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.