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Learning to Think Like a Mountain

Where the green fire burns

Aldo Leopold, considered by many the father of wildlife conservation and the wilderness system in America, once wrote of watching a wolf die when he was young. “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” he recalls in his seminal work A Sand County Almanac. “I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain.”

Look into the eyes of an old bison cow–as many of us at Ranchlands do every fall at the bison roundup–and you may see that same green fire that Leopold saw ablaze in the wolf’s last glance. There is something in that fire that only the bison may understand. Centuries of earthly history and survival, all neatly wrapped up and guarded, an unknowable wisdom burning quietly in her gaze. Listen to the echoing bellow of a lone bull, and you may hear the unforgotten melody of a tale beyond the reach of words. When we hear his call we hear more than a bison. “We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution,” Leopold writes. “He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.”

Few places remain in the United States where the ancient secrets hidden behind that cow’s eyes and heard in that bull’s bellow may be realized, where bison are left without interference to pay heed to that innate call. The Medano-Zapata Ranch is one of those places.

Chris Pague, senior conservation ecologist for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), recalls sitting atop the corrals on the ranch one day, noticing a cloud of dust in the distance. What he observed through his binoculars, for almost 30 minutes, was a group of 60 to 75 bison running at full speed across the ranch. Rumbling through the unbothered shadow of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, these bison did not have to hit a single fence. “So, I don’t know why they were running,” Chris remembers. But most importantly, “They didn’t have to stop. And for whatever reason they were running, they could do it.”

An ambitious dream

What has now become a unique conservation achievement–a 45,000-acre landscape where bison are left to roam freely as they might in the wild–was once nothing more than an ambitious dream to restore wild bison to the southern Rocky Mountains, just a modest portion of their once-great historical range. TNC ecologists identified the area surrounding the Great Sand Dunes, nestled in a remote corner of the San Luis Valley, as having particular promise for establishing a conservation herd of bison, given the extent of public and protected land in the area. Beginning with the goal to “let bison be bison,” allowing the herd to decide for itself how and when it moved across the land, TNC realized a harvest would be necessary to keep the size of the population within the carrying capacity of the ranch, especially on a landscape now devoid of natural predators. As Leopold keenly observed almost a century ago, “The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain.” Given the extirpation of wolves and other large predators from the San Luis Valley, a human-led harvest would require an annual round up of the herd, which is where the expertise of Ranchlands came into play.

One of the greatest stewardship tools of cattle ranchers is the ability to manipulate the movement of livestock in order to control the timing, intensity, and duration of grazing across the landscape. The cattle move scribbles the human signature upon the face of the land, and the grazing cell is the basic unit of management. Movement, however, is one of the major factors that distinguishes bison from domestic cattle. While cattle are more easily manipulated, bison have what Ranchlands founder Duke Phillips III describes as “a natural sense of direction, and that’s what they want to do, they want to go that direction no matter what,” much like the herd Chris observed galloping clear across the ranch for no apparent reason. Ranchlands took on the Nature Conservancy’s herd then with one hand tied behind their back: they would not be able to control how the bison moved about–and therefore grazed–the ranch.

All of the cross-fencing had been removed, allowing the bison to remain true to their instincts, unrestricted, and to behave as they have evolved to. Though for land managers this presented a challenge in that the bison could not be rotated between discrete pastures, the extra effort was worth it. “Are we just providing a space that they happen to occupy,” Chris reminds us, “or are we letting them fulfill their evolutionary and genetic history in today’s environment as best we can?” The tool left to Ranchlands, then, was the annual round-up and harvest of a fraction of the herd. As ironic as it may seem, the only way to ensure the long-term health of the land for future generations of bison (and humans) is to selectively cull animals, to become the forgotten predator, to perform the wolf’s task of trimming the herd to fit the range.

