevada soil conservationist (l) talks with David Sceirine about his conservation plan.

A Conservation State of Mind: The Sceirine Point Ranch

Creating a 2,375-acre easement on their ranch admittedly wasn’t the first thing on Joe and David Sceirine’s minds. Nor was becoming an example to others of how to be great conservationists. For the Sceirines, whose family has ranched in the Bridgeport Valley, California, area for three generations over more than a century, they’re just protecting their way of life and doing what’s right – isn’t that what everyone should do?

While developers eyed the ranch for subdivisions, conservationists were eyeing it for a different reason: it is prime Bi-State sage-grouse habitat. The Sceirine Point Ranch is home to this geographically distinct population of the Greater sage-grouse that reside only along the California-Nevada state line. Bi-State ranchers like the Sceirines are working with their local conservation partners to restore and protect key habitat, which also benefits their ranching operation and their local community, regardless of the sage-grouse’s Endangered Species Act status.

This map shows Population Management Units (PMUs) in the bi-state area.

The Bi-State sage-grouse was proposed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 2013. On April 23, 2015, the USFWS withdrew the proposed listing due to commitments by multiple entities, including private landowners such as the Sceirines, to continue conservation measures outlined in the Bi-State Action Plan. Although a U.S. judge has recently reinstated the proposed listing of the bird as threatened, pending a new USFWS review, conservation easements like the Sceirine Point Ranch help ensure the birds thrive and populations increase.  

“Because the Sceirine Point Ranch provides habitat for a threatened species, protects sensitive grassland types, and provides protection of highly sensitive natural resources, NRCS and the Eastern Sierra Land Trust (ESLT) identified the ranch as a Grassland of Special Environmental Significance enrollment,” said Jessica Gwerder, NRCS Nevada soil conservationist. “This type of enrollment is part of the NRCS Agricultural Conservation Easement Program - Agricultural Land Easements. The Point Ranch Conservation Easement will preserve and protect in perpetuity the grazing use, grassland and open-space characteristics, wildlife habitat, water quality, and related conservation values of the property.” 

The conservation easement is funded in part by NRCS’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, the California Deer Association and the California Department of Conservation’s Sustainable Agricultural Land Conservation Program, and is held and administered by ESLT. This is part of NRCS’ Sage Grouse Initiative conservation efforts with bi-state partners. 

“In this area of California, NRCS looks for opportunities to perpetually protect grazing lands from any additional developments, especially when they provide significant benefits to sage-grouse, sagebrush obligate species and other species dependent on these complexes of wet meadows adjacent to the sagebrush communities,” said Tom Moore, NRCS California State Wildlife Biologist. “Existing management at the Point Ranch over the past decades has provided high quality sage-grouse habitat that supplies essential nesting and brood-rearing cover and food resources within close proximity to a lek. Direct evidence provided by radio-telemetry shows movements of sage hens and juveniles on the ranch between the sagebrush uplands, nearby leks and the wetlands and pasture fields.”

A sage-grouse takes flight at Sceirine Point Ranch

But the easement isn’t the Sceirines’ first rodeo doing conservation measures and working with NRCS. The Sceirines are involved with the Bi-State Local Area Working Group, a forward-thinking group of stakeholders who came together in 2002 to work together for the common good of the sage-grouse—long before the bird was being considered for listing. Then, when the Bi-State sage-grouse was being considered for listing, the Sceirines wanted to be proactive and show that they cared about the sage-grouse, while keeping their operation viable. They wanted to be part of the solution.

cows at Sceirine Point Ranch

Gwerder suggested single-leaf pinyon pine removal, as raptors hunt sage-grouse from atop these pines. Since their property is a critical piece of the migration corridor, the Sceirines voluntarily moved up the tree removal in their contract with NRCS to coincide with work being completed by the same contractor on three other adjoining ranches. Therefore, the project was completed all at one time, with one single contractor, saving time and money, and providing uniformity in the cutting. And this effort tied in with a larger pinyon pine cutting with the Bureau of Land Management the same year.

The Sceirines found a great partner in Eastern Sierra Land Trust, with Susanna Danner and Kay Ogden. And this easement is the largest one, to date, that ESLT has completed.

Susanna Danner, ESLT, and David Sceirine scour the fields at Sceirine Point Ranch for indications of sage-grouse in the area.

“ESLT became a partner, someone I can look to, go to, to help me walk the mine field (of the easement process),” said David Sceirine.

“Sage-grouse and mule deer don’t see property ownership lines. For the animals that use this property, the ideal situation is they cross from private to BLM to Forest Service, and they don’t know the difference,” said Danner. “One really neat thing about landowners like the Sceirines is that they are willing to partner up on stewardship projects that benefit both their ranch and their neighbors.  We’re lucky not only to have great private owners like the Sceirines, but also great public land managers, great public servants like NRCS, working together to do large-scale projects that span boundaries, which is necessary for a bird that spans those same boundaries.”

