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Wildlife Management: Longtime ranch manager practices conservation

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The Big Creek Ranch, a predominately black-hided Angus cow/calf and yearling operation located southeast of Encampment, has been managed by Mark Dunning for 32 years. Growing up, Mark’s father was the cattle manager at the Padlock Ranch in Sheridan County.

“I’ve been around ranching all of my life,” Mark says.

Early years

The Big Creek Ranch was homesteaded by the Hunter family in 1878.

“Supposedly, the Hunter family came out to Wyoming trailing cattle to get on the rail at Hanna or Walcott, but the market fell so they left the cattle up there and went to look for grass and found this valley down here and homesteaded it,” says Mark. 

The ranch has transferred ownership a few times and is currently owned by the Gates family out of Denver, Colo., who purchased the ranch in the 1960s.

Seasonal changes

Mark says the cows and yearlings are summered at the ranch.

“For the calves we don’t sell, part of them go to California to the Central Valley around Oakdale, Calif. to winter there, and part of them go to a feedlot in Colorado,” says Mark. “We bring them back in the spring and sell them as yearlings, or we breed the replacement heifers and put them in the cowherd.”

Calves are branded towards the end of June. They take portable panels out into the hills where they gather the calves and brand them.

“Using panels and branding out in the hills is pretty unique to us,” says Mark. “I think most people around here have corrals, but we’re in the middle of all of our hay meadows – we can’t really brand in our corrals, so we take the corrals to the cattle.”

Mark and his ranch hands put up hay each year.

“We hay about 4,200 acres depending on the year, and we put up about 7,000 tons of hay – all native grass hay,” says Mark.

Government regulations and geographical challenges

Government regulations are always a challenge for the ranch.

“We deal with state and national governments in two different states – Colorado and Wyoming,” says Mark. “There are differences in both states, and regulations and personnel are always changing, which has always been a big challenge whether it’s for irrigation or other issues.”

Another challenge the Big Creek Ranch faces is due to the higher elevations.

“When your main ranch is at 8,000 feet, that’s pretty high,” he says. “We are in that part of Colorado and Carbon County that’s deep snow country.”

“Altitude and winter is always a challenge for us,” he adds. “It’s pretty tough winter country out here. A lot of Colorado and Wyoming is, so it’s not super unique to the state, but it is always a challenge when you face the kind of snow we face here.” 

Conservation practices

Mark says conservation is a priority for him and the Gates family. 

“The Gates family is really involved with conservation, and that’s something they really push,” he says. “It’s something I push here too. We are all pro-wildlife and this is a big wildlife area here – so much game – it all moves through us in the winter time, so it’s neat to see. The more we can do to help them out, we try to do.” 

Conservation projects on the Big Creek Ranch include improving fish and wildlife habitats. 

“A few years ago, we remade a head gate for fish passage in collaboration with Trout Unlimited, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, along with some other water initiative programs,” he says. “We do a lot of work to convert cattle fence to wildlife-friendly fence. We are trying to make it a little easier for the game animals to migrate through the ranch in tougher winters.”

Mark says they allow some hunting on the ranch, but it isn’t outfitted.

“We are trying a pilot program this year in Colorado with some hunting, but we don’t outfit, we don’t have time,” says Mark. “It’s not an anti-hunting ranch, it just doesn’t work out for us as a business model.”

Future goals

Mark says keeping the ranch profitable and sustainable is a goal of his.

“Reaching and maintaining profit is a real challenge with a lot of ranches,” he says. “We are big into conservation, so we continue to strive to make the ranch better – better grass, better wildlife habitat, etc., and hopefully that will continue.”

Kaitlyn Root is an editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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