It was a sunny spring day in Wyoming and a small group of birders from Bighorn Audubon Society were happy to be at Falxa Ranch identifying birds. We were looking for species that are uniquely adapted to the grasslands and live nowhere else. As we drove through the ranch a Greater Sage-Grouse crossed the road. While we admired its intricately detailed plumage, another grassland bird began singing atop the sagebrush that dotted the grassland. It was a Brewer's Sparrow, a small species elegantly matching its muted-green home in the sagebrush. With their long and trilling song, Brewer's Sparrows have become a signature sound of the Falxa Ranch. This grassland spoke to us not just for its beauty, but also for its bird habitat value.
Under the guidance of Audubon Rockies, Bighorn Audubon Society and the Falxa Ranch have formed a partnership to designate the ranch of more than 22,000 acres as an Important Bird Area (IBA). IBAs are part of a global conservation strategy that focuses attention on habitats and key bird species. The concept is simple: identify and compile an inventory of areas that sustain healthy populations of birds.
The IBA designation provides legitimacy to the notion that the Falxa Ranch is an important place for birds. Audubon asked the question, if the Falxa Ranch were not here, would birds be affected? The answer was a resounding “yes.” There are many criteria and standards that have to be met in order to achieve IBA status, and the ranch met or exceeded all of them. The IBA designation gives birds a place at the table in a changing world. More importantly, it protects a suite of birds that depend upon the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem, a landscape that is in serious decline.
Besides being home to a suite of grassland and sagebrush-adapted birds, five miles of the Powder River—one of the few rivers in the US that remains undammed—flow through the Falxa property. These riparian areas are critical for most birds and other wildlife at some point in their life cycles.
The Falxa Ranch IBA preserves a rich human history as well. Native American artifacts and burial sites that date back 5,000 years are on the ranch. The transition of land ownership to Betty and Martin Falxa happened much later, after Martin's grandfather, who was born in the French portion of Basque country, immigrated in 1903 to Johnson County, Wyoming. In his early years in Johnson County, Martin's grandfather was a sheep herder who exchanged his wages for sheep and then began purchasing land from the early homesteaders. Today, Betty and Martin Falxa lease their ranch for cattle ranching and have a vision for the land that maintains its long and vibrant human and biological heritage.
In the last several years, Bighorn Audubon Society and Audubon Rockies have designated several new IBAs that are representative of the habitats across our area. They include Brinton, The Ucross Ranch, Kleenburn Recreation Area, and Valley View Subdivision IBAs. We are currently exploring suitable lands along Little Goose Creek near Bighorn in Sheridan County for incorporation into the IBA program. To learn how you can nominate an IBA, click here.