In 2019, the University of Idaho acquired access to the 10,400-acre Rinker Rock Creek Ranch in Croy Canyon. Combined with 11,000 acres of surrounding BLM land, the rustic ranch has provided public access as well as a research center for multidisciplinary studies of wildlife conservation, grazing practices, restoration and recreation.
“I am not aware of any collaborative efforts like this regionally,” said Tracey N. Johnson, assistant professor of Habitat Ecology at the University of Idaho and director of research at Rinker Rock Creek Ranch.
The cattle ranch has been described as a “living laboratory,” and is home to many wildlife species, including beavers, deer, elk, owls, moose, eagles and many species of songbirds and waterfowl. The ranch is home to the yellow-billed cuckoo, a species whose populations are in “steep decline,” and the greater sage grouse, which is considered threatened in most of its range.
Since 2018, the University’s programs at the ranch have engaged 13 undergraduate interns, 12 graduate students and offered field-based classes for undergraduates. Johnson said local grade school and high school students took part in a 2021 survey of Columbia spotted frogs at the ranch, a species of concern among biologists.
“Turns out we have a fairly important wintering site for that species,” Johnson said.
The university recently acquired $1.34 million in grant funding to expand educational opportunities in rangeland management, animal science and conservation at the ranch. The funding will be used to purchase equipment and build infrastructure to enhance hands-on learning for U of I students, faculty, the public, and postsecondary and K-12 groups, all while preserving the size and ecological diversity of Rinker Rock Creek Ranch.
The money will be used to buy a new truck and all-terrain vehicles, and to improve spaces for research demonstrations, including reinforcing an existing barn to create an indoor, powered space to be utilized as a classroom, office and meeting space. Telecommunications systems and satellite internet will be installed to further facilitate classroom connectivity and research training.
“A lack of infrastructure and service poses challenges when you need to house researchers,” said Johnson. “It’s a beautiful place, we just don’t have much built. This funding will propel us into a future where we can leverage resources and preserve the ranch.”
Research on sagebrush, grazing finds unexpected connections
Johnson advocates for a number of researchers spanning multiple disciplines on the ranch, including Georgia Harrison, a doctoral student from the Department of Plant Sciences in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, who has been assessing the resiliency of the native sagebrush plant community. She also researches wildfire risk and behavior in sagebrush ecosystems at the ranch.
Hadley Dotts, a junior rangeland conservation major, was a cattle production and range management environmental intern there in summer of 2021. Anastasie Echeverria, a senior majoring in rangeland conservation and forestry, interned at the ranch in summer 2020, working with Kenny Randall, a master’s student in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Sciences, to research the effects of cattle grazing on sage-grouse habitat.
Johnson was the principal investigator of a project that began in 2018 to study the impacts of cattle grazing on specific wetland plants that sage grouse rely on for forage and rearing chicks. Due to the interdisciplinary research going on at the ranch, she and her team were able to combine their plant studies with cattle grazing studies underway by animal science researchers looking for ways to measure cattle productivity.
“We were able to use the same cows for our research, which is a benefit of working at the ranch, where we have a lot of control over our experiments,” Johnson said. “A lot of people expected that any type of grazing would have a negative effective on those forb [plant] species, but we found that grazing rather intensively for short periods opened up the plant canopy and allowed for an increased number of species and plant abundance to be established, thereby increasing sage grouse forage.”
Johnson said they don’t know yet how broadly transferrable the results will be, due to uncertainties surrounding the previous uses on the survey sites, but that the research has yielded further studies at the juncture of animal science and species conservation, including an evaluation of the relationship between grazing management changes over the last 20 years and their impacts on sage grouse habitats.
“We have to be careful in assuming that this would take place in every riparian area across the West,” Johnson said. “But the place-based research at Rinker Rock Creek Ranch helps us form better research questions that can be applied at broader scales.” ￼
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Badger we had to forfeit our organic farm status for barley and alfalfa due to the exact weed infestations that you describe.
Will the pickup and atv,s for the research be EV,s ?
And will the new faucilites provide renewables for the long term needs of the technology ?
Does the "increased number of species and plant abundance" provided by cattle grazing include cheatgrass, knapweed, thistle, hoary cress, salsify, knot weed, and rush skeleton weed?
Welcome to the discussion.