A million-acre legacy

Young ranch hands move cattle on Winecup-Gamble Ranch, where managing a million acres in northeastern Nevada for both people and wildlife is a family affair. Nearly 10,000 head of beef cattle are rotated throughout 30 pastures amongst a checkerboard pattern of private and public ownership. The Bureau of Land Management administers the grazing permits on more than 558,000 acres of the ranch’s public lands. Credit: Winecup-Gamble Ranch

Winecup-Gamble Ranch: Successfully managing a working home for people and wildlife across nearly one million acres of public and private sagebrush country

By Dan Hottle
September 5, 2018

After watching his father, James Rogers Sr. sour on public lands ranching in Wyoming back in the 1990s, sell off his property to a billionaire buyer and walk away disenfranchised from a hard-fought lifetime of raising cattle, James Rogers, Jr., vowed to keep his dad’s stewardship legacy alive.

“The day my third-generation ranching father walked away from the cattle business on public lands was the day that America lost a great steward,” he recalls with a heavy heart. “It’s now my responsibility to help not only change the land with which I’m entrusted, but to also help try and change the human landscape with the people who collectively manage it.”

Rogers has been the manager of northeastern Nevada’s Winecup-Gamble Ranch for just eight years, but he’s quickly demonstrated what it takes to successfully manage a working home for both people and wildlife across nearly one million acres of public and private sagebrush country.

“The day my third-generation ranching father walked away from the cattle business on public lands was the day that America lost a great steward,” said Winecup-Gamble ranch manager James Rogers.  The  rangelands he manages on nearly one million acres of northeastern Nevada, was recently selected along with four other Nevada ranches (11 total in the western U.S.) to participate in the Bureau of Land Management’s Outcome-Based Grazing pilot project. Credit: Dan Hottle/USFWS

“James’ thoughtful, visionary approach and his willingness to partner with land and wildlife managers is crucial for helping both the ranching community and agencies determine the most positive pathways toward establishing healthy rangelands in the west,” said Carolyn Swed, Reno U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor.

Rogers’ track record of responsible cattle grazing, watershed conservation and proactive hunting management on Winecup-Gamble’s properties was responsible for the ranch being recently selected along with four other Nevada ranches (11 total in the western U.S.) to participate in the Bureau of Land Management’s Outcome-Based Grazing pilot project. The project seeks to work with conservation-minded ranchers to determine if more flexibility can be written into future federal grazing permits.

A Winecup-Gamble ranch hand and his horse move cattle on the ranch. Credit: Winecup-Gamble Ranch

“In the past eight years, James has developed a culture of conservation amongst the 25 employee families who live and work on the ranch, and they are able operate autonomously off his 30,000-foot vision for responsible ranch management,” said Jeffrey Moore, BLM range specialist. “His views sometimes run counter to traditional livestock practices, but every day his team is moving boundaries and looking for ways to improve range conditions.”

The ranch encompasses 948,000 acres at elevations between 4,400 and 8,800 feet, from low salt shrubs to rolling sagebrush hills and high-alpine stands. Nearly 10,000 head of beef cattle are rotated throughout 30 pastures amongst a checkerboard pattern of private and public ownership. The Bureau of Land Management administers the grazing permits on more than 558,000 acres of the ranch’s public lands.

Trophy-class elk bulls roam Winecup-Gamble ranch. The ranch encompasses 948,000 acres at elevations between 4,400 and 8,800 feet, from low salt shrubs to rolling sagebrush hills and high-alpine stands. Credit: Winecup-Gamble Ranch

To establish healthy range for his cattle, Moore said Rogers prefers to graze Winecup’s cattle in larger groups and not return them to the same pastures for 18-24 months between rotations to allow vegetation plenty of time to recover.

“Some will say I’m leaving too much feed on the ground, or that I’m creating more fuel for wildfires,” said Rogers, “but I’d rather not overgraze and instead allow that ground to recover naturally with native plants or other suitable vegetation cover so that we’re reducing the amount of bare ground that only invites damaging invasives like cheatgrass.”

Rogers’ ongoing work with the ranch’s water resources has also caught the attention of wildlife managers in the Great Basin’s sagebrush ecosystem conservation community.

Three years ago, the ranch worked with the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program and the Nevada Department of Wildlife to restore Rock Spring, a natural spring formation along the historic California Trail on the ranch’s property.

Winecup-Gamble ranch manager James Rogers points out a conservation project that was completed in 2015 with help from the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program to restore the ranch’s natural Rock Spring along the historic California Trail. Credit: Dan Hottle/USFWS

After decades of abuse of the spring from recreationists passing through and improper cattle grazing by previous managers, Winecup was able to fence off the area, provide alternative water sources for cattle and return the spring to its natural state. The ranch now welcomes campers and hunters to enjoy the area’s newly-conserved beauty.

Rogers has also hired contractors to create additional wetlands throughout the property by excavating low-lying areas where the natural Thousand Springs flows for 47 miles through the ranch. By freeing the water source and bringing it to the surface instead of holding it back for agricultural use as was done in generations past, Rogers is able to irrigate pastures naturally and provide habitat for migratory waterfowl. He also allows beaver to aid in natural water security by damming water flows and creating more wetland habitat for wildlife.

