GROUSE CREEK, Box Elder County — Against the wide, rolling expanse of range land in a remote section of northern Utah, little environmental successes play out in the midst of a cattle operation.
For several months out of the year, Utah State University students study and track a population of sage grouse at Della Ranches, learning conservation methods to help the imperiled species not only survive, but thrive.
Elsewhere on the sprawling property, Jay Tanner has made it his mission to locate water resources for his cattle away from natural springs and streams, helping to reduce agricultural contamination of the water. It's a steady chore as well to remove or chemically treat the brushes and Juniper trees that hog the ground and deprive the ability of natural grasses to flourish.
Keeping the range land at Della Ranches in healthy condition not only helps the cattle Tanner runs, but provides important habitat for the wildlife that routinely visit, such as the deer herds.
For its long dedication to range management and conservation practices, Della Ranches was named one of six regional winners in the National Cattlemen's Foundation 2011 Environmental Stewardship Awards. Tanner was recognized this month at the foundation's annual convention in Tennessee.
"We are trying in the beef community, not only us, to improve water quality, keep our creeks and streams and riparian areas functioning properly and keep the water as clean as possible," Tanner said. "We think we are having some beneficial impact."
Tanner's approach includes the redistribution of water on his property, making improvements to the riparian areas and routinely regulating the time and duration of cattle grazing to minimize impacts to the land.
A 10-mile pipeline on his property helps to spread the cattle away from the streams and those riparian areas.
Tanner is president of the community culinary water system and said as caretaker of that system, it is his responsibility to ensure that the small community of about 80 residents has a dependable and clean supply of water.
His ties to Grouse Creek are strong, with family that settled in the area back in the 1870s. Della Ranches runs about 1,000 cattle on 192,000 acres of private, state- and federally owned lands.
"As we plan our water systems, make these improvements and keep the cattle away from the streams, we know that is a benefit to the wildlife as well," he said.
Tanner admits he is stickler for details in his operation, right down to the wildlife-friendly mixture of grasses and broad-leafed plants he puts in the ground.
"The nature of what we do requires that we understand range science, know a little about agronomy and animal science," he said. "I am not an expert in any of those areas, but for our business we have to have knowledge of those types of things."
His ranch also becomes an annual outdoor classroom for a group of USU students conducting field studies on the sage grouse, a finicky breeder that has seen its natural habitat and numbers decimated by urban encroachment, wildfires and predation.
"You can imagine with a name like Grouse Creek that would indicate that we are in the center of a sage grouse population," he said.
The study that springs from Della Ranches has been going on for nearly a decade, with researchers attempting to learn more about the animals' nesting patterns, biological threats and causes of death.
Jeff Scheck, a district conservationist with the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service, said Della Ranches is an example of stewardship that has not only made the cattle operation more efficient, but improved wildlife habitat in general and the sage grouse population in particular.
"Their continued improvements to the land out there with forage and proper management of the grazing operation has really improved the quality of the environment out there," said Scheck, who is based out of the agency's Tremonton office.
Scheck said the improvements made by Della Ranches have also bolstered the watershed, providing less run-off and therefore less erosion.
"It is a win-win for everybody," he said. "Some of it has been through physical improvements, but a lot of it is through proper management they have implemented over the years."
For Tanner, the work he does to help foster a good environment on his ranch is all about being a partner with the land.
"We have to be sustainable in our grazing practice and we feel like we have a good story to tell," he said. "We need to protect the resources we have."