It would be easy to get lost on Arapaho Ranch.
Look in any direction and all you see is rough grasslands and rolling hills. It is a seemingly endless piece of earth where even the cattle probably become astray from time to time.
“Depending on who you talk to -- I’ve heard lots of different numbers -- it’s somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000 acres,” says Brittany Thompson, project coordinator for the Wyoming Conservation Corps (WCC), a University of Wyoming program serving the state through the completion of service-based conservation projects aimed at maintaining public lands. “It is just huge and takes many, many hours to drive across.”
She laughs and says, “It’s probably the size of Rhode Island. It’s just huge.”
One of the few beacons on the sprawling ranch that consumes some 930 square miles between Thermopolis and Meeteetse -- Thompson was close: Rhode Island, at about 1,214 square miles, is only slightly larger -- is more than a landmark. It’s the symbol of a budding relationship between UW and the Ethete-based Wind River Tribal College (WRTC), which has a dedicated mission to the preservation, continuation and protection of tribal self-determination, language and culture.
A team of WCC students and staff members recently constructed a yurt on Arapaho Ranch to signal the launch of a collaborative partnership between the two schools. The 314-square-foot portable structure of wood and canvas, equipped with an openable clear dome for ventilation, heating and lighting, will be used as a classroom facility, meeting place and, eventually, as living quarters in the field.
The initial class inside the yurt, a three-day watershed science workshop scheduled for this fall, will bring together UW faculty and students, WRTC faculty and students and representatives from the Wind River Environmental Quality Commission.
“This creates a new bridge for the University of Wyoming and the tribal college and is a good basis for our students to see they can leave the reservation and go to Laramie and get a great education,” says Kelsey Beck, who joined the WRTC faculty last fall after earning her master’s degree in botany from UW. “This is just huge, monumental.”
In addition to providing joint research opportunities, Beck hopes the UW-WRTC collaboration will raise cultural awareness and foster multiple relationships.
While the yurt will remain stationary for now, Thompson says additional platforms will be built over the next few years to allow the structure to be moved and serve other purposes, including headquarters for cattle branding and other ranch activities.
Owned and operated by the Northern Arapaho Tribe since 1940, Arapaho Ranch is the largest certified organic cattle operation in the United States supporting 3,500 mother cows and more than 2,000 yearlings. The pristine condition of its land -- officially 595,000 acres -- also presents vast research opportunities in the environmental sciences.
“It’s just a really exciting opportunity for collaboration between two institutes of higher education in Wyoming,” says Thompson. “It’s going to be a great meeting place to exchange ideas, conduct research on ecology and the sciences and learn about the world around us. It’s just a fantastic partnership that’s going to benefit so many people.”