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New Life for an Old Ranch : New Mexico's Chama Land and Cattle Co. . . a home where the elk roam and a place for would-be cowpokes to hang up their spurs and sit a spell.

March 27, 1988|EARL GUSTKEY | Times Staff Writer

"Here, these are all native New Mexican foods. I hope you like them," said the cook, Connie Candelaria. She placed before me a 14-inch-wide platter covered with open-faced green chili and Cheddar cheese enchiladas, two soft-shell chicken tacos and beans. That was after the teaser, a bowl of Gypsy stew, a sort of Mexican chicken soup. It was all superb.

Dessert: white chocolate mousse. At that point I should have begged for mercy, but I didn't. I kept eating. Not only that, but as I waddled back outside for my post-dinner Courvoisier, I knew I'd plummeted all the way into gluttony because I caught myself wondering what breakfast would be like.

In 1948 a 28-year-old Dallas oilman, Grady H. Vaughn Jr., sent his driller, Newt McCain, on the road in search of a dream piece of property--". . . at least 30,000 acres of cattle country, with wildlife and trout streams," as he once described the dream.

McCain, Vaughn said years later, wore out two cars traveling the Rocky Mountain states before learning that he'd missed by days the sale of a northern New Mexico ranch that fit Vaughn's description. Then three days later he learned that one of the partners in the purchase had died in a small plane crash, and that the remaining partner wanted to sell.

Vaughn bought the Chama Land and Cattle Co. in May, 1950. It was 32,000 acres ranging from 8,000 to 11,500 feet. The ranch is about five miles south of the Colorado line, just off U.S. 84 at the little town of Chama, N.M., about a three-hour drive north of Albuquerque.

Rich in Elk and Deer

The land was rich in elk and deer when it was home to Jicarilla Apaches, but the animals had been shot out by white settlers by the early 1900s.

Vaughn ran several thousand head of cattle on the ranch throughout the 1950s. In 1954 he brought in 50 surplus Rocky Mountain elk from Yellowstone National Park. Today about 2,200 sleek, healthy elk roam the ranch's woodlands and meadows, all descendants of those first Yellowstone animals.

In 1967 Vaughn died unexpectedly at 47. Ownership passed to his 25-year-old son, Grady Vaughn III, who still owns the ranch in addition to running his oil business in Dallas.

By the late 1960s the cattle business had been in a slump for several years, but the ranch was well on its way to having a near-legendary population of fine elk.

With the ranch's high elevation offering a short growing season for cattle, Vaughn and Smith took a long look at the growing interest on the part of hunters in Chama. They decided the ranch's future lay in wildlife management.

A small feed-lot cattle operation continues, but a tour of the ranch leaves no doubt what the favored livestock is. About 1,500 flat acres of old oak lands have been cleared for elk feed.

Tour of Back Country

Smith took me on a wildlife tour during my two-day stay. In a four-wheel-drive recreational vehicle we began a dirt road tour of the back country. Less than a mile from the lodge we passed several hayfields.

"These used to be old meadows, with gambel oaks," he said. "Now we grow grasses for elk--timothy, brome, fescues, bluegrass . . . we raise about 2,000 tons of grasses a year and only three men are involved in the operation. In winter evenings, in these meadows, you might see a hundred elk in here."

We gained elevation through the oak-ponderosa belt, then higher into bands of Douglas fir and glades of aspens, where elk calves are born in May and June.

Smith, who was a New Mexico state game warden before he joined the Chama staff in 1958, arrived at 11-acre Charlie's Lake, where a pair of fishermen were casting dry flies.

Fenner Weller of Kingwood, Tex., using an orange surface fly, said he'd caught and released nine cutthroat trout of up to 14 inches in two hours. He pointed to his partner, Terry Robinson of Dallas, who stood in thigh-deep water 75 yards away and, with bent rod, battled a cutthroat.

"This is typical of the lakes we've built over the years," Smith said, pointing to the earthen dam. "Once this was a swampy meadow with a lot of tree stumps--trees the beavers had chewed down. It's one of our best fishing lakes. We're starting a catch-and-release policy now, and next year we'll probably go to a zero limit.

"For now, we're asking all our fishing guests to pinch down their barbs, if they don't have barbless hooks."

Many Streams Rehabilitated

Acting on recommendations from fisheries biologists, Chama staffers have rehabilitated many of the streams (there are 100 miles of -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

streams on the property), and natural stream reproduction occurs for cutthroat, brown, rainbow and brook trout.

All across the lake, fish were rising to the surface, softly snatching insects. The lake is in a mountain bowl, rimmed by dead gray timber and high green grasses. A quiet, peaceful place.

"You can stand here in early September and hear (elk) bulls bugling from all directions," Smith said. "It's enough to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck."

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