The Next Generation of Conservation Ranchers

Duke Phillips could have been a “normal” rancher. Raised in northern Mexico in a second-generation ranching family, he came of age in a world where cowboys shot coyotes to protect their calves, ranches were grazed in their entirety year-round, and cattlemen were just that–men who raised cattle. The rancher-conservationist had yet to emerge. While the tide has been changing in recent years with more and more farmers and ranchers embracing their role as land stewards, perhaps Phillips’ most radical act has been not just to join this growing group of agricultural conservationists, but, since the very beginning, to throw the doors open and invite others to observe and participate in the project for sustainable ranching.

I showed up to Phillips’ Chico Basin Ranch in 2014 an utter urbanite who thought all cattle were cows and had never taken so much as a peek under the hood of a vehicle. I’ll never forget the feeling of stepping out of the saddle after eight hours moving cattle my first week, seeing stars and not sure if my legs were going to catch me when they hit the ground, wondering if my half-baked desire to ride horses across the prairie for six months was really such a good idea after all. In the end, I know I got more out of my internship than the ranch did; from an operational standpoint, I was mildly helpful at best. But three years later, I’m still here.

This is what Ranchlands, Phillips’ ranch management company, does best–takes the uninitiated and gives them the opportunity to learn something about the impact ranching can have on the land. Between artist retreats, a hunting and fishing club, bird banding stations, art exhibits, a leathershop that makes bags and belts sold in Aspen and Seattle, an internship program, ranch vacations, a summer concert series, and a strong social media presence, there’s hardly a segment of the population that Ranchlands isn’t actively trying to reach and include. Besides diversifying our business, these enterprises grew out of an intention to redefine the conversation and build community around ranching. We sum up our approach with a three-pronged motto: Ranch. Conserve. Live.

RANCH

Cattle and bison ranching has always been, and continues to be, the backbone of Ranchlands’ business. A diversified approach that includes seedstock, commercial cows, and yearlings provides the annual capital that allows us to pursue other goals and gives us a purpose on the land.

Phillips cut his teeth in ranch management during a decade of work at the Dale Lasater Ranch near Matheson, Colorado. Dale and his father Tom had long managed their land and cattle by the principle of “Mother Nature knows best” and were among the first to embrace Allan Savory when he arrived in the United States with his theories of Holistic Planned Grazing. Driven by a conviction that every aspect of the natural world had a role to play, even if we don’t understand it, the Lasaters didn’t treat their animals with pesticides, didn’t exterminate prairie dogs, didn’t shoot coyotes, and instead got rid of the cows that didn’t protect their calves. And they had seen the payoff–bare patches of ground on their ranch were recarpeted with a healthy community of grasses and plants, and their cattle and business were thriving. By the time Phillips won the lease on Chico Basin Ranch in 1999, he was a convert. He had grown up in a ranching industry where the natural world presented obstacles to be overcome, but on the Chico, nature was treated as a set of conditions with which to work in harmony.

Outside the saddle house, Jake, Sam, Wyatt, Anna, and I catch and tack up our horses in the first light of this brisk fall morning. The cadence of chirping crickets pulses in the background as gravel crunches beneath the soles of our boots. Swinging up into the saddle, we head west out of headquarters as the sun breaks over the horizon in the east. Trotting at the head of the group, Jake, a graduate of Ranchlands’ apprenticeship program and current manager-in-training at the Chico, lays out the plan for the day. We’ll be gathering our herd of commercial cattle in Double Tank pasture, sorting out a few heifers, and putting the rest through the gate into Tower pasture.

Twenty years ago, Double Tank and Tower were part of a massive 10,000-acre pasture called the North pasture. It was an impossible tract for a small crew to cover on horseback in one day, so the cowboys would ride to the tops of old sea vents and scan the pasture with binoculars, looking for groups of cattle. Shortly after arriving on the Chico, Duke Phillips divided the North pasture up with tens of miles of electric cross-fencing so that these smaller parcels could be grazed more effectively. He also put in a continuous electric wire along the west side of Chico Creek. Historically, homesteaders watered their livestock along the creek and from other natural springs on the ranch, and most of these riparian areas were therefore decimated by overgrazing.

