At a glance
What: NRCS programs
Where: USDA office, 356 Ranney St.
When: Deadline Nov. 2
Contact: Noe Marymor, 824-3476, Ext. 116
Craig Northwest Colorado ranchers are finding help to improve their grazing pastures through a number of programs offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS.
The NRCS helps fund improvements to private pastures if consideration is also given to improving wildlife habitat through the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program.
"We focus on at-risk and endangered species like the sage grouse and leopard frog," NRCS wildlife biologist Noe Marymor said. "Our goal is to enhance the habitat while improving the landowner's operations."
Receiving funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the NRCS programs can pay up to 75 percent of the cost of selected improvement projects, with a minimum of 50 percent of cost sharing with the landowner.
The process begins with a call to the USDA office in Craig and a following site visit to the acreage being considered.
"If anything is going to hinder the ranches production, we won't do it," Marymor said. "We give free advice to the ranchers, and we can help with habitat restoration, stream-bank improvement and erosion control."
A ranch west of Craig in Big Gulch is a project that recently gained approval.
Overgrazing has caused an outbreak of prickly-pear cactus on the ranch, preventing effective grazing.
Using the NRCS wildlife program, the ranch's large pasture was cross-fenced with a wildlife-friendly fence at a fraction of the cost to the landowner.
The fence includes a non-barbed bottom wire 18 inches off the ground that allows young deer and pronghorns to slip under, but at the same time, the fence contains the ranch's livestock.
The top barbed wire is no more than 48 inches off the ground, and is separated more from the second wire to prevent animals jumping the fence from catching a foot between the two and being fatally trapped.
The new fence allows better livestock rotation on the acreage, giving the unused land a chance to recover.
NRCS paid for 75 percent of the fence cost.
The ranch also was once prime habitat for the Greater Sage Grouse, an "at risk," but not an endangered, listed species.
Plans call for improvements to stock tanks and pumps on the ranch that allows for some water to spill off, creating a mini-wetland where birds can flourish.
Wet areas also improve bug development and increased vegetation, critical for a mother sage grouse rearing chicks.
"Sage grouse have no gizzards and can't grind seeds, they can only eat soft flowers and plants," Marymor said. "This zone was way down in grouse, but it's starting to increase. Most of the ranch is a nesting area."
The landowner agreed to rest the pastures from grazing for a couple of years to give it a chance to recover.
A five-year plan with the NRCS seeks to turn around the overgrazing damage, giving the native plants a chance to fight off the cactus.
Upper Big Gulch and the Great Divide area have good populations of sage grouse, and the goal is to return good populations to the lower end of the gulch.
The key, Marymor said, is to have a good mosaic on the ranch property, combining open water and cattails, sagebrush and grasses.
Two- and four-legged animals are not the only species being saved by the program.
In the Little Snake River Valley, the NRCS is working on landowner's streams and riverbanks to aid the Colorado River Cutthroat Trout.
An environmental program lists goals for qualifying landowners that combine agricultural production and environmental quality, and the Wetlands Reserve Program offers the opportunity to establish long-term conservation on acreage.
Marymor believes that cooperation can benefit both the ranchers and the wildlife that share the land.
"Of the producers we work with, 99 percent are already using good grazing practices," she said. "If we can get enough landowners on board, we may never have to list the sage grouse on the endangered species list."