Colorado Family Prioritizes Wildlife, Water and Soil in Restoring Ranch After Fire

News / FBNews May 6, 2022

Keith and Shelley Pankey raise beef cattle with their sons, Kevin and Justin, and their families, in Moffat and Routt counties in northwestern Colorado. The conservation practices they implemented to improve wildlife habitat, water quality and soil health earned the Farm Bureau family the 2022 Colorado Leopold Conservation Award®.

The award, given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, recognizes ranchers, farmers and forestland owners who inspire others with their voluntary conservation efforts on private, working lands.

The Pankey family’s resilience was put to a test when a wildfire burned nearly half of their ranch in 2018. Among the devastating impacts of the fire was livestock and wildlife could no longer drink from ponds because they were covered in ashes.

Following the fire, the Pankeys cleaned the ponds and aerially reseeded native grasses on 900 acres in the fire’s path. This was not the first time conservation practices have paid off for this family and the landscape they share with livestock and wildlife.

Keith’s great-grandfather homesteaded an area of high desert known as Great Divide. Improved water distribution and rotational grazing systems allow the Pankeys to still graze cattle in the drought-prone region from spring through fall.

They replaced windmill-powered wells with solar pumps. New water storage tanks and nearly three miles of natural flow pipelines were also added. By expanding the number of watering stations from six to 12 the Pankeys increased their ability to properly graze cattle while creating wildlife habitat across the ranch.

Precipitation, range condition and animal performance all impact how the Pankeys plan pasture rotations and stocking rates. They analyze pasture rotations to determine which areas benefit from early, middle or late season grazing. They’ve also found that some areas benefit from longer or shorter periods of grazing, while others benefit from being grazed twice in the same season.

When cattle widely disperse themselves, the Pankeys find that grass recovers at a faster rate and taller grass is left behind when the cattle are rotated to another pasture. The ranch’s wildlife populations have greatly increased thanks to rotational grazing and the improved water system. By working with neighbors to control noxious weeds, desirable grasses have become dominant across the ranch.

Pankey Ranch borders Colorado’s largest greater sage grouse lek, a breeding ground for this species. The Pankeys hosted Colorado State University students to study grasses, insects and greater sage grouse habitat in the Great Divide range. Their study was helpful in determining which conservation practices to adopt. The Pankeys fenced off a large area around a natural spring to provide cover. They also equipped water storage tanks with overflows that provide water and prolonged green vegetation to encourage production of insects that grouse chicks consume.

The Pankeys are involved with a large-scale conservation effort led by Trout Unlimited to stabilize Elk Head Creek’s riparian corridor. They have installed rock toe and erosion control mats, and reseeded stream banks to prevent erosion. Hundreds of willow trees have been planted in corridors to preserve wetlands and fish habitat. Less erosion in the creek means cleaner water downstream in the Elk Head Reservoir and Yampa River. This family’s leadership in raising awareness of the creek’s impaired health and commitment to on-the-ground conservation practices is inspiring other landowners to follow suit.

The Pankeys also provide public hunting opportunities on their land. In 2011, they obtained a conservation easement on their Routt County property through the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust to ensure future agricultural uses on the land. As a longtime volunteer with the Moffat County Fair, Keith shares his land ethic and conservation practices with youth, neighbors and the general public. 

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 24 states for land, water and wildlife habitat management.

In 2022, Colorado 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 Colorado, the $10,000 award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, American Farmland Trust, Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Gates Family Foundation, American AgCredit, CoBank, Farm Credit of Southern Colorado and Premier Farm Credit.

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