In eastern Colorado’s sweeping grasslands, the seeds of conservation begin with neighbors laying out maps on the hoods of pickup trucks, and countless cups of coffee in the ranch house.
Large, complicated land deals that protect thousands of acres and involve multiple landowners take time. Lots of time. Sometimes years. So when several ranching families in eastern Colorado came together with The Nature Conservancy in December 2010 to protect more than 75,000 acres of endangered grasslands through two different projects, nobody could believe it all closed in just four days.
Both deals were years in the making—often fraught with obstacles and dead ends—and both involved passionate landowners wanting to make a lasting difference for the lands they love. Many had dreams of great-grandchildren continuing family ranching traditions started more than 100 years ago.
The state’s Great Outdoors Colorado Fund supported the deals, which keep the prairie’s time-honored ranching heritage alive and safeguard important habitat for lesser prairie chickens and other grassland species.
When the 37,000-acre Winship Ranch, located a couple hours southeast of Denver, went up for sale, it catalyzed a complex conservation project that will protect a large swath of Colorado’s eastern plains while generating income for ranching and farming communities.
Four ranching families worked with The Nature Conservancy to place conservation easements on their existing ranches, a step that lowered their out-of-pocket funds to buy portions of the original Winship Ranch. In turn, the Winship Ranch is now protected through conservation easements as well, creating a total of more than 48,000 acres safeguarded.
Complicated? Yes. A major achievement for conservation and ranching families? Yes.
The list of grasslands species that benefit from the multi-phase project is long: swift fox, burrowing owl, ornate box turtle, pronghorn, lesser prairie chicken, ferruginous hawk, and Swainson’s hawk, to name a few.
The approach is unique in Colorado’s conservation history, representing a new model for creating economic incentives that help ranchers stay in business and conserve their lands for future generations.
The first phase of the Apishapa Ranch conservation easement project also closed at the end of 2010. The 27,600-acre effort protects nearly 8 miles of the Apishapa River and vast stretches of eastern Colorado’s shortgrass prairie.
On the Apishapa Ranch, you can catch a glimpse of the Roundtail horned lizard, found only here and one other property in Colorado.
The ranch’s owners, the Larson family, collaborated with The Nature Conservancy to place an easements on their ranch, a win-win for their ranch operation and conservation as it allows them the capital to expand and secure their ranching operation. The family has agreed to place an easement on 17,000 acres they are in the process of buying.
In addition to the land deal, the Larson family, together with the next seven ranches upstream along the Apishapa, have been partnering with the conservation community on functionally eradicating the invasive weed tamarisk from the basin. So far, between 60 and 80 miles of the river have been treated and are currently being evaluated for follow-up treatment and long-term monitoring.
Similar to the Winship Ranch project, quiet collaboration has built trust and confidence between ranchers and the Conservancy in eastern Colorado. This mutual respect represents how the seeds of conservation eventually grow into real, lasting results.