SHERIDAN COUNTY – More than 1,000 acres of working ranchland will remain forever in agriculture thanks to a recently closed conservation easement and bequest of the ranch to the Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Land Trust.

The Kusel Ranch purchased conservation easement closed the end of June and protects 1,050 acres just west of Sheridan. The scenic ranch is located along the eastern front of the Bighorn Mountain Range, with Soldier Creek drainage running through it. Owned by Fred Kusel and his sister Catherine Kusel, the ranch lies in an area that has experienced an explosion of rural development in recent years. The siblings entered into the easement to help ensure the operation will continue as a viable ranch and habitat for wildlife.

“We have felt for a long time that we needed to protect agricultural lands from development,” Catherine Kusel said. “The more land in development, the less land that is available for food production and future generations.”

The purchased conservation easement is a legal, voluntary agreement a landowner makes to permanently restrict the type and amount of development that occurs on his or her property. It is held and monitored by the Stock Growers Ag Land Trust.

Funders include the Natural Resources Conservation Service Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (NRCS FRPP) and the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust (WWNRT). The Kusels generously contributed more than 25 percent of the value of the conservation easement.

“The Kusel Conservation Easement is another fantastic example of how NRCS Farm Bill programs, in concert with the Stock Growers Ag Land Trust’s commitment to preserving working agriculture operations, provides extraordinary benefits to Wyoming,” NRCS State Conservationist Xavier Montoya said. “We are fortunate to have a level of FRPP funding that can support many excellent projects.  The NRCS looks forward to further growing our very successful partnership in support of conservation easements in our great state.”

The property lies along Soldier Creek and contains productive irrigated fields and rolling upland shrub steppe. The protection of the Kusel Ranch will help to ensure the continued agricultural viability and habitat values of this spectacular corridor between mountains and plains.

“The Kusels have taken a monumental step in ensuring their ranch remains a ranch,” Stock Growers Ag Land Trust Field Representative Leah Burgess said. “Not only have they protected the land base for agriculture and open space, they have ensured that the property will continue to be operated as a working ranch through their bequest to the Land Trust.”

The ranch location near the Bighorn National Forest plays a key role in providing an undeveloped buffer for the public lands to the west. The riparian areas include a diverse population of trees and plants and are home to amphibians, waterfowl and other aquatic and riparian-dwelling species. The irrigated meadows and native rangelands contain elk and pronghorn migration corridors, and provide ample habitat for a host of other wildlife species, including deer, moose, small mammals, raptors and songbirds.

The protection of the Kusel Ranch will help to conserve agricultural productivity and wildlife habitat by expanding this contiguity of open spaces which include both privately and federally managed lands. As encroachment from Sheridan westward continues, places like the Kusel property are becoming increasingly important for wildlife populations.

“If you stand on the hills of the Kusel place and look west there is nothing but the wide-open space all the way to the top of the mountains,” WWNRT Board Member Hardy Tate said. “As I was growing up on a ranch just west of the Kusel place, I didn’t realize how special that open space was. I have really come to appreciate how rare and valuable this contiguous open area on the face of the mountains is to future generations.  It will be a very lucky family that gets to continue the Kusel ranching operation after they are gone.”

The Kusel family has ranched on their land since 1910 and Fred and sister Catherine have owned and operated the cattle and hay operation since 1967. In creating their estate plans the Kusel siblings wanted to ensure their ranch remains a working operation and the property will serve as a “start-up opportunity” for young ranchers. With this in mind, they named the Stock Growers Ag Land Trust as beneficiary to the ranch.

Due to the Kusel’s foresight in their estate planning, the Stock Growers Ag Land Trust, along with Encana Oil & Gas and several private donors have launched a feasibility study to establish the Ranchland Succession Program. The goal of the project is to establish viable models that can be used to transfer land to beginning producers, ensuring the intent of the bequest can be honored.

“Fred and Catherine’s legacy gift of their ranch is an extraordinary example of the concern many landowners have for the future of agriculture in Wyoming,” Stock Growers Ag Land Trust Executive Director Pamela Dewell said. “We are honored they chose our land trust to ensure their property is conveyed to a young ranching family after the Kusels have passed away.”