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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Service Biologist Works with Private Landowners to Benefit People and Wildlife

Mark Hogan walks along a fence   Mark Hogan walks along a fence he helped design and build to protect riparian areas on the Wind River Reservation. Photo by Jennifer Strickland/USFWS

By Jennifer Strickland

Once upon a time, Mark Hogan was a biologist who disliked coffee.

Why then has he spent the past 20 years training himself to drink the stuff? According to Hogan, “An invention that brings people together is coffee.”

Hogan’s passion is bringing people together to do good things for wildlife. As Wyoming’s state coordinator for the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, his business model is simple: focus on the most important habitats for wildlife, and learn what the landowners living and working in the area want and need from the land. What better way to do that than over a cup of coffee? With those key pieces of information, you can then collaboratively design and execute restoration projects that will benefit the landowner’s bottom line as well as fish and wildlife populations.

cow looks at green field from a road   A cow pauses on the dirt road that weaves through a national forest and into the Little Snake River Valley. Photo by Jennifer Strickland/USFWS

“The philosophy of the Partners Program has always been, ‘Where can we help? What can the land do, and what do you want it to do?’” Hogan says. “In a sense we’re design biologists, and the technical assistance we can provide to landowners is second to none.”

Throughout his career Hogan has worked with a variety of partners in the state, ranging from families who have been ranching their lands for generations to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes on the Wind River Reservation. In Wyoming, where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains, the landscape is characterized by its sagebrush uplands, grassy prairies and soaring peaks. Eighty-five percent of the state is considered rangelands, and domestic livestock production is an important component of the state’s cultural and economic identity.

Despite its tremendous natural resources, water is scarce in Wyoming. As the nation’s third driest state, the wet habitats of Wyoming are few and far between. Featuring a wide diversity and high density of vegetation and prey species, these places are of high value to wildlife and people alike.

A Colorado cutthroat trout. Photo by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department  

“Wet meadows and riparian areas only make up about 2–3 percent of the state, but 80 percent of the wildlife in Wyoming relies on those wet areas for all or a portion of their lifecycle,” says Hogan.

The majority of these wet places are on private rangelands, which makes ranching families the guardians of much of the state’s water resources. That means successful conservation of wildlife populations depends on their support. Hogan recognized his ranching neighbors were in a unique position to make a difference for native fish species in decline, such as the Colorado cutthroat trout.

“Like our birds, our fish are migratory. They have to be able to move up and down a [river] system to find the right conditions to complete their lifecycles,” he says. “Part of my job is to help push stream restoration, stream stability and fish passage into the forefront.”

Hogan knew that if native fish species reached the point where one required federal protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), that listing could impact local agricultural practices.

“The lifeblood of a ranch is its water,” Hogan says, knowing that local, voluntary conservation partnerships are the best method for safeguarding American species and working lands.

Coffee might bring people together for breakfast, but it is water that brings life to the planet. With a clear focus on improving Wyoming’s water resources for people and wildlife, Hogan began the journey that would guide his career for decades.

As Hogan was getting his feet wet in Wyoming, the late George Salisbury Jr. was having water-related challenges on the family ranch in Savery, Wyoming.

man leaning against truck
  George Salisbury Jr. on his ranch, circa 2001. Photo by Mark Hogan/USFWS

At the time, George and his wife, Laura, were the owners and operators of the Ladder Livestock Company, a cattle and sheep operation employing rotational grazing practices across a patchwork of private, state and federally owned lands. Nestled in the Little Snake River Valley along the Wyoming/Colorado line, the ranch employs irrigation techniques in Battle Creek, a tributary of the Little Snake River.

But Battle Creek had decided to move and was waging a battle of its own. The stream was wandering and cutting into Salisbury’s hay fields, threatening the health of a crop essential for feeding livestock during the winter months. Salisbury had tried various methods to ease the problem, such as building dams, but each time an adjustment was made, the stream reacted in a different way than intended.

“Old George was a classic — he was so smart, so cool. He was like a father and grandfather to everyone,” Hogan remembers. “Ranchers like George have a respect for and understanding of the land. They know its cycles and recognize when something changes, but in some cases they might not know what’s driving that change. They may not know the ‘why.’ The Partners Program came in to answer that question.”

Through a network of conservation-minded friends and partners, Hogan was introduced to Salisbury, who invited him to visit Ladder Ranch to survey the stream. What Hogan observed was a body of water responding to change, and he saw this as an opportunity.

