Ruby Habitat Foundation celebrates eventful 2018
Gearing up for annual appeal to continue conservation, education programs
SHERIDAN—The Ruby Habitat Foundation does a lot of things, but there are some workings of nature that they simply can’t control.
One such occurrence happened again in 2018, for the second time in a row, when Canada Geese displaced the bald eagle family that had built a nest in one of the tall trees on Woodson Ranch’s 1100-acre conservation area, co-opting the nest and using it for their own. The contesting species were only two of the 94 species of birds that have now been spotted on the Foundation’s property.
“For two years we watched them raise eaglets, and then these geese showed up,” says Dave Delisi, outreach coordinator for the Foundation. “It kind of blew everybody’s minds.”
The nest sits under the Foundation’s live-streaming nest cam, which had been installed to watch the progress of the eagles and their fledglings. But as time went on, the geese gained a sort of minor fame in the area.
“The elementary kids in both Alder and Sheridan just fell in love with the goose,” says Delisi. “The Alder school kids wanted to change their mascot to the Alder geese, and they wrote letters from the goose to the eagle and vice versa. It was just sweet and funny.”
Kindergarteners from Sheridan named the goose “Rebecca,” and the live-cam caught video of four goslings making the epic 65-foot leap out of their nest while learning to fly back in May. It may not be science, but it was an educational experience for the kids regardless, says Delisi. It gave them a chance to create a genuine connection to the natural world.
Those school children were only a few of the over 1,800 visitors welcomed to Woodson Ranch by the Ruby Habitat Foundation this year. As 2018 draws to a close, the Foundation is looking back on an eventful 12 months and preparing for more years at the nexus of outdoor education, recreation, agriculture and wildlife.
The Ruby Habitat Foundation was founded in 2002, a decade after Craig and Martha Woodson purchased Woodson Ranch. Initially intending to keep it as a place to fish and enjoy a little slice of Montana paradise, their plans for the property changed after Craig suffered a stroke shortly after buying the land.
While recovering, Craig adjusted his focus to pursuing something that would preserve the property and keep it from being subdivided in the future. Eventually, the Montana Land Reliance came forward, willing to protect the land so a greater mission could be established.
“The foundation has a pretty complicated mission, but it synthesizes into four things,” says Delisi. “Balancing agriculture and wildlife, while at the same time providing recreational and educational opportunities on the ranch.”
Craig Woodson passed away in 2011, but Martha, well over 80 years old, still spends half the year on Woodson Ranch. And year round, the Ruby Habitat Foundation coordinates intimate access to Montana’s most important natural resources for the people of the Ruby Valley.
In addition to observation of nest-stealing geese, the Ruby Habitat Foundation conduct research, bring speakers and offer habitat access for human and animal species alike.
In August, the Foundation hosted its annual Wildlife Speaker Series, which this year focused on the complex relationship between trout and agriculture. It ended with a catered dinner and drew around 150 people, cementing it as one of the Foundation’s most successful events.
“There’s sort of a constant hum of activity throughout the year,” Delisi says. One such recent hum came from a project conducted by Sheridan High School students, who used some of Woodson Ranch’s aquatic invertebrate analysis equipment to, as he says, “look at the squiggly things in the water, and so some applied science.”
In the end, those squiggly things proved helpful for the fishermen who come to Woodson Ranch each year to fish the Ruby River, Clear Creek, Alder Creek and a manmade spring creek, all of which flow within the Foundation’s 1100-acre boundaries. Many of them ask what flies they should use to have the most success, and now Delisi can tell them.
“Not only did they do some actual science and get out and get dirty, but those students gave me a tool that I can use,” he says. “Now I know what flies are living in the water that people are going to fish, because we partnered with those high school kids.”
The Foundation also hosts an annual summer intern, usually a college student, who allows them to dig deeper into conservation-oriented agriculture. As the nonprofit conducts agricultural research and experiments, they share their findings with local ranchers and agricultural stakeholders, then put that information to use, like on one of their biggest—and most costly—projects to date.
Clear Creek Project - A water quantity and quality project in Clear Creek has been a major focus of the RHF since an NRCS evaluation labelled the creek “unsustainably impaired” back in 2010. The impairments were repercussions of creek straightening efforts from decades ago in the 1950s, designed to make the Ruby Valley more accessible for agriculture.
The water quantity issues were relatively easy to address, because most of the water removed from Clear Creek was being used to irrigate nearby fields. With the help of a grant from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and collaboration with the ranchers using Clear Creek, RHF managed a transition to pulling water from a nearby reservoir instead of the creek and a transition to pivot irrigation rather than the traditional flood method, which uses significantly more water.
“Last year, I had people calling me and asking if there was any way to get more water into Clear Creek,” says Delisi. “And this year, people were calling to ask why there was so much water in it. And my response was, ‘We fixed it!’”
Though the quantity of water is on the mend, the results of straightening Clear Creek are still felt, and are the next project RHF hopes to tackle. Following a straighter path, the water flows faster and also takes more sediment with it, promoting erosion and skewing the levels of various pollutants in the creek. Slowing it down would require un-straightening it, and that’s exactly what RHF plans to do. Delisi calls it “restoring sinuosity.”
“We’d be reconnecting it to its floodplain and removing fish barriers that are there right now,” he says. “About 25 percent of Clear Creek is going to be ‘fixed’ in that regard. There’s still work to do, and it’s a gigantic project, but we’ve made a lot of progress.”
But such an enormous project carries with it a correspondingly large price tag: Delisi’s preliminary estimate for a section where Clear Creek meets the Ruby is as much as $100,000.
Annual Appeal - That’s where the RHF’s largest fundraising push of the year comes in: The annual appeal. As a nonprofit that doesn’t charge a rod fee to fishermen or admission to its speaker series, the appeal is the primary way it generates the funds to continue its programming.
RHF participated in Giving Tuesday this year the week after Thanksgiving and is also a member of 1% for the Planet, an organization that connects business donors with worthy beneficiaries. Those organizations then donate 1 percent of their revenue to those recipients. With the work they do, Delisi says, there are countless reasons for donors to support RHF.
“Everybody is looking out at the horizon,” he says. “What do we want to look like in 50 years? We’re not a pay-to-play kind of place. We’re here as a sort of community benefit and we get people from all over the country, but in the end we want to be here for our neighbors and help them.”