Jake’s mare, Bone, splashes calmly through the creek, and the rest of our horses follow dutifully as we continue to make our way west towards Double Tank. As I weave through the low-hanging branches of the willow trees, a great-horned owl flushes from her perch and flies downstream. Today, the creek bottom is a lush and fertile area of the ranch where coyotes, mule deer, badgers, and tarantulas come to water. Arkansas darter fish, released by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), wriggle in shallow pools. Thanks in part to CPW’s repopulation efforts here, the fish species has been removed from the federal endangered species candidate list. Protecting their habitat is one of the many reasons we move cattle through the creek. When he fenced off the creek from the ranch’s larger pastures, Phillips also installed well-water troughs so the cows could drink without overusing the creek. While small groups of cattle in smaller pastures will sometimes water from the creek, especially delicate areas are protected by six-string electric fence exclosures.

We reach the back of Double Tank an hour after leaving headquarters. It’s warm enough now to shed a layer. Spreading out across the mile-long length of the north fence, we begin to move south, gathering up cows and calves and pushing them ahead of us as cowboys and cattlemen have been doing for centuries. These are the techniques and skills, the elegance with which our group can operate as a unit, even when we’re out of sight of each other, that I have been able to absorb during my time on the ranch. From brandings in pastures with wood-heated irons to moving cattle on horseback, Ranchlands staunchly maintains many of the traditions that forged the original mystique of the cowboy. At the same time, we are looking forward to the future. It seems likely that the years to come will see an even greater emphasis on environmental health, and the conservation services ranchers have been providing for years will be the most compelling reason for our presence on the land.

CONSERVE

The healthy proteins we produce in the course of land management are merely a convenient byproduct that are valuable for their ability to feed our communities and provide the ongoing funding for our conservation work. We see our cattle as a means to the end of ecological health. Since the vast grasslands of the United States have been stripped of the migrating bison herds that historically played a large role in cycling nutrients back into the soil, it falls to today’s ranchers and their cattle to maintain the prairie landscape.

Out in Double Tank pasture, as we gather cattle and begin moving them south, we trot over stands of blue grama, galleta, alkali sacaton, and bottlebrush squirreltail. As we move the cattle away, we put these grasses to rest for the year. They’ll be left alone until the next growing season, when warm, wet weather will bring them back to levels ready for grazing.

We are lucky to work with a variety of conservation organizations who understand the role that ranching can play in our country’s grasslands. In the San Luis Valley, Ranchlands manages the Zapata Ranch for the Nature Conservancy (TNC). One of the largest wild bison herds in the United States roams freely across 50,000 acres of this 100,000-acre property, and each year, we round up the herd to collect data in order to help TNC meet their conservation goals for the herd. Over the course of fourteen years, we’ve been working to return the herd to genetic purity by removing any cows with bovine genes in their mitochondrial DNA. This year, there were only 5 remaining known cows with bovine DNA. The bison herd is also a consistently popular draw for tourists and media groups; we regularly book visitors for bison tours, and horseback rides through the 50,000-acre bison pasture are a large draw for guests at the ranch Lodge. Our annual bison roundup was the subject of a short film accepted to the Tribeca Film Festival and a mini-series on the History Channel.

We have also found unlikely allies in local birders who have long visited the Chico looking for rare species. Every year, the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies operates a banding station that takes place in conjunction with field trips we offer to local school groups. This year, a Tropical Kingbird was spotted during migration season–the first sighting ever recorded in Colorado. Birders are important stakeholders in the ranching cause because they value the maintenance of the shortgrass prairie ecosystem compared with the meager biodiversity that would be found in a landscape such as a farming monoculture, subdivisions, or any other form of land use that destroys the native ecosystem. Birders also help us to quantify the ecological value of our landscape by providing counts and lists of species present. Every scientist, ornithologist, or mammalogist we work with gives us valuable information in better understanding our prairie home, a home we share with the migrating warblers, herds of pronghorn, and burrowing badgers.

LIVE

Because our ranches really are our homes. Ranchlands has realized that the model for progressive ranching will never be successful without integrating people into the landscape. Luckily, there is no shortage of dedicated, impassioned people on our team who find satisfaction in the lifestyle ranching offers.

