Marie and Glenn Nader’s Witcher Creek Ranch in Modoc County was selected as the recipient of the 2021 California Leopold Conservation Award®. In 1999, the Naders, a Farm Bureau family, traded their portion of their historically family-owned ranch for the 2,880-acre Witcher Creek Ranch and quickly established a plan to balance the land’s ranching practices, resilient grazing pastures and extensive wildlife habitat.
Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the award recognizes farmers, ranchers and forestland owners who inspire others with their dedication to water quality, soil health and wildlife habitat management on private, working land.
“We are honored to join Sand County Foundation and Sustainable Conservation to recognize the extraordinary efforts of California farmers and ranchers who go above and beyond in managing and enhancing our natural resources,” said Jamie Johansson, California Farm Bureau Federation president. “The Leopold Conservation Award recognizes innovative and replicable strategies that our farmers or ranchers utilize to manage their land and natural resources.”
Marie, Glenn, and their son, Alan, are dedicated to promoting water conservation and soil health on a working cattle ranch. They credit state and federal conservation-focused programs and grants with helping them make dramatic changes on their 2,880 acres of Modoc County in the northeastern part of the state.
After buying the ranch in 1999, they developed a plan to work with nature by melding wildlife habitat with resilient grazing pastures. They consulted with several organizations on how to best preserve and improve the ranch’s natural resources.
The Naders introduced strategic rotational grazing of their cattle to improve the ecosystem. They fenced subdivided pastures into small sections for high-intensity, but short duration grazing, which is timed to optimize weed control and wildlife management.
Assistance from USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program helped the Naders create cattle watering sites away from creeks, which reduced erosion, protected water quality and provided wildlife habitat. Three miles of single wire electrified fencing around riparian areas allow deer and antelope to migrate while keeping cattle out of the creek.
Water is the life blood of a cold desert environment. Replacing 7 miles of irrigation ditches dug in the 1880s with an efficient system of underground pipelines allowed the Naders to better cope with two major droughts.
In addition to cattle grazing, the ranch’s other income stream is hay production. Since transitioning to organic hay production in 2014, the Naders have produced a bountiful crop on nutrient-rich soils without fertilizer. Hay production increased and labor costs decreased after a wheel line irrigation system was replaced with a pivot irrigation and piping system. Increased yield and revenue from organic hay made it easier to give 800 acres of wildlife-rich wetlands a three-year rest from grazing. The ranch’s location is critically important to migratory birds who depend on wet meadows for stopover habitat, so the wetlands are not grazed during waterfowl nesting season, and enough dry grass is left behind to provide nesting material and cover.
Working with nature, the Naders recruited beavers to build dams that are restoring the hydrological function of their creek, while raising the water table of a nearby meadow. The Naders also quantified their land improvements through bird monitoring, which pointed them toward the stretches of a 2-mile creek restoration that needed more attention.
The Naders also opened their stream to wildlife researchers interested in the viability of reintroducing a threatened species of trout. Thermal data loggers collected hourly stream temperature data over a three-year period. Over time it was shown that their conservation practices are making progress in reducing the stream’s temperatures.
Whether it’s stream temperature data collection, soil sampling, or forage testing, the Naders consult with a variety of organizations on extensive monitoring programs. Just as restored streambanks and lush meadows would indicate, data provides conclusive evidence that their conservation practices are making an impact.
Leopold Conservation Award
Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, Sand County Foundation and national sponsor American Farmland Trust present the Leopold Conservation Award to farmers, ranchers and forestland owners in 23 states for land, water and wildlife habitat management.
In 2021, California farmers, ranchers and forestland owners were encouraged to apply (or be nominated) for the award. Applications were reviewed by an independent panel of agricultural and conservation leaders.
In California, the $10,000 award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, American Farmland Trust, Sustainable Conservation and the California Farm Bureau Federation.