Reprinted from the September 2015 issue of the Gem City Spark, the City of Laramie, Wyoming’s Community Newsletter
by Darren Parkin, Laramie, Wyoming
The Monolith Ranch, located just a few miles south of town, is a spacious 11,788 acres—slightly larger than the 11,276 acres that comprise the City of Laramie in southeastern Wyoming. Highway 287 splits the ranch for 3½ miles, and there is also access from Highway 230. The City of Laramie purchased it in 1981 from the Monolith Portland Cement Company (hence the name) for $3 million.
The purchase negotiations began in 1978 but were opposed by citizen groups who filed lawsuits in an attempt to prevent the city from acquiring the Monolith. When the purchase of the Monolith Ranch was placed on the ballot, the residents of Laramie overwhelmingly approved the purchase.
The Monolith Ranch was purchased by the city solely for its valuable water rights. It represents a significant source of water for the City of Laramie. In the future—at least 20 years but likely much longer—a portion of the ranch’s water will be transferred from agricultural to municipal use. Transfer timing is determined by water demand outstripping the current supply capabilities of the city. Unforeseen interruptions to the reliability and/or availability of municipal water sources may also play a factor.
In the interim, the Monolith Ranch is leased-out and operated by Baer Livestock. This lessee has been on the ranch for the past 11 years. The lease arrangement provides that Baer Livestock runs the cattle operations while the City of Laramie irrigates the acreage and raises the hay. Baer only runs steers, typically heavier than 700 pounds and bred for the high altitude.
Baer Livestock employs one full-time ranch hand who lives on the Monolith Ranch year-round. In the spring of 2015, 1,956 head of cattle on the ranch were fed every day, making for a heavy workload.
For ranch hands, winter on the Monolith is the same as most other ranching operations: grinding hay, feeding cake, fixing fences, and chopping ice out of the stock water tanks each morning. All cattle are fed hay grown on the Monolith Ranch. The high sulfur content in the soil in some of the hay meadows requires that much of the poor quality hay be blended with better hay prior to feeding, in addition to being supplemented with vitamins and cake. The cake consists of pellets of protein and vitamin fortified alfalfa.
In the spring, activity slows down as most of the steers are moved to higher-elevation summer pastures, or onto feedlots. Usually only a couple hundred head of cattle spend summers on the Monolith, depending upon rangeland conditions and grazing rotation schedules.
The entire ranch is cross-fenced, with many pastures grazed only once every two years. Cattle tend to migrate up onto the highlands, so temporary fencing is used extensively to keep them near the creek bottoms, so as to fully employ the meadows’ full grazing potential.
The Monolith Ranch Advisory Committee (MRAC) was formed to act in an advisory capacity to the City of Laramie to help manage the Monolith Ranch. Time has proven the committee to be a valuable resource. This five-person committee consists of a City Council liaison, currently Vice-mayor Jayne Pearce, a Wyoming Game and Fish liaison, and three members of the community at large who have expertise in ranching and water rights. The MRAC is instrumental in lease negotiations and also vets proposals from groups who want to use the Monolith for their activities. The MRAC has city support from the Public Works Division and the City Manager’s Office staff.
Each spring the city hires a seasonal irrigator who is responsible for irrigating a large amount of acreage from various sources. There are 1,407 acres permitted to be irrigated by water diverted from the Laramie River by the Dowlin Ditch. This 1868 priority water right—the number one priority right along the entire Laramie River system—is the same water right that will someday be transferred to municipal use.
These lands are the heart of the city’s interest in the ranch, and given the greatest attention. An 11-tower center pivot irrigates 237 acres of the Dowlin lands, which are planted into alfalfa while the remainder is flood-irrigated grass hay. All the flood-irrigation and maintenance is done the traditional, labor-intensive way: with a shovel.
The alfalfa and the best hay meadows are fertilized every year by the lessee, with a combination of manure and commercial liquid fertilizer, while the city is responsible for herbicides, and weed and pest control. The lessee also provides the haying crew. The Dowlin meadows produce 1,500 tons of grass hay and 700 tons of alfalfa in an average year.
The city begins each irrigation season with Laramie River water as early in the year as possible and stretches it out as late in the year as is feasible. The effort diverts as much water as possible because the more water it can use, the more the State of Wyoming will someday allow be transferred to municipal use. The city monitors the irrigation water with electronic data loggers to track all water being diverted and where it is applied. This documents to the State of
Wyoming exactly how much water is being used, and where it is being used. All of these water management activities are atypical from what you may find on other Wyoming ranches. They represent a large city investment, but the data provided is essential to ensure a successful transfer of the irrigation water to municipal use.
In addition to the Dowlin lands, irrigation takes place with water from Harney Creek, Five-Mile Creek, Simpson Springs, and the Hunziker irrigation well. The city holds an additional 100 acres of A-share rights and 127 acres of B-share rights from the Pioneer Canal/ Lake Hattie Irrigation District.
Almost all of the Monolith Ranch is managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish as a Hunter Management Area (HMA). The HMA provides public access to the ranch for antelope and white-tailed deer hunting. Antelope hunting opportunities exist in Hunt Areas 37 and 44 while white-tailed deer hunting is allowed in Hunt Area 77. In addition to having the appropriate license, each hunter must obtain permission and a vehicle pass from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department before entering the Monolith Ranch HMA, as neither the city nor the lessee can directly grant permission to hunt on the Monolith Ranch.
The popular Pioneer Pasture Public Access Area is nearby, accessible from Highway 230. This area is managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish and allows for direct Laramie River fishing and recreational access.
The Pioneer Pasture is slated for improvements in the near future as the city works to mitigate the highly saline soil conditions, removes abundant greasewood to improve forage capabilities, and works to make the area more aesthetically pleasing.
The city provides access to other entities to conduct research on the Monolith Ranch. Recent research includes the evaluation of the ranch by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ascertain the feasibility of increasing bird habitat and reintroduction of the endangered Wyoming Toad. The University of Wyoming (UW) has been conducting native fish habitat studies, atmospheric studies, and GIS projects. UW also consults with the city regarding soil conditions and noxious weed mitigation at the Pioneer Pasture.
Future of the ranch
The Monolith Ranch has proven to be a great asset to the City of Laramie, and will continue to be so into the future.
What will that future hold? Perhaps it will continue as a working cattle ranch, perhaps the cattle will be removed in favor of opening it to recreational open space for Laramie residents, or portions of the ranch may be developed into industrial, commercial, or residential areas.
It is certain that as growing regional municipalities struggle for adequate sources of water to ensure their existence, Laramie residents will know our water future is secure, thanks to the foresight that voters of Laramie had back in 1981 when the purchase was approved by ballot.
Darren Parkin is the Water Resources Manager for the City of Laramie in Wyoming.
Published in the February/March 2016 Issue