March 5, 2018|By Tim Delaney and Whitney Flanagan| Land
Whitney Flanagan: When and why did you begin ranching? Is it a family tradition?

Tim Delaney: No, ranching was certainly not a family tradition. My wife and I live in upstate New York in a little town called Mayfield, where we raised our three children. I'm a principal in a heavy highway construction firm that builds large-scale commercial wind farms and infrastructure, like roads and bridges. We’ve raised draft horses and some cattle here on a very small basis, but really our first ranching experience began in 2010 when we purchased the property in Wyoming called Rolling Thunder Ranch.

3 5 Rolling Thunder Cover PhotoPhoto by Mark Gocke.

Whitney: What led you to purchase a ranch out west?

Tim: We'd been spending time in Colorado since the late 1990s, and the property that we would visit was getting sold off piece by piece over the years, continually decreasing our opportunity for hiking, hunting and fishing. We decided to find a place that we could call our own that had both a recreational and agricultural component.

In late 2009, we found and fell in love with Rolling Thunder Ranch—a high mountain ranch sitting at about 8,500 feet—and were able to close on it in spring 2010. We’ve been spending 10-12 weeks there every year, but from November through mid-May we’re usually snowed out. A neighboring rancher leases summer grazing rights on our land, and last year 600 head of yearlings grazed on the property.

3 5 Cattle copyPhoto by Tim Delaney.

Whitney: Why this specific ranch? What makes it unique and special?

Tim: Rolling Thunder is one of the most scenic properties I've ever had the privilege of traversing, with an incredible viewshed of three mountain ranges—the Wyoming Range to the west, the Gros Ventre range to the east and the Wind River Range to the south. It is essentially a large bowl, and at up around 8,000 feet we’re able to view nearly the entire perimeter of the ranch. It also has incredible wildlife habitat for moose, grizzly bears, elk, deer, pronghorn, black bears, sage grouse, mountain lions and wolves.

3 5 Sept.Oct 2014 219 copyPhoto by Tim Delaney.

Whitney: Will you tell us about the conservation initiatives you’ve prioritized at your ranch?  

Tim: As I said, I am in the construction business, so when you own a bulldozer for a living, you are not considered necessarily to be conservation minded, but owning this ranch has been a great opportunity for me to get involved in conservation, and I’ve really enjoyed it. I couldn’t help but apply my construction planning mindset to ranch improvements, which led me to do some pretty extensive conservation planning as well.  What’s great is that the conservation planning makes a lot of sense economically, both today and for the future value of the ranch and its agricultural operation. Our experience has been that conservation can certainly go hand-in-hand with ranching—they are mutually beneficial.

When we were looking to buy, there was a significant beetle blight killing off conifers throughout the west. Our property has a fair amount of timber on it, and I commissioned a forestry study to make sure that the conifers I was about to purchase weren’t going to be brown a couple of years later. This forestry study pointed out opportunities and weaknesses in both our conifers and a very substantial aspen stand, which led to our participation in an aspen regeneration project.

3 5 aspenstand copyPhoto by Tim Delaney.

Like many projects, one thing led to another. The aspen regeneration project led to a habitat improvement project, and that ultimately led into a fence replacement project in which we are replacing 20 miles of perimeter fencing with wildlife-friendly fence—allowing animals like pronghorn to continue migrating between their summer habitat in Grand Teton National Park to their winter range in the Green River Valley of southwestern Wyoming.       

Whitney: How did you become involved with The Conservation Fund?

Tim: I was contacted by Luke Lynch, the Fund’s late Wyoming State Director  in the Jackson Hole office. He explained what conservation easements could successfully offer landowners like myself. He was very interested in our long-term vision for the property; understood that we wanted to protect it and leave it in a better condition than we found it; and that we didn’t have any interest in developing it. We concluded that the purpose of a conservation easement was very much consistent with our vision for the property. It also provided an opportunity to reduce our cost basis in the property and achieve some tax benefit—allowing the ranch to operate as a ranch while preventing development of the land in perpetuity. Luke connected me to funding from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for conservation easements, which we used to protect the first two permanent conservation easements on our working land.

Our relationship with the Fund continues with Dan Schlager, the current Wyoming State Director—we worked together to protect the remaining portion of the bowl. To date, we have now worked with The Conservation Fund to complete bargain sales of three conservation easements that encompass the 3,600 acres of our original purchase of Rolling Thunder Ranch, the additional 4,000 acres of Rim Ranch that we purchased a few years later, and the 340-acre former subdivision lot we call Rolling Thunder II that is essential for mule deer and pronghorn antelope migration. That final 340-acre piece is so essential because it is entirely in the stop-over area on the mule deer migration route. We’ve witnessed hundreds of mule deer on the property migrating through in the spring and fall. In addition to its incredible importance for mule deer and antelope migration, our ranch properties are also located within designated Wyoming Game and Fish Department Greater Sage-grouse habitat, and advance the goals of the NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative.

3 5 Delaney mapThe areas outlined in blue represent the three bargain sales, including Rolling Thunder, Rim Ranch, and Rolling Thunder II.

Whitney: You recently put the finishing touches on a very detailed conservation plan for your holdings. Tell me more about that.

Tim: Our conservation objectives are to manage the property for wildlife, hunting, and recreation, while maintaining a viable summer livestock operation. The preservation of open spaces and healthy landscapes that connect migrating wildlife populations is also our goal. So we designed our conservation plan to be a living document that requires annual updating, and I'm hoping that my children (and grandchildren) will use it in an effort to continue our vision of the ranch. It was put together with the help of many partners, including Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the NRCS.

3 5 Mule Deer c David ParsonsMule deer. Photo by David Parsons.

Whitney: How have these partnerships helped you accomplish all you’ve been able to so quickly… in less than a decade?  

Tim: There is fantastic power in partnerships, and having partners is the only way we were able to make this story happen. It all started with the forestry report that we commissioned, and our contacts with USFWS led to other agencies like WGFD and NRCS getting involved and partnering with us. The Conservation Fund, the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the Trust for Public Land all provided essential support. The people that played a role for each of those organizations and agencies are so passionate, committed and motivated. They just really appreciate the fact that we are doing the best we can do to protect and preserve and enhance this property, and we certainly could not have scratched the surface without these partners.

At the Fund, we make conservation work for America. We practice conservation to achieve environmental and economic outcomes. Find out more about The Conservation Fund’s work in Wyoming that is helping to protect land and wildlife migrations:

Tim and Tina Delaney were honored as 2015 Wyoming Landowner of the Year in recognition of their outstanding practices in wildlife management, habitat improvement, and conservation techniques on their properties.

Despite progress, the threats to migrations are still outpacing conservation. "Protecting America’s Last Great Animal Migrations" by Arthur Middleton appeared in the New York Times on February 23, 2018, and discusses why protecting the migrations of big-game animals is becoming a priority for a wide spectrum of Westerners—from environmentalists to hunters to ranchers.