Rock Creek Ranch embraces 10,400 acres in a series of succulent meadows surrounded by miles upon miles of quality range land below the shadow of the Smoky Mountains in Blaine County.
The ranch is home to sage grouse, a species of concern, as well as moose, elk, deer, antelope and other critters.
Because of its dual qualities as a working ranch with strong conservation values, the Wood River Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy, in a unique partnership with the University of Idaho, purchased Rock Creek Ranch from the Rinker Family.
Under the partnership, the university provides a cow-calf cattle herd from its Nancy M. Cummings Research, Extension and Education Center in Salmon for range-land research. The 850-acre Cummings Ranch is all irrigated pasture. Rock Creek offers an opportunity to do research on a ranch with a true range land setting.
“It’s a great station, we can do a lot of great research here, but one of the things we’ve always lacked has been a range component,” Cummings center Superintendent John Hall said. “That means our system of production was not really relevant to the majority of the industry, which relies on range at least five to six months out of the year. So the Rock Creek Ranch gave us a wonderful opportunity to expand our research, and make our research more industry-relevant.”
Both the land trust and the conservancy are excited about the potential to do research and education at the ranch through the partnership.
“A great part about this project is the research that’s taking place here, and we don’t have that on many of our projects,” Lou Lunte, deputy director of the conservancy in Idaho, said. “The Nature Conservancy prides itself on using science to guide our conservation work. So actually having a ranch working with the university, we could do really good research, which is important us.”
Rock Creek’s “Sagebrush Saturdays” educational events offer an opportunity for the public to learn about range lands, plants, wildlife, cattle management. Such public educational programs at the ranch also provide a window into the benefits of good stewardship.
The ranch held five educational events in its first summer covering cattle, birds of prey, soil, fire, wildlife, bugs, beavers and stream restoration, wildflowers and pollinators.
Rock Creek also hosted the Western National Rangeland Career Day Event for high school students learning about range management. During a full day in the field, students from multiple states worked on plant identification, evaluated habitat for wildlife and livestock, and made recommendations for future management.
Scott Boettger, executive director of the Wood River Land Trust, is excited about the educational opportunities at the ranch.
“Like the Peaveys have been able to do that with the Trailing of the Sheep, there’s a big component of that, understand what it means to have cattle on that land in a way that benefits the grass regrowth, the fire prevention, all of the things that aren’t understood at first blush,” Boettger said. “More importantly, get good information out there, what it actually means to graze it properly, and how that’s a healthier situation for all.”
Karen Launchbaugh, director of the UI Rangeland Center, described the new collaborative research opportunities at Rock Creek.
“Well, it’s really a brand new idea,” Launchbaugh said. “To me, what’s really unique about it is this combination of science and education, and a lot of voices weighing into that and helping us how to do this at a landscape scale. Brand new idea.”
Perhaps serendipity led the Wood River Land Trust to work with the Rinker family and partnered with the Nature Conservancy to save the ranch. At one time, the Rinkers were looking at building a subdivision there, with up to 2,000 residential units, west of Hailey.
But that idea didn’t bode well with locals in Blaine County.
Harry Rinker was willing to look at a conservation outcome for Rock Creek Ranch after finding success as a developer in Blaine County and California.
The Rinkers decided to withdraw their development proposal and focused on selling the ranch. Along the way, Trent Jones, a ranch broker and board member of the Wood River Land Trust, discussed the possibility of a conservation outcome with the Rinker Family.
The Rinkers were open to the concept. Bart’s dad, Harry Rinker, had been a very successful developer in California, building subdivisions, gas stations and shopping centers. Harry Rinker came to Sun Valley to vacation early on and also developed some successful housing developments in the Wood River Valley — including the Golden Eagle Ranch and Gimlet.
Jones and Bart Rinker engaged with the NRCS to explore the concept of selling easements to the agency through the Grassland Reserve Program. The robust sage grouse populations and premium habitat at the ranch made it a good fit.
In the meantime, Jones worked with Boettger at the Wood River Land Trust to see if they could raise sufficient funds to buy the ranch. This was where The Nature Conservancy came into play.
“The magnitude of the property is significant. We’ve never come close to protecting something that large,” Boettger said. “We didn’t have anything close to the money we needed to purchase this ranch, even with the significant reduction in asking price that the Rinkers wanted.”
The Nature Conservancy had its eye on the Rock Creek property for some time, said Lunte.
“We have a 30- to 40-year history at Silver Creek and the Wood River Valley,” Lunte said. “But this was a big project, and the land trust was a smaller organization, so it was great that we could partner together to make it happen.”
