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CONSERVATION : The Fruits of Ranching for Wildlife

October 15, 1995|Tom Wolf | T om Wolf, adjunct professor of Southwest studies at Colorado College, is author of "Colorado's Sangre de Cristos Mountains" (University of Colorado Press)

WESTCLIFFE, COLO. — Colorado's remote Sangre de Cristo Mts. nurture the richest biological diversity in the Southern Rocky Mts., a biotic province stretching from Montana to New Mexico. A century ago, no one would have believed this claim. Our first generation of settlers did their best to level the towering Sangres. But the diversity claim stands today, quietly confirmed by those who know best: professional forest ecologists and wildlife biologists.

There is a simple key to the Sangres' success: bigger is better, especially where bigger is private. When adjacent public lands suffered through a nightmarish turn-of-the-century tragedy of the commons, large private ranches served as refuges. Now, these big boys are flexing their muscles in striking ways that may guide conservationists into the 21st Century. While our public lands are enduring another tragedy of the commons as overcrowded and unmanaged wildernesses, private lands are blooming as never before.

At the center of this abundance are the Forbes ranches, their hundreds of thousands of acres teeming with trophy wildlife. This kind of wealth cannot be inherited. Instead, it is earned through years of active, hands-on management. It's called "Ranching for Wildlife."

Colorado's successful Ranching for Wildlife program exists today because Malcolm Forbes defended his private-property rights. This unlikely environmental hero declared war on a status quo that benefited neither man nor beast. His heirs are continuing his tradition in a suitably grand way, improbable champions for the Sangre de Cristo, a place as poor in capital as it is rich in biological and cultural diversity. Poverty--and rigid state control--often breed black markets, especially when a vast Asian aphrodisiac traffic lusts after the powdered organs of predators and antlers of elk and deer.

Where there is a black market, there generally can be a legitimate market, even for wildlife, even for wildlife parts. Forbes wondered what was missing from such a sordid scene. After a quarter century of effort, he solved the puzzle. Markets for wildlife are what Forbes finally found--or, more accurately, created. Markets may not be the solution to all environmental problems. But if there is strength in diversity, the Forbes' way of incorporating wildlife management into a ranching operation adds zest to the bland, government-dominated slumgullion.

In 1968, Forbes bought a cattle and sheep operation, the 168,000-acre Trinchera Ranch, later adding the 60,000-acre Blanca Ranch. He paid about $60 an acre.

Noting the poor returns on traditional ranching, and the poaching-powered black market for wildlife, he announced his intention to fence his land and manage for wildlife. But the Colorado Division of Wildlife forbade that.

In 1971, Forbes subdivided 70,000 acres of elk winter range on the Trinchera, mostly into five-acre lots. Ninety percent of the parcels have sold. Ninety percent of them remain unoccupied. Forbes also hired wildlife manager Errol Ryland away from the Colorado wildlife division and made him ranch manager. In addition to the subdivision sales, part of the core ranch's economic viability depends on maintaining its tax status as agricultural land, primarily through grazing cattle and growing alfalfa. The owners of the much smaller lots pay the much higher subdivision-property tax rates.

Over time, wildlife biologists and trophy hunters realized that Ryland's expertise and the free hand granted him by Forbes might make the ranch a fabulous success story. Yet, there was still the sticky problem of the state's traditional, jealously guarded ownership of wildlife. After a long, expensive struggle, Forbes began to slash new subdivision roads into another 18,000 acres of prime elk habitat bordering on the San Isabel National Forest. Bulldozers and bureaucrats roared, smoked and whined. But it never came to war on the range.

When the all-clear blew, the Colorado wildlife division relented on Ranching for Wildlife--a program it now enthusiastically promotes statewide. It allows Forbes a 90-day fall elk hunt, along with 10 days when public access is allowed by lottery for 10% of the trophy bulls. Colorado gets 100% of the female harvest.

Throughout the Rocky Mountain West, the state owns and closely controls wildlife. That was conservationist Aldo Leopold's post-World War I idea, and, for the times, it was a good one. Today, big private ranches are changing that scene, showing the way toward economically and environmentally responsible regulation, restoration and rehabilitation of wildlife habitat.

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