Traditionally, ranching has been a closed-door industry. The high costs of entering agriculture are significant enough to prevent young people from choosing it as a career, while families who do pass down an agricultural operation are threatened by the opportunity for higher wages in urban areas that are drawing the next generation away from the land. All in all, there is very little “new blood” entering the field, which does much to stifle innovation.

Ranchlands has addressed this issue by inviting inexperienced or amateur young people to work as interns. At the very least, these individuals will leave us with a better appreciation for the role that ranching plays in conserving natural landscapes, while those with a longer-term interest may be invited to join our apprenticeship program. Our apprentices spend between two and six years learning the ins and outs of holistic ranch management–skills such as horsemanship, stockmanship, and grazing planning, along with how to manage a team, work with conservation partners, and cater to ranch guests. Upon completion of the program, they are qualified to take over management of a diversified ranch operation within or outside of Ranchlands.

On the whole, the average age of our team is late 20s to early 30s. While ranching might not offer competitive salaries, there is a large contingent of young people, such as myself, who are looking for livelihoods that provide a sense of purpose, hard work that means something, and a chance to work with nature and play a vital role in its preservation.

As we trot back from our gather that afternoon, having successfully moved over 1000 pairs into fresh pasture, I look between Jake, the Colorado School of Mines graduate with an engineering degree, his girlfriend, Sam, from the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, her friend, Anna, she met while working on stations in Australia, and Wyatt, a buckaroo cowboy from Nevada. None of these are people I would have met in the cities I grew up in, and yet the sense of community that grows among a group of people who care about the same things and are working towards a common goal on a beautiful, unforgiving piece of land is profound.

As Frankie, a wrangler this summer at Zapata, put it: “it was like working on a ship—leagues away and almost completely detached from everything else I knew. And it’s not that I couldn’t stay connected to the outside world, it’s that I ceased wanting to… This summer I was surrounded, supported, and motivated by people constantly. People who know the strange euphoria that accompanies a merciless job, and that when things go from bad to worse, they actually get funny. People who imbued me with courage and responsibility, and trusted me to succeed, and people who define success not by doing a job perfectly, but by still having the will to succeed after failing repeatedly. People that give new meaning to the words “hard work” and “long hours.” People that have taught me so much that I now reserve the word ‘teacher’ for only the most passionate and poised mentors in my life, nearly all of whom are employees of Ranchlands.”

The above article originally appeared in the journal In Practice.

Bird Banding

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who know something about birds and those who don’t. Most of us belong to the latter group, educated enough to know the difference between eagles, owls, and crows but blissfully unaware of the richly variegated world of Pink-sided Juncos and Grey Catbirds, of Mountain Chickadees, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and White-breasted Nuthatches. I’ll give us the benefit of the doubt and suggest that most of us are ignorant not because we’re uninterested, but because you have to be looking through a pair of binoculars to see the complexity. Tiny songbirds weighing as little as a quarter flit through the trees like shadows. Looking up at them silhouetted against the sky, they all look black. If we could only hold them in our hands, see them up close, we might be more aware of their subtle differences.

At a plastic picnic table against the wall of the barn in the Holmes grove, this fall’s bird banders Nancy and Aaron are doing just that.

“Is the crown shiny or dull?”

“Skull looks like a two.”

“These tail feathers are narrow though.”

Aaron holds a Wilson’s Warbler, or WIWA, in his hand, as he and Nancy try to determine its age and gender. They side step out of the shade and into the light to get a better look at one of the minute details of the plumage. Male and female birds share a reproductive opening called the cloaca (which is also the opening for the digestive and urinary tracts), so this aspect of a bird’s physical anatomy is little help in distinguishing genders. Instead, biologists have to use characteristics like coloration, wing length, and feather condition to get their answers.

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The tiny, delicate bird waits patiently as a variety of instruments are used to take measurements. Special rulers are inserted under its wing, into the middle of its tail, and across the width of its beak. Aaron pulls out the wing and inspects the tail, looking for clues in the condition of its feathers. He wets his fingers and parts the feathers on the WIWA’s head to try and get a look at the degree of ossification of the skull.

