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RMEF Bugle Magazine | Striking Gold on Birch Creek

August 29, 2016
  • Hunting & Fishing
  • In The News

On the dry side of the Wasatch Range in the northeast corner of Utah, you can still find big sweeps of sagebrush freckled with pockets of aspen, mountain mahogany and black timber. Clear, cold creeks glide through native grasses and forbs that have never felt the bite of the plow. There are ranches where it is possible to spot cattle, sheep, elk, mule deer and antelope all scattered across one long ridge.

Striking Gold

Article by Dan Crockett  |  RMEF MAGAZINE – Bugle – September/October 2016

On the dry side of the Wasatch Range in the northeast corner of Utah, you can still find big sweeps of sagebrush freckled with pockets of aspen, mountain mahogany and black timber. Clear, cold creeks glide through native grasses and forbs that have never felt the bite of the plow. There are ranches where it is possible to spot cattle, sheep, elk, mule deer and antelope all scattered across one long ridge. The Milky Way shines bright enough to throw the shadows of aspen across the sage. This is the home of the Birch Creek Ranch.

Physically and philosophically, the ranch lies closer to Lonetree, Wyoming, and Paris, Idaho, than Salt Lake City or Ogden or Logan, but the tentacles of those cities creep closer each year. Scott Walker, Habitat Program Manager for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), lays out the dilemma.

“The problems with that area are it’s too close to the Wasatch Front and it’s gorgeous,” Walker says. “That’s what makes it so stinking developable.”

Eighty percent of Utah’s 3 million residents live along the 100-mile Wasatch Front, and the population there is growing twice as fast as the national average. RMEF life member Andrew Barber had recently moved from Montana to Logan to work as an ER doctor and be closer to his family. That move drove home just how precious their land along Birch Creek is. Bob Hammond, RMEF senior southwest land program manager, had never heard of Birch Creek before he met Andrew, but it didn’t take him long to form an opinion.  “Andrew called me out of the blue and said his family had some property and would like to talk about doing an easement,” Hammond says. “He described the place for about 60 seconds and I said, ‘When can we set up a field trip?’”  There is a very loud face and a very quiet face of the movement in Utah to give the state a bigger hand in the stewardship of natural resources. Allen Barber is as quiet as it gets. No talking, all action. While politicians and other zealots bellow, bloviate and blog about all that could be gained by transferring America’s federal public lands to the state, Barber forever protected one of the jewels of Utah’s elk country. He did it by working shoulder to shoulder with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Division of Wildlife Resources to place conservation easements on more than 8,600 acres of exceptional habitat for elk, mule deer, sage grouse, the state fish and a treasure house of other wildlife.

Make no mistake, Allen, his son Andrew and their ranching partner Dan Dygert still own every acre of the Birch Creek Ranch and retain full control over it. They simply gave up the right to subdivide, or develop, while retaining two 10-acre building envelopes to possibly build personal dwellings or structures necessary to support ranch operations. Along the way, they invited RMEF and DWR to join them as trusted advisors on the land’s stewardship. “I bought it with the idea of keeping it from being developed—to protect the elk and deer and everything else that’s on there,” Barber says. And to savor it all for the time he’s taking care of it. An RMEF life member, Barber joined in 2004, just a few years before buying Birch Creek. “It’s nice to have a place where you can enjoy some wide open space,” he says. “My son Andrew and his sons just like to get out and walk around. I do too.” In the fall, they especially like to walk around with bows, rifles or shotguns in their hands. Barber also teamed up with DWR to give 20 public hunters free access to the ranch to chase elk, mule deer, moose and pronghorns each fall. All this without a single tweet or pseudo-humble back spun brag on Facebook. He didn’t even want a plaque celebrating his generosity. He told RMEF to put the money toward conservation work instead. Dygert and Sheldon Atwood founded Carrus Land Systems as a ranch management company in 2007, the year they first spotted this land and saw the potential for what it might become. Barber agreed wholeheartedly with that vision and bought the place. Carrus owns a minority share in the ranch and acts as the managing partner, with Dygert (who is also an attorney specializing in lands work) overseeing daily operations. Carrus has also run yearlings in Wyoming and partnered on a ranch in Nebraska, practicing holistic ranch management for the past decade.

