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Rancher Pat O’Toole Finds Inventive Ways to Solve Water Problems

It’s not easy to put a positive spin on the COVID-19 pandemic, but there has been at least one piece of good news: A steep drop in emissions from transportation and manufacturing during the global lockdown. This has led to a similar drop in air pollution, leading to clear, blue skies in normally smog-ridden cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Pat O’Toole sees this sudden (if temporary) change in the environment as a learning opportunity for the agricultural industry. O’Toole owns and manages the Ladder Ranch, a cattle, sheep and hay ranch that straddles the Wyoming-Colorado border in the Little Snake River Valley. O’Toole, a former Wyoming legislator, is also involved in a number of organizations devoted to agricultural issues. In an April commentary for the Capital Press, O’Toole wrote that the drop in air pollution during the COVID-19 pandemic “shows us that our environment immediately responds to change.”

The important step now, he said, is for the agriculture industry to learn from and adapt to these changes.

“Actions must be taken in order to care for the natural resources upon which we depend, and ensure a livable planet. In livestock jargon, we must not go beyond the ‘carrying capacity,’” O’Toole wrote. “The challenges brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic have exposed our vulnerabilities, and offer us opportunities as well. We cannot do without the transportation and manufacturing sectors, though we can learn and adapt. So, we must look at changes that can be made as a practical matter.”

O’Toole brings a wealth of experience and expertise to the table in terms of helping farmers and ranchers adopt more environmentally friendly practices while still ensuring profitable operations. As a rancher, he manages a 12,000-acre family operation along with his wife Sharon and two of their adult children. The ranch is located at an altitude of about 7,000 feet and mainly raises Angus and Black Baldy cattle and Rambouillet and Hampshire sheep, though it also raises grass hay and alfalfa used to feed the livestock. The ranch was first established in 1881 when A.W. and Anna Louise Salisbury settled near the confluence of the Little Snake River and Battle Creek.

O’Toole also serves as president of the Family Farm Alliance, a lobbying group that represents Western irrigators. He’s an advisory board member for the AGree Economic and Environmental Risk Coalition, a think tank that studies international food and agriculture policy issues; and serves on the boards of non-profits such as Partners for Conservation, the Farm Foundation and Solutions from the Land.

O’Toole has been a vocal proponent of partnering with federal officials and conservationists to help sustain ranch herds alongside fish, mule deer, elk and other wildlife. He also spends much of his time looking for ways to preserve and improve water sources as a way to make ranching more efficient and protect the surrounding ecosystems.

Part of his focus is on Battle Creek, whose water is used to irrigate Ladder Ranch’s hayfields. The O’Tooles have worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to install rock structures that channel water to the center of the creek, helping to reduce bank erosion and ensure that the water remains deep and properly oxygenated for fish. The O’Tooles have also installed fences to keep animals from grazing on willows and cottonwoods. This not only cools the water but also provides habitat for birds.

“Support of repairing and upgrading infrastructure is a critical and long-neglected need,” O’Toole wrote. “A solution is real support for the building and maintenance of existing and new water storage, and modernization of water delivery infrastructure. This too calls for a balanced approach, taking into consideration structures friendly to fish, birds, and other wildlife.”

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