Actions to restore rangeland habitat and reduce conflicts with gray wolves taken on by Lava Lake Land and Livestock during the past 10 years have brought the local sheep outfit widespread praise.
As these successes have mounted in the Carey-based ranch's vast working area—from the Pioneer Mountains to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve—recognition and respect have begun to come its way. Local support for Lava Lake's free-range, organically raised lamb is high, with many local eateries highlighting the ranch's premium product on their menus.
Local consumers purchase the company's product through a variety of sources, including Idaho's Bounty, a regional food cooperative that began in the Wood River Valley and now extends across south-central Idaho.
Last week, recognition of Lava Lake's practices went nationwide when company President Mike Stevens accepted the U.S. Forest Service's prestigious National Rangeland Management Award. Stevens was given the award by the deputy chief of the Forest Service, Joel Holtrop, during a National Society of Rangeland Management meeting in Albuquerque, N.M.
Joining Stevens to accept the award was Brian Bean, who owns Lava Lake along with his wife, Kathleen Bean.
The Beans, who split their time between the ranch and San Francisco, founded Lava Lake in 1999. In all, Lava Lake's 900,000 acres of mixed federal and private grazing ground takes in sagebrush steppe, aspen groves, willow-lined creeks and forests of Douglas fir. The ranch's dispersed bands of sheep share this landscape with herds of elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope.
They also share it with mountain lions and packs of gray wolves, which, for obvious reasons, present a significant challenge.
Lava Lake began to alter its practices around 2002, which, incidentally, marked the first time it experienced sheep depredation by wolves. At the time, ranch managers believed they were on the far southern perimeter of wolf country.
"In our minds the wolves were somewhere else," Stevens said in 2007.
Taking the losses as a strong hint, the company set about learning all it could about operating in wolf country from experts in the public and private worlds.
Though Lava Lake has seen its share of challenges in the ensuing years, its resolve hasn't been dampened. According to Stevens, the recent recognition of that work by the Forest Service is the result of a lot of hard work from a bunch of dedicated people.
"It's definitely been a group effort," he said. "It's the culmination of seven years of work."
Key to that effort's success, Stevens said, were the multi-generational ranch families that owned the private parcels and had permits to graze the federal allotments that became the Lava Lake ranch. These longtime Idaho families include the Cenarrusas, Oneidas, Purdys and Petersons. Each of these families helped Lava Lake understand the lay of the land and the kinds of conditions and challenges it could expect in the southern Pioneers and Craters landscapes.
"That really set the foundation for what we do," Stevens said.
In all, the sheep outfit owns about 24,000 acres of private ground centered on the ranch's main headquarters at Lava Lake, which sits just north of a lonely stretch of U.S. Highway 20. In 2001, it permanently protected 7,500 acres by placing it into a conservation easement held by The Nature Conservancy.
Since 2001, Lava Lake has also conducted extensive research in the ranch area. The work has included nearly two dozen field studies on topics like rare plants, noxious weeds, water quality, songbirds, amphibians and reptiles, greater sage grouse and elk. It is taking part in an exhaustive survey of long-distance pronghorn migration habits in the Pioneers and Craters of the Moon area.
But it's Lava Lake's proactive work to keep its sheep safe from wolves in the upper Big Wood River drainage that has garnered it the most attention. After three black wolves were discovered in one of the outfit's federal grazing allotments northwest of Ketchum along with three tiny wolf pups in the spring of 2007, Stevens and the rest of the Lava Lake crew took their efforts to a new level.
The culmination of those efforts, which also involved the dedicated work of nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, local volunteers, Lava Lake employees and Rick Williamson of the USDA Wildlife Services, was the Wood River Wolf Project. John Faulkner of Faulkner Land and Livestock in Gooding and John Peavey and Diane Josephy Peavey's Flat Top Sheep Ranch out of Carey were also critical to the program's success.
Last summer, the project succeeded in keeping sheep depredations by the Phantom Hill wolves down to just a single lamb. Stevens said it also allowed the continued existence of the well-known local pack, which Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials had eyed for elimination if it kept killing sheep like it did in 2007.
"That wolf pack is still there and bigger than before," he said.
Kurt Nelson, the Sawtooth National Forest's Ketchum District ranger and an active participant in the Wood River Wolf Project, nominated Lava Lake for the award.
Nelson said much of the company's local support originates with its work to build ties between the local food producers and consumers to support locally grown foods.
"That builds a whole new set of community alliances," he said.
Looking to the future, Lava Lake has become involved in an emerging effort that's bringing public and private entities together to find ways to preserve the Pioneers-to-Craters landscape. So far, the region hasn't seen the level of growth that's cut off wildlife pathways in other areas in Idaho.
Stevens said the project will "bring resources and attention to this landscape."
This article first appeared in the Idaho Mountain Express on February 18, 2009