Since it was founded 10 years ago, Lava Lake Land and Livestock has become well known for both its organic lamb and land conservation efforts, which have garnered the Carey-based ranch numerous national awards.
And while its actions to restore rangeland habitat and reduce conflicts with gray wolves remain priorities for the local sheep outfit, its also beginning to make some notable contributions to scientific research, most recently participating in a study on pronghorn antelope migration.
In the decade since Brian and Kathleen Bean purchased the ranch, this commitment to scientific study is evidenced by nearly two dozen field studies, including research on rare plants, noxious weeds, water quality and sage grouse, and the establishment in 2004 of the ranch's educational and research arm, the Lava Lake Institute for Science & Conservation.
Tess O'Sullivan, the institute's program director, said a critical factor in its success has been collaboration with other nonprofit conservation groups, as well as federal agencies.
This volume of work should only grow, as there's no shortage of ecological material for the institute staff and visiting researchers. The ranch owns 24,000 acres and has grazing permits on more than 800,000 acres of federal allotments that include sagebrush steppe, aspen groves, willow-lined creeks and Douglas fir forests.
With help from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the oldest conservation groups in the U.S., the institute just completed the first year of a survey of long-distance pronghorn migration habits.
O'Sullivan said that through working on the ranch and collecting anecdotal evidence from neighboring ranchers, researchers determined that between 100 and 200 pronghorn use a thin strip adjacent to the northern edge of Craters of the Moon National Monument as a migration corridor. Part of the route runs along the southern border of the Lava Lake Ranch headquarters, which sits just north of a lonely stretch of U.S. Highway 20 east of Carey.
However, O'Sullivan said there was no definitive knowledge of the herd's summer or winter ranges.
To figure that out, 10 pronghorn does were attired with specialized GPS collars designed to automatically fall off after one year. While the collars aren't able to provide real-time location information, they can be used in the same manner as a radio telemetry unit, allowing the researchers to track the animals during the year and then find the collars at the end of the cycle.
Once recovered, the collars provide the researchers data as to where the pronghorn had traveled over the course of the year.
According to Lava Lake President Mike Stevens, the results were surprising.
"Most people think of a migration as going north to south," Stevens said.
In fact, the pronghorn herd was moving west to east, summering in the Muldoon Canyon area, southeast of Bellevue, and then traveling east to the Little Lost River, near the northwestern end of the Idaho National Laboratory property.
According to a report by National Geographic, this round-trip migration of more than 160 miles is one of the longest migration routes of any land mammal in the Western Hemisphere.
The winter range proved a popular location for pronghorn, as the herd grew to about 1,000 animals with the arrival of other bands from around Salmon.
"In order to work on conservation, we needed to know where the migration route is," O'Sullivan said. "It's really powerful to have such specific information."
O'Sullivan said that data provided by the study will be useful if the state considers widening U.S. Highway 20 or when government entities consider construction of a high-power transmission line through southeastern Idaho.
With the migration corridor narrowing to a couple hundred yards for a stretch along Craters of the Moon, seemingly small changes could have significant impacts for the animals.
"Something as simple as a barbed wire fence could shut down that migration route," O'Sullivan said. "We can't take these animals for granted—just because we can see them in the summer doesn't mean they will always be there. Hopefully we can determine what's going on in these different areas in terms of threats."
O'Sullivan said the migration is dependent on the connectivity between federal and private lands, and the fact that the latter remains largely undeveloped.
O'Sullivan said the study is continuing and that 13 more pronghorns have been collared.
Jon Duval: firstname.lastname@example.org