Wildlife interactions Sullivan Ranch: addresses wildlife on operation
Douglas – John Sullivan raises Hereford cattle on the same property that his family has had since 1888.
“I’ve never been anyplace else,” says John. “My great granddad had a homestead between Laramie and Cheyenne that he sold to move up here. They started west of here about five miles.”
John adds that his family bought the homesteads he currently ranches on from neighbors shortly after moving to the area.
He runs the ranch with his nephews Greg Addleman and Thad Isenberger. Thad’s wife Kindall and sons Jack and Luke live just up the road and help out as well.
“We raise Hereford mostly,” explains John. “For the last 20 years we’ve crossed them with Angus for hybrid vigor.”
John notes that crossbreeding helps to lessen some of the problems typically seen with Hereford cattle, such as sunburned utters.
The operation calves in March and April, selling their yearlings in August via a video auction and shipping in September. At weaning, they move part of their calves to a feedlot, wintering the rest of their calves at the home ranch.
While the weaned calves are fed hay as soon as they are weaned, the cows aren’t usually fed hay until December, depending on weather. In the winter season, John says they stay just as busy as during the summer, gathering cows from the mountain, fixing fences, weaning, pregnancy testing and making repairs around the property.
“We’re plenty busy,” says John.
John does not lease any BLM or Forest Service land, only supplementing his deeded land with a lease from a neighboring ranch.
“It’s getting more and more difficult to run on public lands because there are more regulations and endangered species,” says John. “I’ve never had anything to do with it, though.”
The operation experiences other challenges, however.
“The main challenge is trying to maintain the ranch and make a living,” John comments. “Cattle prices are good now, but we’re still about the same off as we were before because the price of fuel and everything else is higher.”
The location of the ranch also makes it susceptible to heavy winter storms that make ranch activities difficult and push wildlife into the Sullivans’ winter pastures.
“We can get a lot of snow, mostly in the springtime,” says John. “In 2009 we had nine or 10 feet of snow in two weeks. We were calving that time, too.”
Another major challenge is the wildlife populations that inhabit the valley, and John has allowed the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) to implement their Hunter Management and Access Program (HMAP) on the property in an attempt to alleviate the strain from wildlife.
HMAP is a pilot program that started in 2010 with the objective of providing increased access to private lands for hunters and allowing the WGFD more control in managing wildlife numbers.
John also notes that sanctuaries are created in areas and on ranches that don’t allow hunting, and elk tend to retreat there during hunting seasons. Migrations of elk also make hunting more difficult, unless there are hunters around the entire area.
The high elk numbers, reaching up to between 9,000 and 10,000 animals, result in damage to hay fields and haystacks, necessitating that John build large fences to preserve the hay they harvest each year. His concerns with concentrating large amounts of hay stem from the increased possibility of large losses of feed in the event of a fire.
He says the elk cause damage across the area, noting, “The elk just pour off the hills, come into the hay fields and get into the hay stacks. There are elk eating grass or hay somewhere, and it’s on somebody’s place.”
The WGFD employs Hunt Management Coordinator Lee Knox to meet with hunters each morning, providing them with maps and ranch rules, as well as elk locations. The program also attempts to control elk movement by only hunting two days and taking a day off.
“He tries to keep track of where the elk are so people can hunt them,” explains John. “It’s not a bad deal, but I don’t think it will reduce the elk populations, and they spent an awful lot of money to implement it.”
John says the program resulted in the harvest of over 60 elk, but the cost to the WGFD is very high.
“It’s a good thing for the hunters, but as far as reducing the elk herd, I don’t think they will kill enough,” states John.
“The Hunter Management and Access Program did help some, because more people are letting hunters in now, where they didn’t before,” says John of the program. “It keeps elk moving around a little more. There are still places where they go that no one can get to the elk.”
He has also allowed several researchers onto his property to look at mule deer populations and their decline.
“A few years ago the Game and Fish came and caught 40 head of mule deer. They put radio collars and ear tags on them,” explains John. “A graduate student from the university tracks them whenever there is a dead deer to find out what has happened.”
John says the mountain lions and coyotes are prevalent in the area and are a contributing factor in the population decline, along with chronic wasting disease (CWD).
Though there is hunting to control mountain lions, John notes that quotas aren’t usually met. He recalls one incident where a researcher came face-to-face with a mountain lion that had killed the deer they were tracking.
“The population of mule deer is low – there used to be deer everywhere,” says John. “Nobody seems to know what to do with CWD.”
Despite the challenges with weather and wildlife, John’s passion for ranch work is evident in his feeling about the longevity of the ranch.
“After someplace has been in operation as long as this, hopefully someone will be there to keep it going,” he notes. “I grew up here, and I like to do the work. I like the cattle, and I like the country. It’s a good life. It’s a hard life, maybe, but it’s a good life.”
Saige Albert is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.