Even for a “Master Bander” like Nancy, a biologist from the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies who has been running the station at the Chico for years, there are some birds that will elude easy identification. The sheer volume of the amount of data points required for these procedures is overwhelming, which is where Pyle comes in. Peter Pyle that is–a member of the highest echelons of bird expertise who authored a massive tome of technical ID data for banders, full of charts and diagrams for 395 species. Various other binders, printouts and books are strewn across the table, flipped open to pages on birds that have been giving them trouble this morning. It’s enough information to keep someone busy for a lifetime.

Aaron, a 22-year-old unpaid volunteer who’s been living in a tent 50 feet from the banding table for the past month, is something of a rarity in that he’s a young birder. During an Animal Behavior course at Middlebury College, his class conducted an experiment to observe the Black-capped Chickadee’s preference for shelled versus un-shelled seeds. He was hooked. Back in Colorado, he joined the Boulder Bird Club, where he, as he puts it, “hung out with a bunch of retirees.” In the afternoons, when the banding station closes, he heads out to the east side of the ranch or into the mountains looking for an uncommon species to add to his list for the year. Luckily he likes to go alone, because not many of his peers turn up at the ranch for birding.

***

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“I think it’s a female–let’s call it a young female.”

After a look at Pyle’s chart on head cap length–is it 15mm or 16mm?–Nancy feels certain enough to make a call on the WIWA. With the age and gender determined, other measurements, such the fat level and weight are taken and recorded. A gentle blow on the bird’s chest reveals the pouch of milky fat under her translucent skin. She then goes head first into a piece of PVC pipe atop a digital scale, and finally, a metal band with a unique number is fitted around her leg. In case the bird is ever recaptured, she now has an official scientific identity linked to all the data points that Aaron and Nancy have now collected.

The odds of that happening, however, are rather slim. Of the roughly one million birds that are banded nationwide every year, an estimated 2% are ever recaptured outside of their original banding area. Only three birds out of the many thousands banded at the Chico have turned up elsewhere–in 2014, a Western Tanager banded in 2011 showed up in Lubbock, TX; in 2015, a Northern Flicker banded in 2013 was captured in Custer, SD; and in 2006, a Swainson’s Thrush banded earlier that year was found dead in southern British Columbia. Despite their infrequency, the recaptures that do occur are extremely valuable to scientists. Short of actually following an individual bird on it’s migratory journey, which would be next to impossible, there’s simply no other way to get the data. Compared with the prospect of walking a few thousand miles across North America while trying to keep one bird in sight, banding thousands with the hope of recapturing a couple is actually fairly efficient. One day we’ll have GPS technology small enough to attach to feather-light birds without weighing them down, but until then, banding is the best option we have.

There’s also the fact that setting up mist nets to catch birds every day simply allows us to see a sampling of what’s out there. WIWAs are reliable visitors, robins are everywhere, but every once in a while, a rare species turns up that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. There was a lot of excitement this season about two new birds that have never been seen on the ranch before–a Baltimore Oriole and a Pacific Wren (see Bill Maynard’s post on the Pacific Wren here). One young birder even spotted a Tropical Kingbird, the first ever reported in Colorado, that he was able to conclusively ID by converting an audio recording of its song into a sonogram. According to Bill Maynard, general patterns from this season reveal a higher percentage of mountain species than normal, suggesting that a failure of mountain crops drove masses of bird eastward in search of food.

Indeed, the Chico is both one of the best birding sites and most prolific banding stations in the state. This fall, over 900 birds of 60 species came through the station, including not a few noteworthy ones. The soil on the ranch has never been plowed, making it one of the best specimens of short-grass prairie anywhere, with the result that it’s a haven for native species. Riparian such as the Holmes grove where the banding station is set up host stands of cottonwoods full of forage for the hungry migrants. They hang out for a few days, filling up their fat stores for the next leg of the journey, before heading off again towards breeding or wintering grounds. The little six gram warbler in Aaron’s palm is in the midst of an epic multi-thousand mile journey that could take it as far south as Panama to spend the winter. She’s had a good stay refueling on the Chico; we can only hope that she continues to find as good of or better feed on her continuing trip south. Maybe one day, another bander will recapture her, and we’ll know that she survived her journey. Aaron loosens his grip, and in a split second she’s disappeared back into the trees. On to the next bird.

