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Cowboys And Scientists

Ted Wood
Old building in front of the Sundial at the Dugout Ranch

Dugout Ranch is a working cattle ranch in the heart of the Colorado Plateau. It’s surrounded by enormous rock formations with colorful names, like the Sundial, Fringe of Death Canyon, and the Moki Family, just to name a few. It’s as remote as it is beautiful, an hour and a half south of Moab in San Juan County.

As remote as it is, this area has been inhabited for hundreds of years, evidenced by the abundant petroglyphs. Cowboys started running cattle in the 1880s, and Dugout Ranch was established in 1917. Many things are still done the way they were a hundred years ago, with ranch hands driving cattle across rocky grazing areas and into roughhewn lumber corrals. What’s changed in recent years is the cattle company’s relationship with the land itself.

“Well, it really started with the Nature Conservancy purchasing the ranch from the Redd family in 1997," said Sue Bellagamba, Canyonlands Regional Director for the Nature Conservancy, "and from there we realized that this place had more to offer than just being an operating cattle ranch. It was really about the opportunities here for researchers and producers to work together and answer some of the most pressing questions. We know--the models predict--that we are going to get hotter and dryer. This is where climate change is going to have some of the greatest impacts, so we felt that this ranch had the opportunity to look at the interactive effects of climate change and land use.”

Dugout Ranch is home to the Canyonlands Research Center, owned by the Nature Conservancy, although the Indian Creek Cattle Company still uses it as a ranch. Long-term cattle grazing data and an on-site weather station let researchers investigate some of the most important pressures in this sensitive landscape. A barn has been converted into a lab powered by an array of solar panels, and a large covered pavilion serves as a meeting place for researchers to discuss their findings. Tent cabins and showers allow teachers to bring classes out for extended field trips.

The Canyonlands Research Center is 5200 acres of private land, but it’s in the middle of 800,000 acres of public land managed by research partners.

“This is a really unique part of Utah in that we have this beautiful red rock country and we’re very close to the border of Canyonlands National Park Needles District, but also we have Bureau of Land Management lands, U.S. Forest Service lands, and so this landscape is this incredible research opportunity to not only look at how dry land ecosystems are responding to land use and climate change, but also to look at how these different federal agencies have managed their lands in the past, and we can do experiments with some of those land management approaches,” said Dr. Nichole Barger is the science committee chairperson for the Canyonlands Research Center.

There is a common misconception that ranchers and researchers don’t mix, especially after the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year. But the truth is that scientists have a lot to learn from the people that work the land, and similarly, ranchers can use scientific research to graze their cattle in ways that will have less impact on the land they work. By mitigating threats like climate change and overgrazing, ranchers can protect their cattle and their livelihoods. Matt Redd grew up at Dugout Ranch, and now works for the Nature Conservancy.

“The work with the scientists largely has been them sharing information with us in what they’re seeing and the different work they’re doing or working towards. It’s been a great improvement for us. We have a fair amount of field knowledge from our time here, but being able to augment that with other research that’s happening is a great thing,” said Redd.

Music in this story:

Adam Nordell with Johanna Davis - Dry Gulch