Allen, Andrew, Dygert and Hammond spent a long summer day touring the ranch, stopping here and there to look at creek bottoms and stock ponds, the latest boundary fence they’d rebuilt, stands of aspen and mahogany scarred by generations of rutting bulls. “Allen made sure I sat in the front and he sat in the back. By the end, we were all covered with dust, but he looked like a mummy,” Hammond says. “Within the first half hour, it became obvious how deeply committed they were to being good stewards and making this land as healthy as possible for everything there.”

Late in the afternoon, they pulled back up beside Highway 39, which follows Walton Canyon through the ranch, dividing the southern quarter from the rest. They sat and talked for a few moments about what, if any, their next steps might be. Andrew was at the wheel and he turned around and said, “Dad, you need to do this. You really need to do this.” Allen gave a small nod and the men went their separate ways.

Rare Birds and Fish

Hammond quickly enlisted Steve Hansen, land and water assets coordinator for DWR. They already had teamed up on three significant RMEF lands projects in the past 8 years. “We have a great partnership with DWR, and Steve Hansen is an outstanding man,” Hammond says. “He has great values and he really knows how to thread through the challenges and get things done.”

Hansen in turn recruited Walker and they went to have a look for themselves. They bumped into flock after flock of sage grouse. Signs of elk, moose, mule deer and pronghorns littered the landscape. “We realized immediately this was a conservation coup because sage grouse have become such an important species and issue,” Hansen says. “But for so many other reasons too. It’s just a prize piece of land.”

Over the past 200 years, the range of greater sage grouse has shrunk by half across the West. Worse by far, their population has declined by 97 percent. When the Sage Grouse Initiative mapped key remaining sage grouse habitat throughout the West in 2011, they identified this corner of Utah as core range and some of the state’s finest. “Rich County is blessed with this robust sage grouse population,” Hansen says. “And it connects directly to the sage grouse habitat in southwest Wyoming, which is some of the best left in the world.”

Walker was equally impressed.  “From an ecological standpoint, we don’t have a lot of systems left that haven’t been changed by invasive plants or introduced perennials,” he says. “This is a really intact native system, with a huge diversity of species.”

BLM rangeland borders the ranch to the north, east and south, with the Cache National Forest to the west, and wave after wave of rolling hills and hidden pockets in between. For a ranch that covers almost 14 square miles, there is surprisingly little variation between the lowest point at just over 7,200 feet along Sugar Pine Creek and where Strawberry Ridge tops out just over 8,200 feet. Winters and summers, elk are scarce. They are either lower or higher. For a couple months around calving time, though, and again through the fall, the ranch sits at the Goldilocks elevation: just right.

Spotty clumps of water birch, the state’s only native birch, grow along the ranch’s namesake creek. In all likelihood, though, the name refers to aspen— commonly misidentified by early settlers and the signature tree species in this country. “There are some great aspen stands on the north-facing slopes in the knolls north of the highway, right at the zone where calving and fawning take place,” Walker says. “Then those ridgelines are all mountain mahogany. The moose stay up there all winter. They just stand there in the snow and eat mahogany. Tough old buggers.”

Birch Creek winds through the heart of the ranch and Sugar Pine Creek defines its southern boundary. According to Dygert, they are just big enough that those who didn’t excel at long jumping in high school will likely make a two-jump crossing, complete with midpoint splashdown. But they can be waded at will. “They’re just little high mountain streams with small pools and beaver ponds,” Dygert says. “A foot-long fish would be a trophy.”  In truth, a fish of any size is a trophy because these are Bonneville cutthroats, native only to Utah and small corners of Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming. Biologists believed pure-strain Bonnevilles were extinct until they discovered a few isolated populations in Utah in the 1970s. Thanks to an aggressive recovery effort by a multi-agency conservation team, pure Bonneville cutthroats now inhabit nearly 2,500 miles of stream.

Because the ranch sits so high, it’s often still covered in snow when grouse strut and carry on in April. There are no known leks on the place, but hens pour up to nest and raise chicks. Grasses, forbs and bugs all flourished here after Carrus and Barber modified cattle and sheep grazing, providing both cover and a buffet line for grouse chicks. “It’s tough to estimate grouse, but we’ve collared some of them and are confident the population is in the hundreds,” Dygert says. “Our primary goal has been to encourage diversity in the sagebrush stands and the overall plant community.”