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on sundays

For the first time I can remember, I am experiencing Sundays the way it seems they ought to be experienced: as a day of reflection, rest and rejuvenation.

As a student and especially while I was teaching, Sundays were more anxiety-ridden than relaxing. After waking up in what was often hungover misery, I whiled away hours trying to hang onto the freedom of the weekend and stave off the impending resumption of responsibilities, which always inevitably took the form of late nights in the library working on homework or trying (usually unsuccessfully) to come up with lesson plans. I remember the whole day feeling like a ticking time bomb, and my near constant anticipation of the clock reaching zero left me little space to enjoy what time I had.

Here, the nature of Sundays and the way that it fits into the flow and rhythm of the week is quite different.

We work on Saturdays until noon, so Sunday is the only full day we have off. It's holy. I like to do my town runs to pick up groceries and run other errands on Saturday afternoons, so that there aren't any "to-dos" burdening down the openness of Sundays. I try to preserve its sacredness.

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Sky the dog is a frequent companion on my Sunday strolls. She does her best to chase down jackrabbits and prairie dogs but never strays too far from me.

My ritual is this: I generally sleep until the ungodly hour of 7 or 8am, at which point the light in my room makes it impossible to stay in bed any longer. I make a pot of coffee, fill up a thermos, and walk out to say good morning to the horses. For the most part, whenever we see the horses during the week, it's because we have a task to do with them. Sundays are days of rest for them as well, and it's nice to simply be with them, observe them and enjoy their company for it's own sake. If they're lucky, I have a bag of carrots to share with them. I like to saunter around for at least an hour, enjoying the soft morning light as the sun warms up the sky. I think there's an element of worship in this practice.

As a side note, something unusual about my experience is the constancy of place: my place of work is also my home, so the weekend isn't a disruption of location. Everything stays the same except for the pace of time. This provides the opportunity to enjoy the things around us that we use as tools during the week--the animals and the land--in their natural states of being.

The heart of the day is spent working on personal projects. Zoe likes to paint, Kerstin works in the leathershop, I write this email. I edit photos to be posted on the ranch Facebook page. I read. Today I worked on my going-away present for Kerstin, who will fly home to Germany on Thanksgiving day. In the evening (weather permitting), I take another walk to say goodnight to both the sun and the horses.

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My Sunday angels. I'm completely in love with Cricket, the horse on the right. She is such a delight to ride.

During the workweek, I am almost always working alongside at least one other person on any given task--work is also highly social--but Sundays are private, which everyone here seems to appreciate and respect. While Headquarters functions as everyone's home base during the week, on Sundays we all retire to our individual homes on different parts of the ranch. For 24 hours, everyone disengages from the communal participation in ranch operations and moves in their own individual orbits, so that we may return Monday morning renewed and refocused.

The physically strenuous demands of the work week necessitate having this day of regeneration, just for the sake of the body. By Saturday mornings, coffee doesn't cut it and I'm eating candy for breakfast to be able to make it through the day. But this complete physical exhaustion has the parallel effect of engendering the possibility of mental as well as physical renewal. Resetting the body also resets the mind. Sunday functions as the release--the opportunity for recalibration after days of high energy expenditure--so the contrast of having an entirely leisurely, quiet day is all the more striking, and I find that it heightens its delight. Part of my contentment also comes from the very important fact that I don't dread Monday mornings, which I take to be a good sign. Sundays prime me to look forward to the adventures and experiences that the coming week will bring.

Of course, the type of Sunday we have here wouldn't be everyone's idea of fun. If you spent your week doing largely solitary work, in front of a computer, or indoors, you might need to rebalance on the weekend by spending time with friends, in highly stimulating environments, or by actually exhausting pent up reserves of energy. I can very clearly imagine some of you becoming antsy, bored or lonely on a Chico Sunday afternoon. Everyone requires something unique to reinvigorate their soul, depending on their own nature. What we have here is simply what suits me, and I'm grateful to have found it.