This late rancher’s early adoption of range conservation practices encouraged his neighbors to also enroll in Sage Grouse Initiative programs. Learn how.
K.D. Leander and his family partnered with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service on practices that benefit sage grouse as well as livestock. Photo courtesy of the Leander family.
By Steve Stuebner
Though K.D. Leader passed away in 2015, his conservation legacy lives on. One of the first ranchers to embrace sage grouse conservation opportunities in Washington state, K.D. paid close attention to managing the rangelands on his ranch.
“We always take good care of our grass,” he said in 2012 during a Sage Grouse Initiative-sponsored tour of his ranch. “You can’t starve a profit out of a cow.”
Michael Brown, Field Capacity Coordinator for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service-led Sage Grouse Initiative, recounts working with K.D. to employ conservation practices that keep the grass “right side up” for both cattle and wildlife like the greater sage-grouse.
“K.D. was one of the first in Douglas County to sign up with the Sage Grouse Initiative,” says Brown. “People were definitely looking over the fence to see what he was doing with his ground. More than anything, he cared for the land and the wildlife that depended on it.”
Heading out to look at some projects on K.D.’s ranch, Brown drives a white pickup past islands of shrub-steppe habitat. These grounds teem with Wyoming sagebrush and tall bluebunch wheatgrass.
Next to these pockets of prime sage grouse habitat are former wheat fields, many of which are now enrolled in the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) or State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE), which help farmers take marginal cropland out of production and plant it with vegetation that improves environmental quality.
“In Washington, our birds don’t follow any of the typical rules,” says Brown. “Some of the highest nesting success rates are in places where we have fragmented shrub-steppe in and around agricultural fields followed by CRP and SAFE fields.”
Three generations (and counting) of Leanders make a living on this ranch near Grand Coulee, Washington. K.D.’s grandfather, L.J. Leander, homesteaded 160 acres in 1902 to get the ranch established. K.D. grew up attending a one-room schoolhouse, riding his horse to school when the weather allowed. K.D. joined his father, O.K. Leander, in running the ranch as an adult, raising wheat and cattle and maintaining a small horse herd.
On his 25th birthday, K.D. received a nice gift — flying lessons and a Piper Cub aircraft. He earned his pilot’s license and started his own Ag-flying business after the family signed up some land for CRP. He made extra money on the side, flying a crop-dusting plane.
“He was kind of a daredevil, but he was kind of indestructible, too,” says Marla Leander, K.D.’s ex-wife who raised four children with him at the ranch. “We miss him pretty bad. He was an awesome cowboy.”
When SGI came to Douglas County through the NRCS in 2012, K.D. was one of 11 landowners to sign up. He saw the benefits in partnering with NRCS, using the Initiative’s incentive-based conservation programs to add three miles of fencing to their grazing lands to create more pastures for a deferred-rotation grazing system. He also drilled a water well and installed more than 8,000 feet of water pipelines to create three new water trough locations for cattle.
The new well, pipelines and water troughs, which are equipped with escape ramps for birds and wildlife, improve the condition of grasslands on the ranch, along with the prescribed grazing management plan. “The water stations allow the cows to be really well distributed,” Marla says.
More than 10 years ago, the Leanders decided to lease out their pastures and shorten the grazing season. “The cows come in October and they’re out by mid-December,” reports Marla. “A shorter grazing season works great for the sage grouse.”
The SGI conservation plan on the Leander’s ranch covers 3,840 acres. It also included the installation of reflective markers on the top wire of seven miles of barbed-wire fence surrounding a sage grouse lek. The markers help reduce fence-collisions by the low-flying sage grouse.
Brown says a steady stream of landowners have since signed up with SGI to make conservation improvements. “We’ve put in place 73 SGI contracts since 2010 here in Washington that benefit almost 73,000 acres,” he says. “K.D.’s leadership helped build that momentum. People are noticing that SGI is working out for their neighbors, so they’re thinking ‘maybe I should take a closer look at this’.”
In many places, SGI provides welcome tools for farmers and ranchers who have weathered multiple years of drought and tough wheat crop prices, Marla says. “We were always waiting for a good year, but it never happened,” she says.
The lands in CRP in Douglas County will bring $19 million into the community over the next ten years. With 70 percent of the state’s sage grouse population residing in the county, this type of program helps keep both the birds and ranchers on the landscape.
And the family takes pride in knowing that their ranch is more sustainable, especially when looking ahead to the future. “This land is more suitable for grazing,” Marla says. “With the CRP and SGI improvements, we hope the sage grouse and other wildlife will have a long future as well.”