El regreso de la tortuga grande


Updated 8/19/12

The bolson tortoise was extinct. Or at least it was supposed to be. Then, in 1959, wildlife biologists stumbled upon an area in northern Mexico where the locals were watering chickens from the empty shells of “tortuga grande,” or the bolson tortoise. The small, resident population was enough to seed a revival of the species. But it hasn’t been the feds or even the states leading the tortoises' comeback. It’s a media mogul. Last week, the Ted Turner Endangered Species Fund celebrated the 100th bolson tortoise hatchling with their partners at the Carlsbad Living Desert Zoo. The tortoise and the Pleistocene persist.

Which is great, but it got me to thinking: What does a billionaire like Ted Turner have to do with restoring endangered species? Wasn’t he supposed to be drilling into their shells for something lucrative to sell


It turns out that Turner owns 2.1 million acres of land across Montana, South Dakota, Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas and the Southeast. He employs wildlife biologists who are attempting to repopulate Western ecosystems with endangered species like the black-footed ferret, Chiricahua leopard frog, Aplomado falcon and the Mexican gray wolf.

Now, Turner and a group of ultra-rich cohorts believe they can do even more for the wild, and they’re consorting with minds like Michael Soule – godfather of conservation biology. Soule happens to live across the street from me, so I went over to ask him about Turner and endangered species.

“Have you ever seen that Coen Brother’s film where the guy goes around killing people?” Soule asked me.

“Fargo?” I said. Sure, with that funny looking guy.

“Not that one. No Country For Old Men. Well we think this is 'no place for wildlife.'"

It turns out that Soule is meeting this week with a coterie of billionaires and conservationists and biologists and land managers at Ted Turner’s Vermejo Park Ranch, which straddles the border of Colorado and New Mexico, to pioneer an agreement for the Western Landowners Network. This group is attempting to do what the Forest Service and BLM can’t: protect ecosystems and biodiversity fast without a lot of political wrangling.

“We’re saying, for now, forget about public lands. Private lands are more flexible. They’re less driven by politicians, and private land owners are free to do what they want. This could be the salvation of a lot of wildlife in the West,” said Soule.

Oil, gas, timber, mining and ranching dominate the activity on public lands, said Soule. Presidents – and wannabe presidents - eagerly demonstrate their friendliness toward industry by sacrificing ecosystems for short-term profits. Soule and the Western Landowners Network want to show that intelligence and patience can engineer profitable, conservation-minded landscapes. However, their lands will be a place where nature comes first.

Another billionaire conservationist, Louis Bacon, who will be meeting with Turner and Soule, agreed to put 90,000 acres of land into a conservation easement with the Department of Interior, in June, as part of a larger corridor of private easements and public lands through the San Luis Valley and central Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Hansjorg Wyss’ $35 million donation to the Montana Legacy Project helped conserve over 300,000 acres of prime timberland. Billionaires from the candy industry and finance have started connecting blocks of grasslands on the High Plains to return bison to their homeland. In this way, private landowners can exemplify what real conservation looks like as a way of shaming federal agencies into giving nature better priority on public lands.

And if they’re not shamed, perhaps enough landowners will conserve enough habitat for species to do without them.

Neil LaRubbio is an editorial fellow at High Country News. His Twitter handle is @VictorAntonin.

Photo provided by New Mexico State Parks.

Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Aug 28, 2012 09:40 AM
I'm very uneasy with the movement to privatize everything. The BLM, Forest Service, and USFWS, work for me, and are answerable to me, ultimately by my democratically elected representatives. Ted Turner and the Koch brothers weren't elected by anyone. Today's keystone species is tomorrow's pop environmentalism guided by emotion and the latest species fad.

Tax land at a different rate for holdings of thousands of non agricultural acres, tax it so high that there is some left for the bottom 99.9%. Tortoises drag their houses with them, so do homeless living out of cars with their kids.
David Zaber
David Zaber
Aug 28, 2012 03:00 PM
Privatization is the conversion of publically-owned resources or governmental services to private ownership and the public should be concerned about it. However,the efforts described in this article cannot have nothing to do with privatization since the land was already privately owned before they were purchased for wildlife.

In this case, the highest and best use of the land is being decided by the landowner, a right that has been given to many corporations and individuals.

As for the BLM, Forest Service and other federal agencies working for us as individuals, well, it just aint so. And while they are theoretically beholden to the public via elected officials, that accountability rarely catches up to the pace of logging, road-building, mining and other activities that are not what most of the public desires.

Finally, I have to wonder whether Mr. Caldwell understands the concept of a keystone species.
Jesse Tigner
Jesse Tigner
Aug 28, 2012 10:43 PM
Speaking as someone who lives in a rural and sparsely populated area at the interface of a very busy and heavily used – industry and recreation – chunk of public land, I absolutely agree that private landowners can make huge strides towards species conservation. Many of the private ranches where I live provide as good or better habitat than the available publics lands. So what if the landowners in question here are bazillionaires?
On another note, the bit about keystone species also caught my eye. However, I think it may be the author who is confused about the term. I must admit that I don’t know much about the example species listed, but I do know a little about the concept of a keystone species and I’m not sure any of the examples qualify. In short, a keystone is one that plays a huge role in a particular ecosystem, a comparatively much larger role than the other species of that system. Simply put, the keystone influences many other species and processes within a given ecosystem and without that particular keystone the system in question would be a fundamentally different one (ecologically speaking). By contrast, the loss of those other non-keystone species does little to alter the functionality of the system (again, ecologically speaking). The example species listed are cool, but not keystones – in plains / steppe systems prairie dogs are the keystone (in fact one of the classic examples as they provide burrows for larger mammals, food for a myriad of predators, and assist in fundamental nutrient cycling), not ferrets. And an amphibian in the desert?, definitely not a keystone – a desert without frogs is the norm most of the world over. An argument could be made for wolves and top-down controls on predator-prey relationships and the associated cascading effects, but that’s veering from the idea of a keystone and there’s a competing argument for bottom-up controls.
Good article though. And a good point made.
A Thomas Vawter
A Thomas Vawter Subscriber
Aug 29, 2012 11:37 AM
Kudos to those enlightened owners of large areas of western lands who manage them for ecological values and biodiversity. But the fact that some such folks do so and that some private uses of land are compatible with ecological sustainability must not become an excuse for those who would privatize our hard-won public lands. I agree with an earlier commentor: the USFS, BLM, and NPS--and many state, local and regional agencies--work for me. I don't want their assets turned over to the fat-cats, no matter how enlightened and well-meaning those fat-cats happen to appear at the moment.
Neil LaRubbio
Neil LaRubbio Subscriber
Aug 29, 2012 01:32 PM
Thanks, Jesse, for pointing out the misuse of the label "keystone species". The blog has been corrected to say "endangered".