From l to r: NRCS Nevada's District Conservationist Jim Gifford, Soil Conservationist Jessica Gwerder, Sceirine Point Ranch's David Sceirine, and ESLT's Susanna Danner and Kay Ogden pose at the ranch to celebrate the newest conservation easement closure in the Bi-state sage-grouse area.

“The Sceirines are leaders,” said Danner. “Since the easement closed on Sceirine Point Ranch, we’ve gotten calls from other ranchers in the community asking about the potential of doing this on their property, too.”

“Your whole community benefits when your ranchers and farmers do better,” said David Sceirine. “Our whole nation benefits. And education is the key. When you know better, you do better.”

The Bridgeport Valley is rich in economics, culture and history.

“If you look at ESLT’s mission, we talk about watersheds, importance of wildlife, recreation, scenic values, ranching and history. If you look at the Sceirine Point Ranch, this is an incredibly unique place that meshes all those things together. We would be remiss if we weren’t working to protect these values,” said Ogden. “The economics that happens here is hugely important to our region – agriculture and ranching is only second to tourism in the Eastern Sierra. When I first came here, I was stunned at the magnificence and beauty. As David says: there are appropriate places to build and inappropriate places to build. It isn’t just pretty here, it has real viability and economics on tourism and ranching. It’s critical that we keep this intact.”

NRCS Nevada's District Conservationist Jim Gifford (l) and Soil Conservationist Jessica Gwerder (foreground) join David Sceirine, and ESLT's Susanna Danner and Kay Ogden (background) at Sceirine Point Ranch to inspect the sagebrush country's landscape.

With approximately 1,810 acres of wet and semi-wet meadows and irrigated pasture on the property, it provides a brood-rearing area critical for sage-grouse. Conserving wet mesic habitats—places where water meets land—builds drought resilience, boosts forage productivity, and benefits wildlife. The ranch is a haven for all kinds of wildlife, including mule deer, waterfowl like ducks, migratory songbirds, black bears, and trout that will all benefit from the protection of these “emerald isles.”

Mule deer walk among the sagebrush sea at Sceirine Point Ranch

Meadows and pastures are also important to sage-grouse chicks because they provide an abundance of forbs and insects required for rapid growth. And various shrub species provide protective cover for sage-grouse and their broods within the meadows and pastures. The surrounding upland shrub communities provide cover, nesting habitat, and additional forage for adult sage-grouse.

Proper Grazing is Key

scenic field at Sceirine Point Ranch

Another way the Sceirines have integrated conservation measures is in their rotational grazing efforts. This includes grazing the rangeland and irrigated pastures in a manner that maintains palatable and diverse plant species. Sage-grouse like good cattle management.

“If you follow sage hen around, they like to follow the cows. After the cows graze, the grasses are shorter, making the bugs easier for them to get,” said David Sceirine.

“The cows’ manure and the remaining forbs attract bugs that are important for growing chicks,” said Gwerder.

Protecting Water Resources is Important for Everyone

scenic creek at Sceirine Point Ranch

The Sceirines are part of a watershed irrigation system. They are essentially at the top of the system, so their irrigation efforts water their neighbors’ land, and on down the line.

“The water system here is unique. It doesn’t end in Bridgeport Valley – it goes to the Bridgeport Reservoir, on to Mason Valley, Smith Valley, and East Walker properties. The goal is to get water to Walker Lake,” said Sceirine. “This valley is a sponge. As water runs into the sponge, it dribbles out like creeks. With our irrigation methods, the flows are more steady, instead of a flusher. Whatever happens here affects the rest of the system. If it gets developed, the whole dynamic changes. Our irrigation efforts stabilize the whole system and it helps downstream.”

With beautiful mountains that reminded the Sceirines' grandfather of the Alps from his home country of Switzerland, wet meadows, quaking aspen stands and a beautiful sagebrush sea, the Sceirine Point Ranch provides a beautiful landscape

Aspen stands are part of the plan

Research shows that aspen health is declining in the Sierra. The Sceirines are interested in improving the health of the aspen stands on their property, so we incorporated efforts to assist with this into their conservation plan. We look at the life stages in an aspen stand: are there mature trees, young adult trees, and are there saplings (new re-generation)?” said Gwerder.

Conifer encroachment of the bigger pines, like Jeffrey pines and Lodgepole pines, is one of the biggest threats to aspen stands

A couple of things can threaten aspen health: conifer encroachment and improper grazing.

“Conifer encroachment of the bigger pines, like Jeffrey pines and Lodgepole pines, is one of the biggest threats to aspens because they shade out the aspen trees, so we’ve looked at that here. Additionally, young aspens are tasty to cattle. And young stems get trampled, thus they get damaged and don’t get to a mature height. So, proper grazing is key.”