Heart Mountain Grassbank

Posted: May 2, 2005
Written by: 
Michelle Nijhuis

The Nature Conservancy's (TNC's) Heart Mountain Ranch, a 14,000-acre preserve north of Cody, Wyoming. The preserve includes the northern and eastern slopes of Heart Mountain, a 3,000-foot high limestone island in the Bighorn Basin of northwestern Wyoming. It encompasses about 4,500 acres of private land and 9,500 acres of federal and state leases.

Objective: By making a small portion of the ranch available for short-term use by public-land ranchers and their cattle, Heart Mountain Grassbank aims to promote large-scale conservation projects on public grazing lands.

Participants: The Nature Conservancy, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, area ranchers, Wyoming Department of Game and Fish, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

History: Heart Mountain Ranch became a Nature Conservancy preserve in 1999, one of only four Nature Conservancy purchases in Wyoming in the past decade. Selected for its unusually high concentration of rare plants, diversity of bird species, and assortment of native mammals, the preserve is linked to the nearby Absaroka Mountains by corridors of undeveloped land.

Heart Mountain includes about 500 acres of irrigated pasture, and initially, The Nature Conservancy planned to sell this part of the property. But TNC Absarokas Program Director Laura Bell proposed that the irrigated acres be used instead as a grassbank, pasture that would support habitat restoration efforts on nearby public land. By temporarily harboring cows that usually graze federal or state allotments, Bell reasoned, the TNC grassbank would make it easier for public agencies to carry out prescribed burning, shrub thinning, and other projects designed to improve wildlife habitat. "We realized there was a real need for alternative sources of forage," she says.

In 2001, after discussions with public agency officials and local ranchers, the Heart Mountain Grassbank opened its gates for the first time, grazing cattle from allotments on the nearby Shoshone National Forest. The following year, TNC began a more formal series of meetings to set policy for the grassbank, to which it invited "everyone from the Farm Bureau to the Sierra Club," says Bell. Some 25 people attended the first meeting, and the stakeholders' group now has about a dozen regular members.

Ranchers must apply to use the grassbank, and participating ranchers pay $15 per season (June 1 through October 1) for each cow-and-calf pair, below the typical market price of $22 to $25. Grassbank staffers manage the cattle - the herd is moved about once every three days - maintain fences, and otherwise care for the land and herd throughout the season. Ranchers are responsible for veterinary bills.

Because the land is irrigated, the Heart Mountain Grassbank is much less sensitive to drought than the surrounding native range, but its maintenance costs are relatively higher. "We have to pay more for water and for electricity, but the upside is that we can handle a tremendous number of [cow-and-calf pairs]," says Maria Sonett, TNC Program Manager for Heart Mountain Ranch. "We get a lot of bang for our buck."

Accomplishments: From 2001 through 2003, the Heart Mountain Grassbank grazed a total of more than 3,700 cow-and-calf pairs owned by two Shoshone National Forest grazing permittees. Moving the cows off the public land and into the grassbank smoothed the way for prescribed burning projects on the forest, says Shoshone rangeland management specialist Joe Hicks. In the absence of cattle, Shoshone fire managers were able to burn about 220 acres of Douglas-fir forest adjacent to the North Absaroka Wilderness Area, a treatment designed to slow the spread of future wildland fires.

Over the last two years, the grassbank has also partnered with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and BLM permittees to graze an additional 3,000 cow-and-calf pairs on Heart Mountain's irrigated acreage. Tricia Hatle of the BLM says agency crews have mowed brush on about 400 acres of the temporarily vacant Sage Creek allotments, and set prescribed burns on an additional 120 acres. These treatments have turned thick stands of mature sagebrush into a "patchier," more open habitat, preferred by both sage grouse and black-tailed prairie dogs. Without the availability of the Heart Mountain Grassbank or other forage options, says Hatle, the restoration would have been very unlikely:

Matt Bell, who owns a ranch a few miles southwest of Cody, Wyoming, and is a BLM permittee, has used the grassbank to cushion his public-land lease - and his business - from the effects of drought. "If we hadn't had [the grassbank], we would have had to sell almost all of our cows," he says. Bell moved his cows to Heart Mountain for three particularly dry seasons, between 2001 and 2003. He plans to return his herd to the grassbank this summer, in hopes of giving the public land he leases more time to recover from drought.

Sonett, who was assistant director of the Valle Grande Grassbank (now the Rowe Mesa Grassbank) in New Mexico before coming to Wyoming, hopes that the Heart Mountain Grassbank and the rest of the preserve will not only assist with habitat restoration, but also serve as a "demonstration project" for innovative ranching strategies and restoration work. "The average rancher doesn't have the economic latitude to experiment much, but we do," she says. Ongoing projects at Heart Mountain include spring and seep protection, riparian restoration, and forage inventories. This year, ranchers participating in the grassbank were required to attend a one-day range-monitoring workshop, where they learned techniques that could be applied to their public allotments or private acreage.

Challenges/Constraints: Participating ranchers are largely enthusiastic about the program. Among the very few complaints is that the grassbank cannot take as many cattle as some ranchers would like to bring. Sonett says that Heart Mountain and many of the other grassbanks in the Western states are also in need of long-term funding. The fees charged to ranchers cover less than half of the grassbank's costs, and TNC currently foots the bill for the shortfall.

Sonett hopes to attract private-land ranchers to the program, perhaps by offering incentives to grassbank participants who restore wildlife habitat on their private ground, but such projects will require additional federal, state, or private funding.

For more information see:

The Nature Conservancy-Heart Mountain

National Grassbank Network

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