A mix of high-quality wildlife habitat and high-quality range lands made the Rock Creek Ranch a good fit for education and research. And then discussions turned toward the concept of partnering with the University of Idaho to do research and education.
Laurie Lickley, former board president of the Idaho Cattle Association, was instrumental in persuading legislators and the UI about the partnership at Rock Creek Ranch.
Another positive aspect that occurred was that Wyatt Prescott, former executive vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association, was hired to manage cattle operations at the ranch. Prescott spoke about the ranch’s potential at a Sagebrush Saturdays event.
Part of the research at Rock Creek Ranch will look at whether livestock and wildlife can co-exist under tightly controlled management.
Management, research and education functions at the ranch are overseen not only by the land trust, the conservancy and the UI, but also by a diverse advisory committee, including the Idaho Cattle Association, NRCS, Central Idaho Rangeland Network, Idaho Soil and Water Conservation Commission, Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission, Idaho Fish and Game, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The UI Rangeland Center brings together the research functions of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Natural Resources at Rock Creek.
The ranch’s deeded lands, combined with another 11,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management and state grazing allotments, encompass a whole watershed. Launchbaugh notes that it’s rare to do research in such an ideal setting.
Given the ranch’s location near Hailey, it’s close to population centers in southern Idaho, convenient for range tours for policy makers, state legislators, school groups and other ranchers.
“It’s not only a super resource for educating ranchers about certain grazing management techniques or aspects of public land management that we want them to consider,” Launchbaugh said. ‘But we also will integrate with the public, and tell the public our story on how grazing on public lands can be a beneficial thing for the environment, the resource, and also create food for people in our country.”
Research professionals will track water quality and range land trends as part of ongoing research at the ranch.
In the first year of operation at the ranch, eight research projects got under way, and more are being planned. The projects cover a wide variety of topics, from animal health to invasive weeds to monitoring plants and water quality, and a study looking for the ideal range cow using space age technology.
“We’re trying to find cattle that fit these range land systems, but also will use range land sustainably and will have minimal impacts,” said Jim Sprinkle, a UI Extension beef specialist the Cummings center.
Using GPS collars and accelerometers, Sprinkle is tracking how cattle use the range, how much they eat, how much they travel, and how much they rest and sleep. More efficient cows don’t need as much to eat and graze in the upland areas, where ranchers want them to graze. The less-efficient cows eat more forage each day, and tend to be lazy, staying in the creek-bottom instead of hiking to the uplands.
“We’re looking for the ideal cow,” he said.
Mother cows with more efficient characteristics could be bred with bulls to improve the efficiency of a cow herd, Sprinkle said. “This research I’m describing to you is some of the first research of its kind in the world.”
All of these studies are exciting to working ranchers such as Jerald Raymond, president of the Idaho Cattle Association who ranches near Menan in eastern Idaho.
“This ranch benefits wildlife; it benefits livestock; it benefits those alliances we have with the sportsmen, with the education, and with the communities that surround this area,” Raymond said. “The research being done will enhance what we know about how livestock reacts to certain situations and how wildlife reacts to those scenarios and situations.
“I think there’s a misperception that livestock and wildlife can’t co-mingle,” he continued. “They can co-mingle, and they actually complement each other. And the research being done on this facility is going to validate that. The fact that we can utilize a resource at certain times, and have that resource still be viable and enhanced for endangered species and for wildlife.”
Now that research, education and conservation are moving ahead at Rock Creek Ranch, it’s rewarding for the people involved to see things moving ahead.
“I’m just really excited about the property,” Lunte said. “It’s a dream come true. Twenty years ago, I walked this ranch, saw how impressive it was, saw the potential then, and sometimes patience and persistence 20 years later, starting to realize that dream. Couldn’t happen without great partners. But it’s fabulous.”
The Rock Creek project is seen as a gift to Blaine County and Idaho as a whole that will have long-lasting benefits for education, research, cattle management and conservation.
“It’s a gift to this community that’s hard to replicate and really a legacy for the Rinker family. We are all so deeply appreciative of what they’ve done toward that end,” said Jones.
“I’m just so proud to be part of a bigger project,” Boettger said. “It wouldn’t be possible without all of the different partners being involved. And the future of that property is much grander than we ever could have imagined. The university brings a big part of that, and I’m really excited about the future.”
Steve Stuebner is the writer and producer of the Life on the Range online education series, sponsored by the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission.