The Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy and other groups around the West are spending millions of dollars on conservation easements to ensure that ranches are not subdivided. But beyond the ranches themselves, what are the easements protecting? Do ranch lands play an important role in the greater ecosystem?
The answer, in Gunnison at least, is that no
one knows for sure. "I wish I could say someone has looked at how
important ranch lands are from a systems standpoint," says Susan
Lohr, an ecologist herself and a founder of the Legacy. "But no one
There are good reasons to believe that preserving
ranch lands provides important benefits to the surrounding
ecosystems. It’s a matter of faith and common sense.
Open pastures with willow-lined creeks certainly look
better than fields of houses. When homesteaders staked out the
private lands in the West, they went for lands with water, rich
soils and the ability to grow crops, or at least grass and hay to
feed livestock. It seems safe to assume that the most productive
lands for people might also be the most productive for other living
Much more research is needed, but two seminal
studies put the importance of ranch lands into focus.
first study is by Andrew Hansen, an associate professor of ecology
at Montana State University. Hansen and his colleagues studied
ranches and ranchettes — parcels of 40 acres or less —
around Yellowstone National Park. They found that songbirds from
higher-elevation public lands used the private ranch lands as
breeding grounds. Ecologists call these areas "sources" for
songbird populations. But the ranchettes are death traps or "sinks"
in the lingo of ecologists. The subdivided lands attracted more
magpies and other birds that prey on the songbirds. If the
subdivision of ranch lands continues, Hansen speculates that the
songbirds will get squeezed between increasing development at lower
elevations and protected but unproductive breeding grounds at
The second study has come to define
this issue as much because of the personality and advocacy of the
scientist, Rick Knight, as his results. Knight, a professor of
wildlife biology at Colorado State University, lives on a ranch and
has become a passionate advocate for preserving ranches (HCN,
11/13/95: A new breed of academic at Colorado State).
Knight’s research put a precise focus on the question at
hand: How do the alternatives compare to ranching? He looked at 93
comparable sites on ranches, in wildlife refuges and in
subdivisions with about one house per 40 acres. He found that the
ranches had at least as many species of birds, carnivores and
plants as similar areas that are protected as wildlife refuges, and
fewer invasive weeds. More importantly, the ranches provided better
habitat for wildlife than the ranchettes, which had fewer native
species and more invasive species than either ranches or refuges.
Knight’s research is a good first cut at defining
the value of ranch lands vs. ranchettes. But it needs to be
replicated in other places. And studies need to go beyond the
generalist species that he looked at to consider specific species
at risk in specific places — which brings us back to
Despite the recent boom in ranch land
conservation in the county, the Gunnison sage grouse, a candidate
for the endangered species list, has continued to decline in recent
years. The population has dropped 30 percent since 1999 and is now
down to 1,800 to 2,400 birds in the Gunnison Basin. Ranchers and
environmentalists are still debating whether grazing is a cause of
the decline or whether ranch management can be part of the recovery
(HCN, 2/4/02: Last dance for the sage grouse).
Gunnison County Ranchland Conservation Legacy doesn’t usually
require any specific protection for the sage grouse in the
conservation easements it negotiates with landowners. "We felt it
is enough to get an easement on the ground and keep the landscape
intact," says Susan Lohr. "The thousands of acres we’ve
managed to keep together are a lifeline for the grouse."
But sage grouse advocate Clait Braun is skeptical. "I think
conservation easements in general have potential, but it’s
too early to tell," he says. "The management (of the protected
lands) isn’t changing. And with present management, the
numbers are going down."
Braun says he is afraid that,
within a generation, the odds are 50/50 that "you’re going to
have a conservation easement with no sage grouse." One Legacy
project that does include specific protections and a management
plan for sage grouse is the recent deal on the Ochs Ranch, a
4,500-acre project involving seven families. The reason? Money.
Lohr says she would have been satisfied with the usual
conservation easement provisions prohibiting development on the
Ochs Ranch. "The way ranch lands are managed is very beneficial for
grouse," she says. But the Colorado Department of Wildlife provided
crucial funding for the deal and, in return, demanded explicit
protections for the imperiled bird.