Managing 2000 or so wild bison requires a level of local ecological knowledge and intimacy with the land that ranchers have acquired over generations of working with and handling livestock, embedded within the large, fragile landscapes of the American West. While Phillips III and his staff were well-versed in stockmanship and low-stress livestock handling, working with wild animals was something new. Learning to work effectively with the new bison herd under their stewardship required the careful and deliberate adaptation of the rancher’s skillset. Fortunately, decades of experience in adaptive management had trained Ranchlands to adjust quickly–not only to new climates, new landscapes, new markets, and new collaborations, but even to a new species.

The learning curve

Before Ranchlands assumed management of the Medano-Zapata Ranch, it had taken the previous crew several weeks to bring all the bison in and several weeks more to process them. This past year, the whole herd was gathered and processed within a single week. It wasn’t always so easy, however. Over the course of 14 years, Ranchlands has gradually perfected the art of gathering and handling bison through trial and error.

In the early years, an animal identified as a lead bison could be convinced to follow a cake truck, leading the rest of the herd towards the corrals, and the crew would get behind the last of the herd and bring them all in together over three or four days at a walk. While that seemed to work in the beginning, eventually all of the old cows who liked cake were gone, and no lead bison would follow the truck. Forced to adapt, just as the bison have adapted to a dramatically altered landscape, Ranchlands decided to round them up on horseback. “It was really nerve-racking,” Phillips III recalls. Around 120 horses were moved over to the ranch ahead of time so they would grow accustomed to the sight and smell of bison and not be spooked when the time came for the gather. On their first day, Phillips III remembers failing four or five times to get the bison through the gate. “The horses were tired, and we were tired. And we knew that all the bison that we had chased, we’d never get them back in. So they were a lost cause for that year.”

Eventually, a very specific system of coordinated riders proved successful. Three teams of riders, each with the two most experienced in the front and back of each team, would form a line. They ran in the same sequence every time so the riders would get used to working with those in front of and behind them. The line of riders, strung out behind the bison, would come up slowly behind them and at the right moment, all in unison, they would charge, forcing the bison into a full flight and–with any luck–through the correct gate.

The method was truly dangerous though. “Someone would go down every day, just because you’re running so far and by the time you got back to the corrals, horses were just tired,” Phillips recalls. Pushed to their limits, the humans and their horses learned the hard way what it takes to gather over a thousand wild bison, though not without succumbing once in a while to the perils of running at top speed through rough, sandy country. Bison “almost have a spiritual quality to them,” Phillips III explains. Surely running them through a series of gates on horseback, however exciting, was nothing short of a supernatural feat – perhaps why The Nature Conservancy sought out a partner like Ranchlands, with deep roots in the land.

Some twenty years later, with the help of a helicopter, the bison are gathered from the air with precision, walked slowly but gracefully into the catch trap within one or two days, and processed by the end of the week, reducing the most stressful time of year for them from several weeks to a matter of mere days. There was–and still is–no textbook for managing a herd of bison as close to how they would behave naturally in the wild.

Ranchlands and TNC have found success so far with a kind of soft-handed stewardship that lives in an ecological world that never really existed – a world before the American bison was almost erased from North America, but after the integrity of their uninterrupted habitat was lost; a world before there were fences to stop the thunder of hooves, but after there were rifles to silence the howl of wolves; a world before wildness required management, but after ranchers became conservationists. Somewhere between the troubled past and the hopeful present, Ranchlands guides the wild bison of the southern Rocky Mountains into the future.

The mountain’s perspective

When Aldo Leopold wrote his now-famous essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” he was reflecting upon wisdom he had acquired with age and maturity, after decades spent observing the natural world. As a young hunter, Leopold thought that shooting wolves was a purely good thing because fewer wolves meant more dear, and more deer would be hunter’s paradise. But when his eyes met those of that wolf as it took its final breaths, Leopold realized the story was not so simple, that there was something more to understand, something deeper than the immediate wants or needs of a single species. Although fewer wolves meant more deer, Leopold observed how too many deer left unchecked by predation would overbrowse, stripping the mountain of its vegetation, a phenomenon he called “irruption.” Today, ecologists refer to these far-reaching, indirect effects of top predators on ecological communities as “trophic cascades,” which have been well-documented in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

Ranchers must take these same ecological subtleties into consideration when stewarding rangelands. Just as an exploding deer population might over-browse, too many bison or cattle, under no threat of predation, can easily overgraze a landscape and cause serious ecological damage. This is why Ranchlands rotates cattle between pastures, and regulates the size of the bison population–in essence, to protect the mountain and the ability of future generations of ranchers to harvest meat from the same land. It would be easy to think that more bison would be better for the rancher who sells their meat, but stewarding a landscape like the Medano-Zapata Ranch requires not just managing a single species for immediate prosperity, but managing an entire ecosystem for eternal health. In other words, thinking less like a hunter, and more like a mountain.

