Gonzales brings partners together in conservation
Buffalo – Beginning his career in Wyoming conservation in Lusk in 1976, Phil Gonzales now resides in Buffalo and leads projects throughout the Powder River Basin as the Natural Resources Conservation Service Buffalo Field Office District Conservationist.
Gonzales was recently honored with an Outstanding Achievement Award for Stewardship by the Society for Range Management (SRM) at their annual meeting Feb. 11 in Albuquerque, N.M. The award is given for outstanding achievement in any range management-related area and is divided into two groups – Research and Academia and Stewardship.
Gonzales says working with a proactive conservation district has been one of most enjoyable things in his career. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with partnerships and do a lot of projects like leafy spurge, Russian olive and salt cedar control, water quality work, watershed assessments and work with sage grouse.”
After graduation from New Mexico State University with a bachelor’s in range science Gonzales came to Wyoming with a student co-op program. After Lusk he worked in Evanston, starting out as a range management specialist, and his move to Buffalo focused his work in the Powder River drainage, which ranges from Powder River to Miles City, Mont.
Gonzales also now assists the entire state of Wyoming with sage grouse habitat work, knowledge that he’s learned on the job in Johnson County. “I’m a firm believer in expanding knowledge, and belonging to the Society for Range Management has helped me a lot with that,” he notes. “I’ve been a member since 1974, and I believe that if a person belongs to a professional organization they need to learn from it and be active within it.”
Gonzales has been involved in the Wyoming and international sections of SRM, and is a past president of the Wyoming Section.
He says the project in which his district is currently in the midst of is the most enjoyable yet. “It’s a sage grouse habitat restoration project, and we now work with 24 producers and all of them are fully engaged in livestock grazing management for sage grouse habitat.”
The grazing management strategies are now in their seventh year, and Gonzales says he’s been learning about them for nine years now. There are 340,000 acres involved in the project. “We’ve learned to learn from watching the land,” he explains. “We’ve learned to listen to livestock producers and private landowners, because they’re full of knowledge. That’s been the rewarding part of my career.”
“Phil has an uncanny ability to bring people together to accomplish great things,” says Nikki Lohse, District Manager of the Lake DeSmet Conservation District, who’s now worked with Gonzales for 18 years.
“The important thing we’ve seen in the sage grouse project is we’re starting to see an increase in understory, which sage grouse use for nesting and cover from predation,” says Gonzales. “As long as we keep producers on the land we’re all better off. They’re engaged and helping us, and they’re being profitable, and that’s the part I like – we’re working together in a partnership.”
With the Outstanding Achievement Award, Gonzales says it’s rewarding to be recognized by his peers for stewardship efforts and working with people to implement conservation on the ground. “That’s the reward for living your life for good range management,” he says.
Of the diversity of projects and challenges, he says, “I never thought we’d be doing the kind of things we are.”
Lohse says Gonzales was instrumental in a project known as the Double Crossing Integrated Pest Management Project – an eight-year effort to manage primarily leafy spurge on 54,000 acres. “Today the area is managed for 5,000 acres of leafy spurge,” she says.
Another project in progress is a process that would screen fish from irrigation ditches and keep them in the creeks. The Lake DeSmet Conservation District will continue to work on salt cedar and Russian olive control along the Powder River, and sage grouse are an issue that Gonzales says isn’t going to go away anytime soon.
“Our conservation district and our producers are proactive, and we’ve built a trust and that’s part of doing good conservation – strong partnerships,” says Gonzales. “I’ve been here a long time, and I’ve done a lot of different things since I’ve been here, but right now the most rewarding thing is when we leave the land and it looks better than when we started.”
“Phil is a visionary, and he’s always looking forward to ensure through conservation efforts that future generations are able to enjoy our open spaces and natural resources,” says Lohse. ”We’re very fortunate to have a person of his caliber working with our local landowners to protect and enhance our natural resources.”
Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.