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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The LeValley Ranch: rangeland management for diversity, wildlife, and livestock production

Colorado Section of the Society for Range Management tours ranch after bestowing Excellence in Rangeland Conservation Award

Lars Santana (NRCS)
Last Friday, about fifty ranchers, conservationists, and government employees gathered near Hotchkiss, Colorado, for a day-long field tour of the LeValley Ranch, hosted by the Colorado Section of the Society for Range Management and organized by Lars Santana, rangeland management specialist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Montrose, Colorado.  The ranch won the Excellence in Rangeland Conservation Award from the CSSRM last year.  It is owned and operated by Mark and Robbie (Baird) LeValley, and Mark’s brother Hank.  Many of us know Robbie as the local Colorado State University Extension livestock and range specialist, and past president of both the CSSRM and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, but on this rare day at home—but still at work—she mostly ceded the stage to husband and full-time ranch manager Mark.  

Dave Bradford (USFS) describes
local geography and vegetation.
The ranch lies in a few geographically close but separate management units between Hotchkiss and Crawford on Scenic and Fruitland Mesas, a broad brushy plateau between the West Elk Mountains and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. 

The area is important winter habitat for deer and elk, as well as year-round habitat for the Gunnison sage-grouse, a candidate subspecies for listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. and Colorado species of concern.  The LeValleys’ management is designed to leave plenty of food, water, and cover for the wildlife.  All of their rangeland, both publicly and privately owned, meets the sage-grouse habitat quality guidelines in the Rangewide Conservation Plan. 
Kurt Kubik (BLM) and Mark LeValley discuss public land grazing management.

The land’s overall health and its value as wildlife habitat are accomplished primarily through planned grazing with the LeValley’s cattle in each pasture for generally one to two, and always less than three weeks, with light utilization on their Bureau of Land Management allotment and light to moderate utilization on their privately owned land.  The grazing management on the BLM land is a combination of rotational grazing and rotational rest, where one pasture is rested each year, and the remaining pastures are moved through in a series with the order varying from year to year, explained Mark LeValley and Kurt Kubik of the BLM Uncompahgre Field Office.  On their private land they use rotational grazing, again alternating the pasture in which they begin the rotation each year.  The net effect of all of this management is that the grazed plants have plenty of opportunity for recovery between grazing events.  Of course the wildlife do not follow a grazing plan, so some plants are, inevitably, grazed repeatedly.  On the whole, the land is doing quite well. 

John Murray
The private land looks perhaps slightly better than the public land, though it is difficult to say whether that is due to differences in grazing management, or the other vegetation treatments that have been applied over the years.  The LeValleys have worked with NRCS-Colorado rangeland management specialists John Murray (retired) and Lars Santana not only on prescribed grazing, but also on brush management, setting back some of the densest stands of big sagebrush, Gambel oak, and serviceberry in mosaic patterns to increase plant diversity.  “Before, when you tried to ride through here, the oak brush would rip the shirt off your back,” said Murray as we looked at the dozen or so species of grass and a few dozen species of forbs now growing in the oak savanna.

CDOW officer
We also looked at a wildlife guzzler and seeding.  The guzzler makes a wet patch where the native grass, ‘Ladak’ alfalfa (a dryland variety), and native insects flourish.  The area is fenced off from cattle, and surrounding fence posts have raptor perch deterrents, provided by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, to maximize the area’s value for sage-grouse.  Robbie LeValley said that during the steepest decline in the regional sage-grouse population, there were thousands of ravens in the area, but the raven numbers have now decreased dramatically as well.
Robbie LeValley discusses wildlife management at a grazing exclosure
surrounding a wildlife guzzler and seeding.

The LeValley Ranch is a diversified operation, incorporating hunting enterprises, including a pheasant hunting enterprise at their irrigated headquarters.  Much of the beef produced on the ranch is marketed locally through Colorado Homestead Ranches, which has a processing facility in Delta (Homestead Meats) and retail store in Paonia (Homestead Market), and is partly owned by the LeValley Ranch.  We topped off the afternoon with the LeValleys’ natural-beef hamburgers for lunch at a restaurant in Crawford.


  1. I think they should use a better fence material other than the one in the picture. It's for safer preservation of the wildlife.

  2. One independent wildlife trip that I'm not likely to forget anytime soon has to be on a wildlife tour in Monteverde cloud forest reserve, Costa Rica.