“We can use a stream’s tendencies to heal itself, so that was our strategy,” he says.

He knew that if they could modify the flow patterns of Battle Creek to get the stream to a stable state, they could not only save Salisbury’s hay fields but also improve fish passage for the Colorado cutthroat trout and other native fishes.

  Woman with arm around granddaughter Sharon O’Toole and her granddaughter, Siobhan. Photo by Jennifer Strickland/USFWS

“For somebody like Mark to show up at my father’s door was really a gift,” recalls Sharon O’Toole, Salisbury’s daughter, who now operates Ladder Livestock Company alongside her husband, Pat, and their children, Meghan and Eamon. “My father was always a range management guy. He’d manage the range just as much as he did his livestock. One thing he’d say is, ‘Landscape is too important to be managed generically, it must be managed specifically.’”

Specific management of the land was exactly what Salisbury, Hogan, the Service, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Trout Unlimited and the Little Snake River Conservation District accomplished. The pilot project on Battle Creek was successfully completed in 2000.

“Our project really protects the banks and the creek from erosion during times of high water, and that keeps the soil from going downstream,” O’Toole says. “It matters; it makes a difference. I’m sure the cost has been returned many times over in public benefits, and none of that would have happened without Mark and [his colleague] Mindy.”

Not only did the Salisbury/O’Toole family see benefits to their ranch, they also provided Hogan with an outdoor classroom for testing a variety of stream restoration techniques. “The O’Tooles allowed us to experiment and come up with different design criteria. We learned a lot, and I am very thankful that they allowed us to come in and try new things.”

stream before and after   (Left) A portion of Battle Creek before restoration activities. (Right) A portion of Battle Creek three years after restoration. Photos by USFWS

“There are so many projects you can work on with the same people for a long period of time that you build these incredible relationships. You get to know the families because you’re working with them long­term on projects that require surveying, designing, coming back to stake it out, and then construction,” Hogan says. “In any given year you may stay with a landowner for a full three weeks, so you become kind of like those in-laws that just...show up!”

A federal biologist and honorary in-law? Now there’s a unique title.

2 men at a stream   Pat O’Toole walks with Mark along Battle Creek. Photo by Jennifer Strickland/USFWS

“We’ve known Mark so long it seems like forever,” says O’Toole. “He just has the perfect personality for the job. Great people skills and he really knows his stuff. If you’re somebody like Mark, it’s also not just about being a nice person, it’s about getting stuff done. He’s not hard driving, but he’s focused and he pays attention to what needs to be done, like deadlines and making sure everyone does their piece of the puzzle. It took Mark and the Partners Program to bring things into focus and get something major done.”

Today, the Little Snake River watershed is home to the largest fish passage project in the United States. Hogan, Ladder Ranch, their neighbors, and a plethora of public and private partners continue to improve stream banks, wetlands, irrigation systems and wildlife habitat in the area. In fact, the history of successful partnerships in wetlands has expanded into even more conservation victories in the nearby sagebrush uplands, where the O’Tooles are engaged in official agreements under the ESA that provide benefits to the greater sage-grouse.

It’s no question that the conservation successes of the Little Snake River Valley are built upon a foundation of mutual respect for the resource and sense of camaraderie among neighbors and families, ranchers and biologists.

When looking toward what will guide the future of natural resources conservation in the West, Hogan points to the ever-growing body of shared conservation knowledge that the partners have developed over the years.

“We learn as much from a landowner when we’re on their land as I hope they’re learning from us,” he says. “The next generation will understand even more about what makes a healthy system. When George’s great granddaughter Siobhan goes out, she will know why the creek meanders and that she needs to maintain different age classes of cottonwoods along a stream’s banks to keep it healthy.”

So what is the silver bullet that develops successful partnerships between natural resource organizations and private landowners? Hogan’s answer is simple: bringing the right people together at the right time to learn from one another.

“It’s an easy job; it’s just so easy working here,” he tells me with a smile I can hear through the phone. “It’s about having that cup of coffee or sitting down for breakfast with local ranchers before they start their day. They truly are stewards of the land and have been for generations. We’ve just come to the table at the right time, offering the type of assistance landowners have been looking for to facilitate their ideas. We want to enable success, it’s just in our nature as Partners biologists.”

JENNIFER STRICKLAND, External Affairs, Mountain-Prairie Region

Fish & Wildlife News  
  • This article is from the fall issue of Fish & Wildlife News, our quarterly magazine.

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