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Environmental Stewardship: WSGA honors Big Creek Ranch for stewardship action

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The Big Creek Ranch has been selected as the 2023 Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) Environmental Stewardship Award winner. 

The Wyoming Environmental Stewardship Program recognizes ranchers whose natural stewardship practices contribute to the environment and enhance productivity and profitability. The award is sponsored by the WSGA, Wyoming Department of Agriculture and Audubon Rockies. 

The ranch, originally established in 1878, is currently owned by the Gates Family. Mark Dunning serves as the ranch manager for Big Creek Ranch, where he oversees the cow/calf/yearling operation.

Stewardship practices 

According to the Saratoga-Encampment-Rawlins Conservation District (SERCD), Big Creek Ranch stewardship practices focus on adaptive rotational grazing, ranching conservation projects and cooperation with local conservation initiatives. Practices begin with a rotational grazing plan, allowing the flexibility to adapt to changes in the environment such as drought or fire.  

From here, the ranch implements a variety of conservation practices benefiting both the land, fish, wildlife and cattle. 

As advocates for partnerships and cooperative efforts, the ranch contributes to local initiatives and conservation efforts, including the Platte Valley Mule Deer Initiative, Saratoga Ag Day and several river cleanup days. 

Improving critical wildlife habitats 

Big Creek Ranch is located in a key area of the North Platte Valley. The area provides critical habitats for Greater sage grouse, Bighorn sheep, pronghorn, mule deer and other species. The ranch does not derive any income from hunting, but the Gates and Dunning families recognize the value of the wildlife in the area and have been dedicated to protecting and improving their habitats.

SERCD notes in the last decade, Big Creek Ranch has partnered on over 1,150 acres of habitat manipulation projects ranging from aspen ripping, spike herbicide applications, lawson aerator treatments and mowing. In addition, the ranch has worked on several SERCD and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) water development projects – from spring developments, to wells and pipelines with multiple tanks. 

In 2018, Big Creek Ranch was recognized with the Laramie Region Landowner of the Year for their involvement on improving and addressing fish barriers. 

As one of the original participants of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s (WGFD) Platte Valley Mule Deer Initiative, the ranch has worked cooperatively with the BLM, U.S. Forest Service and SERCD to identify and convert over 22 miles of wildlife-friendly fence within migration routes. 

Continuing their cooperative efforts, the Gates Family has partnered with the Platte Basin Timelapse Project, placing numerous game cameras across the landscape to document wildlife movement.

In 2022, nearly eight miles of fence was converted to wildlife-friendly specifications to address numerous migration concerns for mule deer and pronghorn. 

Overcoming challenges 

Within a five-year span, the ranch was directly involved in three catastrophic fires – the Beaver Creek Fire in 2016, the Ryan Fire in 2018 and the Mullen Fire in 2020. In total, the ranch had nearly 242,000 acres of land burned. Each fire required a two-year deferment of grazing on public lands. 

In response to the fire, the ranch has been working diligently to replace and repair all of the needed infrastructure, such as fences and water developments to return livestock grazing where possible.  

SERCD notes it’s a true testament to the ranch’s rotational grazing system and contingencies that they have been able to survive these tragic events and loss of animal management units. 

Industry involvement and support 

“Big Creek Ranch’s land ethic has not only added to the habit value on their property, but their actions serve to improve wildlife populations in the area and inspire future habitat improvements on adjacent land,” explains nominator WGFD Saratoga Terrestrial Habitat Biologist Britt Burdett. “Big Creek Ranch is highly deserving of this award for their conservation actions on their property and their continued efforts to improve wildlife habitat in the area.” 

Jeff Streeter of Trout Unlimited and retired North Platte River Water Project manager adds, “Big Creek Ranch exemplifies partnership, cooperation and coordination when it comes to environmental stewardship. A close second to their beef cattle operation in importance, environmental concerns, both aquatic and upland, has made the ranch a showcase in the Upper North Platte Valley.” 

He continues “Stewardship is ingrained in the Big Creek Ranch and the Dunning family. They are always making their environmental commitment a priority.” 

Jason Gay, BLM district manager of the High Desert District, adds, “The Big Creek Ranch and its manager, Mark Dunning, demonstrate success in rangeland management and communicates these efforts with the ranching community. It’s a privilege to work with the ranch where common interests and goals can be pursued and reached through stewardship practices.”

A date for the Environmental Stewardship Tour will be announced in the spring of 2023. 

Brittany Gunn is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

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