Ranchlands is a Colorado-based ranching and land management company that stewards more than 300,000 acres of rangelands across the American West in partnership with landowners. While meat is often considered the primary product of ranchers, conservation is the product for Ranchlands. Since 2000, the organization’s management style, which focuses on restoring vegetation and wildlife—primarily cattle and bison—in addition to community engagement and education, has been celebrated as a model in conservation circles.
In November, Charles Post visited The Nature Conservancy’s Medano-Zapata Ranch, which is managed by Ranchlands, in southern Colorado, for its annual bison roundup. Here, Post highlights some of the people and stories behind this new, young wave of conservationists.
Photo: Kate Matheson of Ranchlands pauses after zipping across the range on her motorbike to bring a herd of horses back to the pasture after a long day.A group of wild bison race toward a 50,000-acre pasture within The Nature Conservancy's Medano Zapata Ranch during the annual roundup. These wild bison are part of a herd owned by The Nature Conservancy and managed by Ranchlands in the high desert of Colorado’s San Luis Valley.
One week a year, these bison come into contact with humans, a jeep, plane, horse, or motorbike. The other 364 days, they’re free to roam a 50,000-acre pasture flanked by Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s not dissimilar to the species’ experience before it was nearly killed off in the 1890s.Duke Phillips IV, chief operating officer of Ranchland and a fourth-generation rancher, counts the passing bison to ensure the herd will never exceed the number of animals the land can sustain.Phillips IV and his nephew, Woods, are part of the future of ranching in the American West. Though Phillips is just 28, he guides a brand acclaimed for its social media presence and a business that emphasizes ecology as much as profit.
Ranchlands also has a diverse business model. In addition to its land management services, the organization rents out rooms through a guest program, which allows visitors an opportunity to learn about ranching firsthand or simply stay in their luxury tent camps or more traditional lodges.A plains bison navigates a series of chutes that will guide it upstream toward a team of ranchers, vets, biologists, and range managers.Duke Phillips III, founder and CEO of Ranchlands and a third-generation rancher, uses his bush plane to help bring the ranch’s herd of approximately 2,500 bison off the range and into the corrals.High above the bunchgrasses and meandering creeks of the ranch, Phillips III scours the 50,000-acre pasture looking for any stragglers from the herd.Nick Baefsky, a ranch manager for Ranchlands’ McAuliffe Ranch, rounds up scores of wild bison in an old Jeep, often the best tool for the job. It allowed us to maneuver our way through the various pastures and chutes with enough speed and pressure to keep the herd moving in the right direction.Baefsky uses every inch of his stride to keep up with a bunch of young bison moving into the next set of corrals before they are moved into the chutes, where they will be processed and sorted.A collared young cow bison awaits a checkup and vaccination from Phillips III.Ranchland’s Samantha Bradford has dedicated her life to managing livestock so their grazing mimics the way wild bison would have grazed in pre-European America—high-intensity grazing with rapid rotation. This method has proven to be best for keeping the land and animals healthy.To move bison on foot in the high desert for a week at a time requires plenty of water. The ranch has modified a beer keg into a makeshift water trough for cowboys.Phillips III says Ranchlands’ mission is simple: create positive change within the ranching community to preserve nature and their way of life into the future.This is the moment when Ranchlands parts ways with some of the bison it has stewarded since their first days. Some of these bison go to Wild Idea Buffalo in South Dakota, where a new herd is being established on a piece of land with a history of bison grazing that dates back millennia. Others go to individual buyers for meat.
Ranchlands doesn’t directly sell any meat products into the marketplace, though some of the meat from Wild Idea Buffalo ends up in places like Whole Foods and other markets across the country.
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