GRASS CREEK, Mont. -- Armed with wire cutters and chain saws, a team of volunteers spread across the LU Ranch on Thursday to remove a rusting old fence as part of an ongoing effort to improve livestock operations and wildlife habitat.
Working across an arid sagebrush steppe in the shadows of the Absaroka Mountain front, the crew dismantled the barbed-wire fence in a matter of hours, completing another joint project on behalf of the Nature Conservancy.
"We're doing things like putting in off-creek water sources to move cattle off the streams," said organizer Katherine Thompson. "We're planting trees and other things. This is just a piece of that effort - removing a decrepit fence that poses challenges for wildlife and domesticated cattle."
Thompson, the northwest Wyoming program director for the Nature Conservancy, said the group of partners came together in 2009 with the blessing of the LU Ranch to improve habitat, water quality and range health in a series of drainages along the Absaroka front.
The area encompasses 200,000 scenic acres between Meeteetse and Thermopolis and includes 160 miles of perennial streams. Work to date has included the planting of native willow and aspen trees, cutting conifers out of riparian zones, and establishing range and water quality monitoring programs, along with Thursday's fence removal.
"The project is ongoing through at least next year," Thompson said. "It's a great example of all the stakeholders over a very large series of drainages coming together for a common purpose."
With the backing of the LU Ranch, which owns much of the ground in this sweeping and varied landscape, the project has grown to include Marathon Oil, the Wyoming Conservation Corps, the Spring Gulch Cattle Co. and Wyoming State Forestry, among others.
Members of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife turned out Thursday, along with the Wyoming Wilderness Society, Hot Springs Weed and Pest Control and the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Mike Williams, senior environmental professional for Marathon Oil, said the century-old company operates a nearby oil field and maintains a vested interest in working closely with its neighbors to improve water quality across the Big Horn Basin.
"There's a lot of young folks on our team we've hired who have picked up the gauntlet and are running with it," Williams said. "There are many generations of Marathon people here who've not only been with Marathon for several generations, but they've also got ranches in the basin. That stewardship is carrying through."
Thursday's work wasn't for the timid or tender. Crews donned leather gloves and heavy boots before rolling tangles of rusting barbed wire stretched over a mile of sagebrush terrain.
They ran chain saws to remove wooden fence posts, pulled staples from the wood, and loaded their shoulders and backs to carry the splintered debris to a collection point for later removal.
"This is our first project, so it's the very beginning," said Madaline Maestri, a Louisiana resident working this summer for the Wyoming Conservation Corps. "I wanted to extend my stay and see some cool stuff around the state. I've learned to do so much stuff already, like rolling barbed wire and running a chain saw."
Over generations, ranchers working this arid country have depended heavily on creeks and riparian areas for livestock water. Thompson said heavy grazing by domestic cattle and sheep in the late 1800s resulted in significant degradation of range health and water quality in the Grass and Cottonwood creek watersheds.
Cone-bearing trees like juniper and limber pine also encroached into aspen stands and riparian zones, further degrading the habitat.
But in recent years, project partners have secured more than $500,000 to help restore the area to historic conditions. Thompson said the work wouldn't be possible without the forward-thinking LU Ranch, which remains a willing partner with the Nature Conservancy.
"The ranch has been brilliant at suggesting things," Thompson said. "A lot of the activities we put on the ground are designed to improve habitat for beaver, which is kind of an unusual thing for a rancher to say in Wyoming.
"But these folks are very forward-thinking, and they recognize that beaver are nature's engineers, and that sort of thing."
Thompson said the ranch suggested re-establishing beaver populations along Grass and Cottonwood creeks to help raise water tables, slow runoff and restore meanders to the waterway.
Tree-planting efforts are expected to attract the beaver while holding back sediment that may otherwise flow into the streams. Work to provide off-creek water for livestock also has helped distribute cattle, allowing ranchers to better utilize the range while protecting water quality.
"We been partnering with the LU Ranch and other partners since 2008 to improve water quality, and to benefit wildlife and ranch operations," Thompson said. "They're wonderful people and they're very conservation-minded.
"They've been so generous with their time and knowledge over the years and it's been a wonderful partnership."