Most of the West’s basin big sagebrush fell to the plow long ago because the soils beneath it are deep, dark and fertile. But thriving stands of basin big sage up to 7 feet tall line Birch Creek. Sage thrashers and sagebrush sparrows buzz among them. So the ranch held outstanding populations of four species of big game, plus a bird and a fish that are poster species for how collaborative work can restore at-risk populations without the rancor and red tape of endangered species listing. Not to mention great public hunting opportunities. Hammond and his DWR partners practically salivated. Hansen began scouring for funds and building political goodwill. For his part, Barber says, “Bob liked what he saw and we liked him and we just went from there.”

That understates things a bit, a habit of Barber’s. Hammond had left the original field trip hopeful, but figured if the landowners chose to protect the whole ranch, they might donate a conservation easement on the quarter of the ranch that lies south of the highway and seek a purchased easement on the rest. Instead, they did just the opposite, donating a 6,446-acre easement on everything north of the highway. This first phase rolled forward like destiny itself, no simple task in Utah. “If the state is going to receive a property or hold a conservation easement, we have to get the approval of the governor, the local state senator and representative, and the county commission,” Hansen says.

Dygert proved pivotal to winning that support at both the local and statewide level. “In Utah, there’s a fair amount of opposition to doing conservation easements anywhere at any time,” he notes. Ironically, his strongest ally with the Rich County commissioners was the steady advance of development from the Wasatch Front. Having watched new roads and buildings march across former ranchlands, the commission stands squarely behind the goal of preserving the agricultural character of their community. “Those commissioners all come from families that have been ranching there for 100 years or more. So we wanted to be completely clear and upfront with them,” Dygert says. “This keeps the property whole and it keeps it productive for livestock. Everything we’re doing is good for cattle and sheep as well as elk and mule deer and sage grouse.”

Few tools are better suited to sustaining ranching and hunting traditions than conservation easements. Not only do they keep large pieces of land intact, they allow them to pass from one generation to the next by greatly diminishing the property and inheritance taxes so often fatal to working ranches. All while encouraging sound livestock grazing. “When Dan showed up at the commission meeting, it was pretty apparent there had been some groundwork laid,” Walker says. “He was like a rock star.” The easement passed unanimously. Hansen forged ahead with winning approval from the governor’s office and the legislature to support partnering with RMEF to conserve the whole ranch and to provide a relatively small amount of money to cover the costs of the baseline assessment required to secure the easement north of the highway. “I got the last signature we needed at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve,” he says. The conservation easement protecting the northern three-quarters of the ranch closed on December 30, 2013.

A Family of Passionate Hunters

“I like big elk,” Barber says. “I’ve shot several and we’ve killed some big ones off the property. I won’t forget the first hunt with Andrew up there when he got his fi rst bull. But big mule deer bucks are always just so elusive. Big is relative, of course. Andrew killed a 30-inch deer there last fall, and we’ve taken a number in that range. But I’d still like to catch that 32-, 33-inch, just-outstanding-in-every-way buck. I believe it’s possible any day I hunt there.”

For all that, he has not lost sight of the pleasures of sharing the fi eld with the up and coming generation of hunters. “Some of the most rewarding hunts have been with Andrew and his sons out after pronghorn,” he says. “Those hunts with the grandkids are probably my favorites. And Andrew and his boys had never harvested sage grouse, so we put in for sage grouse permits last year and took our one grouse apiece. The weather was gorgeous and we had the dogs out and everybody had a great time.”

Barber is willing to share the land’s hunting opportunities with the public as well. Birch Creek Ranch lies at the heart of the Strawberry Ridge Cooperative Wildlife Management Unit (CWMU), a contiguous block of five ranches spanning 24,000 acres of great elk country. “This piece of ground we hold is the bridge,” Barber says. “It ties everything together.” Dygert agrees, and notes that “everything” amounts to some pretty top-shelf hunting opportunities.

“When we bought the property it was being run as a CWMU, but was barely over 10,000 acres, just this ranch and one other fairly small piece,” Dygert says. “We opted for a different outfitter and management strategy. Now the acreage has more than doubled and the average size of the bulls and bucks has jumped up, too.”

