July 11, 2007
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Celebrates 20 Years of Success in Utah
Wildlife Conservation Organization Has Conserved or Enhanced More Than 700,000 Acres of Habitat in Utah
(July 11, 2007) Missoula, Mont. — The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has conserved or enhanced more than 735,000 acres of wildlife habitat throughout Utah during the past 20 years – projects valued at nearly $21 million, officials from the wildlife conservation organization announced.
The announcement was made at a 20th anniversary celebration, retreat and planning session for Elk Foundation leaders and partners today at the 10,000-acre Basin Land & Livestock Ranch east of Coalville.
Volunteers planting bitterbrush and sagebrush at the Parowan Front
“From our early days in Utah to today, we have had some of the most dedicated volunteers and partners in the United States,” said Bill Christensen, Utah Regional Director for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “Our work has ranged from permanent land protection and habitat stewardship, to conservation education. We have made a very positive mark on the Utah landscape during the past 20 years and we intend to accomplish more great work in the next 20 years.”
The Elk Foundation operates 14 chapters in Utah and has more than 4,000 members. In 2006, the Salt Lake City Chapter was honored at the organization’s annual convention in Reno, Nevada, for achieving the largest net revenue among approximately 550 Elk Foundation Chapters at its annual Big Game Banquet fundraising event. Money raised from the banquets fund conservation projects throughout Utah.
Following are brief descriptions of several key conservation projects successfully completed in Utah by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and its partners during the past 20 years:
Book Cliffs Conservation Initiative
The Book Cliffs Conservation Initiative marked one of the finest chapters in the Elk Foundation’s early history. Set in a great sweep of eastern Utah straight out of Riders of the Purple Sage, this initiative underscored the foundation’s commitment to partnerships as the pathway to the most far-reaching good for elk country.
The Elk Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, the State of Utah, Bureau of Land Management, and a handful of longtime ranchers and other private landowners all joined forces with this primary goal: To acquire a handful of privately owned ranches in the Book Cliffs to protect critical wildlife habitat, restore degraded stream zones and fisheries and ensure that public access, recreation values, ranching and wildlife endure into the future.
Water is the lifeblood of all elk country, but nowhere more so than in this bony land. The four ranches eventually acquired from willing sellers totaled just over 20,000 acres and contained nearly every major creek in the Book Cliffs Initiative area, as well as holding grazing leases on more than 600,000 acres of state and federal land. Unlike most elk ranges in the West, the Book Cliffs don’t lack for winter range—miles of shrub desert sprawl across the area’s broad plateaus. But the water-rich canyon bottoms provide crucial spring and summer range for elk and mule deer, which are otherwise limited to a narrow, high-elevation band of habitat. Livestock grazing is now roughly half of what it once was in the area and spread evenly across the landscape. Streams, riparian vegetation, native fish, wildlife and cattle are all much healthier.
Long one of Utah’s most remote and least known areas, the Book Cliffs was thrown open with the oil boom of the 1960s and ’70s. Almost overnight, hundreds of miles of roads veined this country. The trophy mule deer for which the cliffs had been legendary quickly became a thing of the past. But within this half-million acre area, the state and the BLM have implemented either permanent or seasonal closures and restricted ATV use. Jaw-dropping bucks once again roam the “Books,” and the growing elk herd holds some very impressive bulls.
As a model of far-sighted partnership, the Book Cliffs Initiative left little to be desired. After 22 years of working in wildlife management in Utah, Dwight Bunnell, then chief of game management for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said, “It’s hard to envision anything in the state that could equal it. It was kind of like shooting the moon.”
For over 80 years, the Macfarlane and Clayton families shared ownership of the 7,300-acre Peaceful Valley Ranch lying barely 17 miles north of the year-round recreation hotspot of Park City, Utah. Over the years, the Claytons’ interest in the ranch slowly waned and finally all but evaporated. But the Macfarlane family worked and managed the ranch through three generations—nurturing enduring ties to the land and all that lives on it. The Peaceful Valley Ranch epitomizes the classic western landscape.
Green pastures flank riparian bottoms lined with cottonwood, alder and willow, eventually giving way to rolling rangeland covered in big sage, mountain mahogany and serviceberry. The swath of shrubs rises several thousand feet before melding into stands of aspen, Gambel oak, Douglas fir and Engelman spruce.
As part of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resource’s Cooperative Wildlife Management Unit program, the ranch’s management plan allows for sustainable livestock grazing while improving habitat for the elk, mule deer and moose that inhabit the ranch year-round. The ranch’s varied habitat also supports mountain lions, beavers, grouse, cutthroat trout and other species.
