HAILEY, Idaho — The new owners of a 10,000-acre ranch in the heart of the Pioneer Mountains place as much importance on protecting sage grouse habitat and a pronghorn antelope migration corridor as they do on raising cattle.
The Nature Conservancy bought the ranch last year, furthering the goals of the Pioneers Alliance. The informal organization of ranchers, local residents and conservationists with the Nature Conservancy, Wood River Land Trust and the Conservation Fund is dedicated to preventing development of the scenic mountain range and the Craters of the Moon region of southcentral Idaho.
The alliance came together in 2007 to fight the proposed Mountain States Transmission Intertie. Ranchers in the path of the proposed power line, who worried about reduced property values, found common ground with conservationists, concerned about its impacts on wildlife. Though the power project is defunct, the group has continued hosting regular meetings, sometimes inviting politicians and agency officials to speak about issues of local importance, such as sage grouse and public lands management.
But the alliance’s primary mission has been acquiring conservation easements on ranch land within an ecologically important area where a broad swath of habitat remains intact.
“We look at it as a really long-term risk (of development),” said Dayna Gross, the local Nature Conservancy’s senior conservation manager. “There might not be much risk right now, but certainly 20 to 40 years down the road there could be.”
Under the Pioneers Alliance banner, partners have acquired conservation easements for 85,000 acres, Gross said.
She said the Nature Conservancy is leasing the land it recently purchased to a rancher who agreed to raise cattle using practices intended to protect wildlife, such as avoiding grazing of riparian areas and wildlife-friendly fencing. The rancher plans to buy the property soon, though the development rights will remain protected in perpetuity. Gross said the Nature Conservancy is also working to secure a conservation easement for another 8,000-acre parcel.
Monte McDonnell, who ranches 20 miles west of Arco, is selling conservation easements for 500 acres. In 2012, he sold easements for 4,000 acres and has encouraged neighbors to work with the alliance. McDonnell likes knowing that his land should look no different when his grandkids are ranching it. Though he’s prohibited from constructing new roads and buildings on his land, McDonnell hasn’t had to change his ranch management significantly.
Hailey rancher John Peavey sold conservation easements for nearly 25,000 acres, which he continues grazing with 1,000 cows and 3,800 sheep.
“When the opportunity came along to protect that land from subdivisions and Walmarts and parking lots, it was an easy choice,” Peavey said. “We liquidated a great deal of debt and did what we really like for the land.”
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service provides much of the funding for the alliance’s easement purchases through its Agricultural Land Easement Program. An NRCS official said the agency has $2.7 million allocated toward purchasing Idaho easements in 2017 and is enrolling new applicants. Program participants must follow approved grazing plans.