Launched by the Division of Wildlife Resources in 1996, the CWMU program aims to recognize the contributions private landowners make in providing big game habitat while also offering excellent opportunities to the hunting public. It is a straight-up incentive proposition. In exchange for allowing public hunters on their land, each landowner in the CWMU gets a guaranteed share of the available tags based on how many acres they enroll. Participating landowners can use or sell the tags however they please. In the case of Birch Creek Ranch, that means passing up the chance to make more money in favor of a potential encounter with an exceptional animal. “We never use all the private elk and deer tags we’re allotted,” Barber says. “We keep the harvest low and focused on mature animals.”

With landowners receiving the lion’s share of the CWMU’s bull elk and buck deer tags, it is clearly a good deal for them. But public hunters who draw these tags feel the same way. They tend to arrive happy and leave happier. In 2015, there were 22 tags available to the public by drawing at no charge on the Strawberry Ridge CWMU: three bull elk, three pronghorn buck, two mule deer buck, one bull moose, 10 cow elk and three pronghorn doe. Success rates last fall ran 96 percent on bull elk (27 out of 28 tags) and 80 percent for buck deer. The average bull killed was 6½ years old. Not surprisingly, when DWR conducts annual hunter satisfaction surveys, Strawberry Ridge scores high marks. That, in turn, brings Barber real satisfaction.

“As you well know, public access is becoming more and more limited,” he says. “Up until probably 2000, my family and I were basically public hunters. We understand what they’re up against, and what it means to have places to go, especially ones with high-quality hunting that don’t just get hammered.”

The ranch also allows public walk-in access for those who want to fish Birch Creek and 100-acre Birch Creek Reservoir. It’s strictly catch-and-release flyfishing in the creek, but the reservoir holds tiger trout (hybrids between brook and brown trout) reaching up to two feet. All tackle is fair game there, as is catch-and-eat.

Bringing it Back

When Barber and Carrus bought the land, the boundary fences were dilapidated or flattened altogether. Every spring, cattle flooded in from leases on adjoining BLM and national forest land. There were probably as many trespass cattle on the ranch as elk, pounding forage willy-nilly. The new owners set about building solid fence on all perimeters. For the most part, they used laydown fencing, which can be lowered once livestock are moved off in the fall. It kills far fewer sage grouse, antelope, deer and elk—and makes for fewer fence repairs, too. Inside the ranch, they built fencing to protect riparian areas along Birch and Sugar Pine creeks, and also built dozens of small ponds to catch runoff and supplement springs. The ranch continues to lease cattle and sheep grazing rights to neighbors who have traditionally run livestock there, but they reined in both the time

and places where they allow animals. For years, cattle grazed here from May through October. Now grazing is spring-only, with the animals off the ranch by June 30. Sheep move through for two to three weeks in spring and again in late summer or early fall, never lingering in one place long enough to take too much forage. There is no plowing, cultivating, haying or irrigating either. All grazing occurs on native rangeland. “The biggest thing we’ve done to benefit the riparian areas was just getting the trespass cows out,”

Barber says. Then he adds, “Andrew and I did go up there a year ago and planted a whole bunch of willows, chokecherries, serviceberries and red osier dogwoods all along both banks of Birch Creek. That should help the stream itself and hopefully provide more habitat for moose.”

Dygert says surrounding landowners and land managers are setting high standards for stewardship as well.

“Ecologically, it’s tough to manage effectively if you don’t have scale,” Dygert says. “So the ranchers north of here actually joined forces and formed a huge grazing block with the BLM, which they’d never done before. Now instead of six different operations grazing little patches all over, it’s just one giant herd rotating through all these pastures. Things like that make a big difference.

“If you look at the BLM to our north, it’s in excellent shape,” Dygert adds. “The same goes with the Forest Service. The people in the local offices here do a great job and they’re very good to work with.”

He is equally complimentary of RMEF. “I’ve represented clients and worked with everyone from the Nature Conservancy to the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to protect land,” Dygert says. “Eventually we’d get there, but boy, it was an arduous process. With the Elk Foundation, they had the track greased up and we whistled right through.”