This same mindset informs Ranchlands’ management philosophy, even when it comes to cattle. For example, while many ranchers would shoot, trap or poison a predator to protect their stock, Ranchlands instead sells those animals that are unable to protect their calves from predators. By selecting for cattle that are more well-adapted to their natural environment (which includes predation), Ranchlands is able to not only produce high-quality, healthy meat, but also protect the long-term integrity of a whole ecosystem.

Letting bison be bison

So it all began 14 years ago, with nothing more than an ambitious dream grounded in a simple idea: letting bison be bison. But what does it mean to let bison be bison? Shouldn’t such a large-scale conservation project be grounded in something more scientific? Well, surely it was. But from the beginning, TNC and Ranchlands’ effort to restore the wild bison to the San Luis Valley was informed just as much by what we don’t know–and what we all might stand to learn–than what we do know about bison ecology and conservation.

Science tells us that under the right conditions, bison grazing can stimulate the growth of forbs, shrubs, and grasses. Science tells us that under the right conditions, bison grazing can benefit wetland vegetation communities. Science tells us that the cold, dry, forage-rich landscape of the Medano-Zapata Ranch is prime bison habitat. Science tells us that, while evidence is limited, bison are likely native to the San Luis Valley. Science does not always think like a mountain, however. There is something more, something deeper, something so intangibly real that it cannot be known, but only felt by humans. Behind our most well-reasoned understanding of grassland ecology and bison behavior “there lies a deeper meaning,” Leopold writes, “known only to the mountain itself.”

Thinking like a mountain, then, requires trust: trust that the best way to manage wild bison is to accept that the bison may know something the humans can’t. Trust that the best way to manage wild bison is to simply let bison be bison. “Rather than deciding what we wanted bison to do,” Chris explains, “we want bison to decide what they want to do.” While initially it may have been easier to control the movement of the bison with a rotational grazing plan, that would mean “we’re all of a sudden telling bison what to do as though we know…I know it’s frustrating to managers sometimes to not have that option of moving them to wherever we want to move them,” Chris continued, “but that presupposes that bison aren’t doing the right thing, and that’s a hard judgment for me.”

The conservation herd that calls the Medano-Zapata Ranch home is the product of a leap of faith; a humble display of respect for those unknowable secrets that are never so easy to wrest from nature. Even Phillips III, who has spent his entire life managing grazing operations, admits the value of allowing the bison themselves–not humans–to determine when and where to graze. “You might learn something, or maybe there’s something you’re not thinking of, you know some kind of outcome that I can’t predict or see,” he says. Thinking like a mountain means not only protecting bison as a wild species, but protecting bison as an archive of wild instinct.

A ride through the Medano offers a glimpse at what wild landscapes may have looked like before the ecological bones that held them upright were fractured. Listen to the full-throated bellow wrinkling through the brush, watch the tender green fire bleeding through her eye. The wisdom known only to the wolf, the mountain, and the bison lives on. As much as possible, Ranchlands and TNC are learning to think like a mountain. Though the tools of ranching have changed, at least for now, the green fire still burns.

I sat down to talk to Chris Pague after dinner one night during this year’s bison roundup. Just before he left, he howled like a wolf and said, “I hope I get to hear that sound in Colorado before I die.” There are no howls to be heard in Colorado as of yet, but so long as the mountains have not moved, there may be humans bold enough to try to think like them.

“Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.”


Fencing on the Medano

Fencing on the Medano, the pendulum swings. Most days, the rhythm of fencing makes for peaceful days of fixing and moving on.


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