Conservation Efforts at Lava Lake Ranch
The Pioneers-Craters landscape of central Idaho is one of the jewels of North America’s natural heritage. Ranging from lava flows to river, foothill and mountain ecosystems, the Pioneers-Craters landscape supports wide-ranging species such as pronghorn, sage grouse, mule deer, and elk, large carnivores including wolves, mountain lion, and black bears, and iconic species such as mountain goats and wolverine. This abundance and diversity of wildlife is supported by the landscape’s dramatic range of elevations (from 4,000 feet to 12,000 feet), long free-flowing reaches of rivers and streams and their associated riparian habitats, rugged terrain that provides protective natural migration corridors for wildlife, and the unfragmented and undeveloped character of the land. While much of the landscape is owned and managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, private working ranchlands provide the crucial link between summer and winter ranges. The region is also home to long traditions of sheep and cattle grazing, farming, hunting, and backcountry recreation.
Lava Lake is at the heart of efforts to develop innovative agricultural and business practices and conservation strategies that will sustain the natural and social values of the Pioneers-Craters region. Founded in 1999 by Kathleen and Brian Bean, the company has a two-fold mission: To restore and protect the native landscape of the Pioneer Mountains/Craters of the Moon region and to develop business and finance strategies that support that conservation work.
We have long-term goals for accomplishing conservation at a landscape scale. Guided by a multi-year management plan for our entire 875,000 acre grazing area, our staff has pioneered ways to graze sheep in a sustainable fashion. Through our grazing management practices, the ecological conditions of thousands of acres of habitat have improved, with direct benefits to wildlife. For example, annual studies have documented a 30% increase in the number of songbirds along our creeks from 2002 to 2007. This is due to the recovery of riparian vegetation that songbirds need for cover, food, and nesting.
As a result of our conservation efforts, we’ve been recognized with three major awards: the Cecil D. Andrus Leadership Award for Sustainability and Conservation, the Bureau of Land Management Rangeland Stewardship Award and the US Forest Service National Award for Outstanding Achievement in Rangeland Management.
Lava Lake believes that its our responsibility to leave the landscape in better condition than we found it. We have taken on several projects to restore native habitat. In 2002, we took our first steps to restore degraded streams by installing fencing along Fish Creek, thereby reducing bank erosion and allowing regeneration of native willows and other streamside plants. In 2006 we undertook the restoration of a severely degraded and downcut section of Bradsford Canyon Creek, installing biologs to slow down the movement of the stream and create more natural meanders, and planting native shrubs and trees to stabilize its banks. In 2008, we began an ambitious creek and wetland restoration project at Lava Lake. We’ve collaborated with a number of different groups to plant native species, including The Nature Conservancy and a local school.
We are privileged to use a wild, largely unspoiled landscape, and we seek to coexist with all kinds of wildlife, including wolves and other predators. Since 2002, Lava Lake and its partners have been at the forefront of developing approaches to prevent conflicts between wolves and livestock. In 2008, we helped form the Wood River Wolf Project, a groundbreaking collaboration between ranchers, land managers, and conservationists. Defenders of Wildlife named us a Hero for Wildlife for these efforts. In 2015 the Lava Lake Institute for Science & Conservation took over management of the Wood River Wolf Project.
We use a variety of techniques to avoid conflicts between wolves and our sheep, and our Great Pyrenees and Akbash guard dogs are the first line of defense. When herders know that wolves are in the area, they will set up temporary electrified fencing with fladry, nylon red flaps of fabric. This technique deters wolf predation and makes it easier for dogs to protect their bands. Watch this documentary, Return to the Wild to learn more about wolves in the west and to see an interview with Lava Lake staff.
What began as a family purchase of an historic Oregon Trail ranch in the Pioneer Mountains of south-central Idaho has evolved into a 21st century epic of land protection in the American west. The Ranch is comprised of approximately 24,000 acres of private land and 875,000 acres of public grazing leases in the Pioneer Mountains and the deserts of the Snake River Plain. In 2001 the Beans permanently protected 7,500 acres of private land by putting it under a conservation easement held by The Nature Conservancy (TNC)—the largest donated conservation easement in Idaho history. Since then, another 12,000 acres have been permanently protected by easements with TNC and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and more are in process. These easements ensure that these lands will provide unfragmented habitat for wildlife forever and will never be subdivided.
We began our long-range monitoring program in 2002, in order to have a scientific basis for evaluating change in the landscape over time, and to ensure that our grazing practices match our conservation goals. We have installed 34 photo monitoring sites and 46 measurement transects in our aspen, riparian and sagebrush steppe ecosystems. Look through these photos to see our staff and partners hard at work in the field.
Our success in accomplishing conservation at a landscape scale depends on our close partnerships with many different entities. We work closely with a wide variety of partners ranging from land management agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, non-profit organizations, like The Nature Conservancy, and state agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Quality and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
In 2004, we created the Lava Lake Institute for Science and Conservation, a non-profit organization that serves as a permanent institution dedicated to conservation of this unique landscape. Through the Institute, we are expanding our scientific research program, developing outreach programs and working to catalyze conservation throughout the region. See the Institute’s site here: www.lavalakeinstitute.org/.
Through the Lava Lake Institute, we’re taking on scientific projects to better understand the flora and fauna of our magnificent landscape. Most recently, we partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Pioneers Alliance, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to conduct a survey of pronghorn migration in south-central Idaho. Pronghorn are North America’s fastest land mammal. They are a species that is both resilient and fragile, as well as incredibly beautiful. Pronghorn travel great distances each year between their summer and winter ranges. However, pronghorn have poor depth perception and will not jump over fences, and so their migration routes can be easily disrupted. Read about the pronghorn project in this blog entry.
Along with our partners, we collared pronghorn with GPS collars to track their migration routes and most recently found that the animals can travel 300 miles round trip, making this one of the longest terrestrial migration routes in the lower 48. The study has documented exactly where the pronghorn roam, which provides critical information to managers and conservationists, who are now working to ensure that the migration corridor remains accessible to the species. See maps of where the species traveled in 08-09 and 09-10.
We have conducted extensive scientific research, including nearly two dozen field studies on topics including rare plants, weeds, water quality, songbirds, amphibians and reptiles, sage grouse, elk, and pronghorn. We also support experimental research projects conducted by visiting scientists through the Lava Lake Institute.