One of the most radical current projects on the ranch was the decision to not replace a historic dam from the late 1920s that blew out last year during a 100-year flood. Rather than spend $4 million to rebuild the dam, Rogers decided that allowing the more than 5,500 acre-feet of previously dammed water to flow naturally onto the flat below would allow new ponds and wetlands to form so that birds and other wildlife could flourish.

“James really operates on a totally different cultural shift,” said Nevada Department of Wildlife game biologist Kari Huebner, who has managed hunting issues in the Elko area for the past 15 years. “He manages livestock and wildlife together in a more proactive way that has set a new precedent for sportsmen looking to hunt big game on the ranch.”

“By reaching out to hunters and opening up their land in such a friendly and honest way, Rogers gets better compliance and responsibility from hunters, and they, in turn, are rewarded with nearly unfettered access to prime hunting grounds,” said Nevada Department of Wildlife game biologist Kari Heubner, shown here with a Greater sage-grouse hen. Credit: Kari Heubner

Huebner said Rogers’ proactive communication outreach with hunters who draw tags for award-winning Boone and Crockett-class elk and mule deer, along with those who hunt antelope, chukar, ducks and geese, ensures visitors to the ranch understand the responsibility and reverence that comes with open lands access and a “leave no trace” ethic.

“By reaching out to hunters and opening up their land in such a friendly and honest way, he gets better compliance and responsibility from hunters, and they, in turn, are rewarded with nearly unfettered access to prime hunting grounds,” she said. 

Additional recent wildlife improvements to the ranch include the installation of more wildlife-friendly fencing co-funded by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation that significantly reduces fence collisions for migrating species.

Among the ranch’s most prominent species is the Greater sage-grouse.

There are 42 active mating grounds, or “leks,” that are collectively home to hundreds of male birds each season. Winecup ranch hands like Maggie Gentert assist state wildlife biologists with lek counts each year to keep track of the species’ persistence in the region. Last year, Gentert singlehandedly searched and counted birds on all 42 of the ranch’s leks in just one month.

“It’s truly evident they value the wildlife resource as much as they do their cattle business,” said Huebner.

Rogers said that increased grazing management flexibility, however, requires responsibility and accountability amongst federal grazing permittees. He knows that the BLM’s Outcome Based Grazing project is just the tip of the iceberg in an entirely new set of conversations that federal land managers are having with their permittees so that management practices can evolve and adapt better to modern cattle ranching practices.

BEFORE: Years of improper cattle overgrazing severely damaged Rock Spring along the historic California Trail on Winecup-Gamble Ranch. Credit: Winecup-Gamble Ranch

AFTER: Rock Spring along the historic California Trail on Winecup-Gamble Ranch now flourishes with native vegetation, fish and wildlife after a 2015 restoration project with help from the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. Credit: Dan Hottle/USFWS

“We cannot afford to think on a small scale with a million acres at stake,” he said. “We need a major radical shift in the federal grazing permit system that allows for fewer restrictions on things like seasons and timings of cattle use and other conservation measures so that we can demonstrate a healthy benefit across several hundred thousands of acres of land at a time.”

One of Rogers’ key philosophical beliefs is that rather than using the current federal rangeland health benchmark of achieving specific, measurable heights for desired grasses and forbs, rangeland should instead be measured in terms of how much bare ground is present and how a permittee is working toward reducing it.

“A lot of ranchers out here know enough about plant morphology, range science and good stockmanship that we’re beyond the point of going out with rulers and measuring the stubble heights of our grasses,” he said. “We have the remote sensing technology to map out exactly how much bare ground we have, so if we could use that as a land health indicator and agree upon a common methodology to work toward reducing it, I think that’s something we could easily demonstrate and measure.”

Those tactics, Rogers stressed, involve thoughtfully rotating cattle when conditions warrant, re-seeding the right mixture of native plants and nutritional cattle vegetation after wildfires, and establishing robust monitoring methods to ensure progress is tracked and management practices are adaptable and scalable to changing range conditions.

“Having healthy ecosystems and economically viable ranching operations across the same land means we have to be willing to go out onto the edge of this issue with all of our partners and neighbors and break through the old thought processes that led my father away from public lands ranching 25 years ago,” he said. “That’s where the heart of change will come from.”

Even though the two disagree on ranching occasionally, Rogers still enlists the advice of his father as he works to navigate the fluctuating beef industry and the relationships with his partners.

“As a public lands operator, we can’t lock our gates, literally and figuratively, and that forces us to be better ranchers, better neighbors and better stewards,” said Rogers. “My dad and I talk all the time about keeping that dream alive -- even on a million acres -- and he still encourages me to keep moving forward.”

Responsible grazing management practices on the Winecup-Gamble Ranch have included creating more healthy riparian areas that have increased migratory waterfowl and provided improved habitat for fish and wildlife throughout the ranch’s one million acres. Credit: Winecup-Gamble Ranch

Story Photo

Dan Hottle

About the author...

Dan Hottle is a public affairs officer for the Reno, Nevada Fish and Wildlife Office and writes frequently about conservation issues in the Nevada's Great Basin.

Other stories by Dan:

"Monster" Lahontan cutthroat trout swimming one step closer to native spawning home

Bi-state sage grouse get new home on Earth Day

Nevada’s ‘Shoesole’ Ranchers Grazing Cattle For Sustainable Results, Not For Federal Regulations