Unfortunately, phase two came off the rails.  “However smooth Birch Creek North went in 2013, that’s how rough Birch Creek South went,” Hammond says. “We thought we had our matching grant money all lined up and at the 11th hour, NRCS said our application was completed incorrectly. We were disqualified and denied funding, with no hope of getting it until at least the next budget cycle a year out.”

Hansen flew into action. “I told Bob, ‘Hold on a few days and let me get back to you.’ I knew we had some Pittman-Robertson money that might be available and I thought we might be able to convince the Quality Growth Commission that this would be an excellent use of the LeRay McCallister Critical Lands Conservation Fund.”

Established by the legislature in 1999, the Quality Growth Commission works to help Utah grow more sustainably. One of its roles is overseeing this incentive program, providing grants to encourage communities and landowners to work together to conserve their critical lands. Hansen swiftly persuaded the commission to visit the ranch to see what was at stake. As with the county commissioners, local ties won the day with this group as well. “Dan Dygert was our ace,” Hansen says. “If a landowner is there and they’re making a strong case for what they want to conserve, it’s best to just shut up and let them do their thing.”

The elk threw in on it, too. “Our tour couldn’t have been set up better,” Walker says. “We pulled off the highway and started up there and out of the trees busts this huge group of elk. Like someone was just standing in the trees waiting to open the gate.” The QGC believed, literally giving everything they had—the whole $330,000 allocation. After all this, though, RMEF and DWR still fell short of the sale price on the easement.

“That’s when Allen’s commitment truly showed,” Hammond says. “He wanted to protect it all, the whole ranch, and he was patient and hung in there while we scrambled for funds. In the end, when he knew that was all the money we could possibly bring to the table, he was willing to make a bargain sale. That was really the crux. And that was after donating the easement on all the rest of it.”

Barber already had protected the other land he owns 100 miles north along Mink Creek in southeast Idaho through a conservation easement with the Sagebrush Steppe Land Trust. Despite widespread misunderstanding and mistrust of easements, Barber is a believer.

“As long as you’re selective in your partners, a conservation easement doesn’t change anything that you do for livestock or wildlife,” he says. “In my opinion, it only improves it. When you have the annual monitoring inspections, you’ve got another partner there who wants to see that land be as productive as possible giving you good advice, and often helping fund the projects. I think it’s a good thing.” As for the idea of the national forest and BLM lands that flank Birch Creek becoming state land,

Barber takes a measured but decisive tone. “I think transferring federal public land to the state is a mistake. I have a high suspicion that the people who are behind this want to get their hands on that land and develop it,” Barber says. “I’m not a fan of the federal government doing much, but Utah has a long history of selling off state lands. I think in this case the public would lose out big-time.”

The Shadow to the West

“The risk of development pushing up from the Wasatch Front is pretty high,” Walker says. “There is national forest up there, but not huge blocks. So any of this private land that we can conserve is just huge for our elk and deer and grouse.” The Barbers, Dygert, Hansen, Walker and Hammond share a unanimous vision of what they hope the place will look like in 2066: a mirror of how it is today.

“I have a feeling, though, that in 50 years it could wind up surrounded by development,” Barber says.

“The way Utah looks at property, they’re pretty anxious to develop about anything that is developable. I have to think over the long term a lot of it will change. We have cabin development creeping up over the hill toward us. Not developments, per se, but the 20-acre type deals. I don’t blame anybody for wanting to have their 20 acres, but it sure does cut up a landscape and change the feel of it, the health of it and the way wildlife use it.”

Hammond is blunter. “Elk country can withstand some development if they’re clustering the homes and the animals still have some gaps they can move through,” he says. “But when you start busting it up into 40s and building them out, it’s the kiss of the death.” Hansen is nothing if not realistic about the inexorable pressures of development, but still takes a sanguine view. “That land along Birch Creek will always be whole. If it looks exactly like it does right now in 50 years, I’d be tickled to death,” he says. “And if there’s anything we can do to snag the adjoining properties and do that kind of landscape conservation…wow.”  Asked if there is any hope of that, he replies, “What is it that Gandalf said in Lord of the Rings? ‘There’s always hope. It may be a fool’s hope, but there is always hope.’”