More than a legacy: Sommers Ranch conservation runs deep
Big Piney – The elevation at the Sommers Ranch’s front porch is 7,060 feet, and its growing season is 45 days at best. Winter is long, and annual precipitation is around 12 inches, which comes mostly in the form of winter snow.
Despite those challenging factors, Albert and Jonita Sommers carry on their family’s tradition of taking care of and improving their ranch land, which has led to their recognition as the 2012 Environmental Stewardship Award winner.
“My dad was always a believer in leaving grass,” says Albert. “He always said, ‘If you take care of the cows, they’ll take care of you,’ and that philosophy means that we must have stewardship. That was passed down to me.”
The Sublette County Conservation District and the Pinedale Field Office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) nominated the Sommers Ranch for the award, and the ranch joins prior Sublette County award winners – the Bousman and Pape family ranches.
In recent years, the Sommers Ranch’s major accomplishments have been the initiation and implementation of a range monitoring system in a coordinated effort with the other members for the Upper Green River Cattle Association and a conservation easement in partnership with the neighboring Grindstone Cattle Company.
The Upper Green River Allotment is immense. A common allotment, it consists of 12 pastures divided into four grazing systems. The allotment permits over 7,500 cattle on 132,000 acres, making it the largest allotment in the National Forest system. October brings snows, triggering the return “drift,” when the cattle trail from the forest 30 or 40 miles back to the cutting grounds a few miles north of the Sommers Ranch, where neighbors gather to sort cattle and return them back to their home ranches, generally by the third week in October.
“Rangeland monitoring is a good means to help us reach our objectives by determining if we’re nearing those objectives,” says Albert. “It’s a way that looks at the land in a different fashion than we have historically as ranchers.”
In addition to the Upper Green range management program, which has been ongoing since 1996, Albert recently began monitoring with fellow permittees on their BLM allotment on the Pinedale Anticline.
“Our BLM allotment has now become one of the largest gas fields in Wyoming, and if you couple that with the threat of listing sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, we have a dynamic condition imposed on us that could influence how we manage around some of these things – both manmade and wildlife,” says Albert. “We decided we need to get a better handle on what we’re doing out there, and how we’re affecting the things important to sage grouse and how the gas field will play into it.”
The success of the monitoring programs in which Albert is involved, the success of other cooperative permittee monitoring programs, and the fact that Albert was a member of the team who initially conceived and developed the program led to Albert sharing the honor of the National Rangeland Management Award for Cooperative Permittee Monitoring from the US Forest Service in 2007.
With the desire to preserve the land as their family has known it, the Sommers enrolled their land into a conservation easement with the Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Trust Fund in 2010.
“Neither my sister nor I have children, and we were trying to plan the future of this ranch,” says Albert. “For us, it was obvious that we wanted to see the ranch go forward in agriculture rather than development and subdivision. We came up with a project we believe will allow us to pass this ranch down to another set of ranchers to ensure the land will be retained as it is now – open and viable for wildlife and ranching.”
They conserved over 1,700 acres of land along the Green River in conjunction with their friend and neighbor, Maggie Miller of Grindstone Cattle Company. This combined easement, totaling 19,000 acres, was historic in nature, at the time being the largest private land easement completed in Wyoming.
“Another thing we did as part of the easement was provide public fishing access,” says Albert.
In conjunction with the rangeland monitoring and conservation easement, Albert says the ranch’s conservation plan also includes wildlife-friendly fencing and sagebrush conservation.
“Any new fencing or replacement fencing is done in a wildlife-friendly manner,” he says. “We won’t convert any more sagebrush to grassland or cropland – we want to ensure our sagebrush uplands remain available to sage grouse and mule deer, as well as livestock.” Despite all the ranch has accomplished, Albert says the ranch still has new conservation projects in the planning stages. One of those includes the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the NRCS in a forb planting trial above the ranch’s irrigation ditches.
“Planting non-bloating legumes adjacent to or in the sagebrush might be beneficial to sage grouse as they come down to the water late in the season,” explains Albert. “There is a zone above the irrigation ditch where we have the ability to influence the 10 or 20 feet that has more moisture than the surrounding uplands.”
The project will provide forage for sage grouse, while the nearby sagebrush provides security and protection for the birds, and at the same time it will provide high quality feed for cattle.
Looking ahead to the Environmental Stewardship Tour this summer, Albert says attendees will be able to see another part of their conservation project – family homestead buildings that were donated to the local historical society for a ranch history museum for the area.
“Sitting in the Green River Valley, the landscape, the natural resources at our fingertips and the fact that we’re sparsely populated are all things that speak to my soul,” says Albert of the location his family homesteaded. “We have a great diversity of wildlife and habitat, and our mountains are gorgeous and the people are great. We’re not the most economically efficient area for agriculture, with our long winters that mean we feed a lot of hay, but everybody loves their home, and I’m no exception to that rule.”
Albert says he didn’t seek the recognition of the Environmental Stewardship Award.
“We’re now the third ranch in Sublette County to receive this award, and we represent our neighbors. There are many quality ranchers and ranching efforts in this area, and the Bousmans, Papes and Sommerses are examples of that,” he says of himself and the previous winners. “We’re examples of what is a really good ranching industry in this valley.”
Jennifer Hayward of the Pinedale NRCS office says that, during all of their projects, the Sommers’ commitment to the land, their knowledge and respect for the history of the area and their genuine zeal for ranching guides their decisions.
“This family is important to our community and state. The Sublette County Conservation District staff and board and I wanted folks to see that their conservation effort does not stop at their own ranch boundary,” says Hayward of their nomination. “Albert is a leader is helping to care for our public lands, both on BLM and Forest Service allotments. We are excited that this long-standing ranch family is being recognized, especially since Albert and Jonita are the last of the Sommers family.”
Sponsors for the Environmental Stewardship Award include the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, the Sand County Foundation, Encana Oil & Gas and Peabody Energy. Winning the Wyoming award qualifies the Sommers Ranch for the regional competition. The Wyoming Department of Agriculture and WSGA will host the Environmental Stewardship Tour on the Sommers Ranch this summer.
Watch the Roundup for further details concerning the 2012 Environmental Stewardship Tour. Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at email@example.com.