“We worked on the ranch as kids,” remembered Grant Macfarlane when interviewed for an article written for the Elk Foundation’s volunteer newsletter, Wapiti, several years ago.
“But it’s also where we spent all of our leisure time. Our vacations were there, our family events were there, even some weddings. It’s where my brothers and I learned to work, where we courted our brides, where we hunted and fished. We came to love the ranch as part of our heritage.”
So, in 1995 when the Claytons proposed selling Peaceful Valley, the Macfarlane family vowed to figure out a way to save the ranch. But it wouldn’t be easy. The ranch was barely making enough to make ends meet. And Park City’s reputation as a premier ski destination had been driving up land and house prices in the area for years. The recent shift of Park City’s three ski resorts to year-round recreation resorts, combined with heightened attention from the pending 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, had spawned a building frenzy of condos, high-rise hotels and outlet malls. The family watched as neighboring landowners succumbed one by one to bloated property values and estate taxes, selling all or part of their ranches to developers.
The Macfarlanes knew if they didn’t act, their ranch would be next. They felt placing a conservation easement on the ranch was their best bet to keep the land intact and in the family. But they knew entirely donating an easement wasn’t an option because it wouldn’t fulfill the Clayton’s objectives. After stripping the property of development rights, the Peaceful Valley easement was valued at $6.4 million. The Macfarlanes felt if they could sell an easement for $2.5 million, they could satisfy the wishes of the shareholders who wanted to sell and still keep the ranch in business. Then they would donate the remaining $3.9 million value of the easement.
In June 1999, the Utah Department of Natural Resources used $900,000 from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program to secure an easement on 1,790 acres. Immediately after, the Macfarlanes began working with the Trust for Public Land, Utah Open Lands and the department to cement an easement on the remaining 5,510 acres. Dwight Bunnell—who at the time worked in a cost-share lands position between the Elk Foundation and the department’s Division of Wildlife Resources— worked with the family to negotiate the easement. But the partners still needed to raise $1.6 million.
The Utah Quality Growth Commission was the first to step up to the plate, granting $750,000 from a new fund set up by the state legislature to preserve or restore open space and agricultural land. The Elk Foundation was the first private group to contribute to the project, pledging $100,000.
Thanks to the generosity of other contributors, the partners raised the remaining money, and in June 2000, completed the second easement.
Utah – Watershed Restoration Initiative
In support of a Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the Utah Partners for Conservation and Development (UPCD) campaign to restore and enhance thousands of acres of critical shrub steppe and riparian habitats, the Elk Foundation is funding a number of mechanical and reseeding projects to treat decadent sagebrush and encroaching pinyon-juniper woodlands. These rangelands support elk, mule deer, sage grouse, pygmy rabbits, and other wildlife.
The UPCD is committed to providing such solutions for the serious, statewide issues of conserving, managing and restoring Utah’s vast and diverse watersheds, wildlife habitat and rangelands. In an unprecedented collaborative effort, the UPCD combines the resources of agencies and organizations with long histories of ecosystem management and restoration endeavors in Utah into a single, functional partnership.
Historic and recent ecosystem changes, often human-induced, have resulted in a current landscape in need of our attention and effort. Invasion of exotic species and pathogens, increased frequency and intensity of wildfire, conversion of productive habitat to undesirable species, land fragmentation, habitat loss, and lack of public understanding of these issues are just a few of the factors facing Utah’s ecosystems and citizens. These problems not only affect wildlife and their habitat, but also goods and services provided by Utah’s land base.
The UPCD has developed three general approaches to address the risks to the shared interests of the partnership. The first is ecosystem restoration through physical and mechanical habitat manipulations such as seeding, reconstruction, vegetation management, species transplants, and other means. Secondly, administrative changes in land management may be made through permitted or allowed uses and management prescriptions. This may be done either independently of, or together with, mechanical interventions. Finally, communication and team building among the public, stakeholders and the UPCD is promoted to better understand the risks to natural resources and values, and to improve cooperation and problem solving across boundaries.
About the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
Founded in 1984 and headquartered in Missoula, Montana, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring the future of elk, other wildlife and their habitat. The Elk Foundation and its partners have permanently protected or enhanced nearly 5 million acres, a land area more than twice as large as Yellowstone National Park. Nearly 500,000 acres previously closed to public access are now open for hunting, fishing and other recreation as a result of the Elk Foundation’s work. The Elk Foundation has more than 150,000 members, a staff of 150 and 10,000 active volunteers. To help protect wild elk country or learn more about the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, visit www.elkfoundation.org or call 800-CALL-ELK.