By Published On: January 9, 2020

The Conservation Guardians

This article is a partnership production of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program—Mountain-Prairie Region and Intermountain West Joint Venture. Click here to read all four stories in this series.

By Kristen A. Schmitt

Jagged snow-capped mountains frame farmland along the Bear River where a herd of cattle graze on phragmites, content on foraging the invasive plant currently overrunning Utah’s native wetlands. It’s part of an unusual grazing system established by Joel Ferry, a fifth-generation farmer and current representative of J Y Ferry and Sons, Inc., a livestock and farming operation near Corinne, Utah. It’s also a solution to keeping the rapidly expanding invasive reed from displacing native plants and native wildlife—one of the many conservation-based projects interwoven into the Ferrys’ family business.

“It’s not super common for ranchers to teach their cattle to forage on phragmites because most do not have access to large wetland areas,” says Karl Fleming, the Utah State Coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program (PFW), which is a voluntary private lands habitat restoration program that provides landowners interested in restoring fish and wildlife habitat with financial and technical assistance. “Through intense grazing, they’ve been able to reduce the phragmites found on their private property and surrounding areas.”

These areas include wetlands adjoining the Great Salt Lake, the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and other state management areas. This landscape is one of the most important in North America for wetland birds and millions fly through every year. Through rotational grazing, the Ferrys’ livestock stunts the growth of the oppressive invasive plant, resulting in open water areas for waterfowl and shorebird use. This targeted grazing pattern provides forage for the cattle and benefits birds like White-faced Ibis, Great Blue Herons and Cinnamon Teal that use the migratory flyway.

“I have better forage for my cattle to graze on, cleaner water for them to drink,” says Ferry, whose family has been raising cattle and growing crops in this valley for 120 years. “I have more abundant water for my crops to use. It’s not just a one-sided equation. By utilizing resources like PFW, we become more efficient and sustainable and the wetlands become healthier and more productive. It’s better for the entire system.”

“I love the land and I love what I do,” continues Ferry. “And I’m willing to invest in what I do because I can see the difference it makes.” For Ferry, that investment is twofold. On one hand it is establishing relationships with federal agencies like the FWS, and utilizing the services and expertise provided by PFW staff. On the other it is looking at ways to diversify the profitability of the landscape while managing the habitat for future successions of wildlife. One way he does this is by running a private hunting operation in the fall, which helps generate income, while also providing quality habitat for nesting and migratory birds in the spring and summer.

“They recognize the value of additional wetland areas and enhancement of those wetland areas for migratory birds,” says Fleming. “The Ferrys are conservation-minded with a conservation ethic. They’re always looking at different ways to accomplish things to benefit them as the landowners and also the wildlife.”

For example, the Ferrys’ first project with PFW was to mechanically remove invasive salt cedar from their property along the Bear River. Salt cedar typically inhabits riparian areas, outcompeting native vegetation, utilizing large amounts of water and increasing salt concentration in the soil’s surface. Removing five miles of this invasive tree improved riparian habitat conditions for both wildlife and livestock. Throughout their long-standing relationship with PFW, the Ferrys have enhanced 831 acres of wetlands by constructing small dikes and installing water control structures to facilitate the management of water levels. In one area, they fixed the erosion of 760 feet of stream bank, which required reconstruction and stabilization with rush and sedge plantings on the bench and grass plantings on the sloped bank.

Additionally, through their conservation-driven focus, the Ferrys have been paramount in establishing the Bear River Watershed Conservation Area and have voluntarily placed 750 acres of wetland and upland under conservation easement. And, their conservation dedication has only led to further collaboration with other like-minded organizations, such as Ducks Unlimited, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

“It all comes down to building relationships,” says Ferry. “With programs like PFW and others, it’s been fantastic working with the different members of these organizations and that’s how we can continue to be successful.”