An Albany County ranch was honored by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department this summer for its commitment to habitat improvement, big game management and hunting access.
Mule Creek Ranch owners Sam Shoultz and Ken Matzner were named Landowners of the Year for the Laramie Region. Seven landowners in the state were recognized by the department for their conservation efforts.
Habitat biologist Ryan Amundson nominated Shoultz and Matzner for the honor, citing their willingness to partner with Game and Fish on a variety of projects. Matzner, who died in 2016, received the award posthumously.
Shoultz and Matzner have owned the 11,000-acre ranch for almost 20 years. It sits about 30 miles north of Rock River in the southern Laramie Range and includes state and Bureau of Land Management parcels within its boundaries.
The ranch is bisected by a valley, with mountains on the northern and southern ends. For livestock and wildlife, it offers meadows, conifer cover, aspen stands and water sources.
The ranch is home to pronghorn, mule deer, elk, sage grouse, blue grouse, mountain lion, black bear, bobcat and many other species. The elk population ranges from 200-500 individuals, depending on conditions.
Since 2010, Mule Creek Ranch has been working on habitat enhancement projects that benefit all wildlife.
“We have always tried to be good stewards of the land,” Shoultz said.
Habitat projects have included prescribed burns, aspen mastication and herbicide application.
The aim of such projects has been to increase the presence of grasses and forbs and encourage aspen regeneration, Amundson said.
In 2015, Game and Fish conducted a prescribed burn of about 1,000 acres in conjunction with a neighboring ranch.
“Just like working with any landowner, you gain confidence over time,” Amundson said. “You start out with a small scale and experiment a little bit to let the landowner know what you’re trying to get accomplished … and you grow from there.”
After one aspen project, local elk put too much pressure on the re-sprouting aspens and decimated the new growth as a result. Amundson said Shoultz and Matzner weren’t deterred and were open to different strategies.
“What we’ve done over time is increase the size of treatments to spread out the level of herbivory that’s happening up there, and that’s helped a little bit,” he said.
Amundson said the landowners have also cooperated in developing grazing management plans that leave forage for big game and allow plants to recover following treatments.
“They’ve been really flexible and have followed our recommendations to try to give those communities as good a chance as they can to respond,” he said.
Mule Creek Ranch is part of elk hunt area 7, where the Laramie Peak/Muddy Mountain Herd Unit is almost twice as large as land managers would like, and has been for more than a dozen years.
“This herd is well over what we’re trying to manage it for,” said wildlife biologist Martin Hicks.
Historically, lack of public hunting access has made it hard for Game and Fish to control the herd size. Since 2015, Mule Creek Ranch has provided public access by foot or horseback to cow elk hunters through the Mule Creek Public Access Area. More than 400 permission slips have been granted to hunters during the last two years.
“They’re helping us achieve our goals of trying to manage the herd at objective,” Hicks said. “We appreciate their dedication and partnership.”
Leah Burgess, lands program manager for Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said Mule Creek Ranch is an important property when it comes to managing that herd.
“(Hunting access) is really a helpful benefit to managing the elk and making sure the habitat does stay in decent shape,” she said. “If there’s way too many elk, the habitat suffers.”
Shoultz, who lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, said he spends a lot of time at the ranch during the fall. He described Mule Creek Ranch as a special place with well-rounded resources, and he thanked Game and Fish and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation for their partnership in improving the habitat.
“It’s peaceful when you’re there,” he said. “There’s not a lot of them just like it.”