Back in late October 2019 – which now seems an awfully long time ago – we told you about the Leopold Conservation Award, which annually honors landowners in Colorado and 19 other states. The host, the Sand County Foundation, has announced its three Colorado finalists for 2020. The $10,000 prize recognizes ranchers, farmers and foresters “who inspire others with their dedication to land, water and wildlife habitat management on private, working lands.”
The first finalists are Toby and Amy Johnson for their stewardship of the 33,000-acre Collins Ranch near Kit Carson, in Cheyenne County, on the eastern side of the state. They’re in the fourth generation of a family that has been dryland ranching in the area since 1907, when Charles Collins took the spread out of foreclosure, after spotting it while driving longhorns from Mexico to Montana across the plains in the late 19th century.
Toby and Amy have been using small pastures for their cattle so they can more frequently rotate them to obtain healthier grass and soil. They move the cattle to fields of cornstalks in the winter and have water tanks for the cattle and for wildlife, removed from meadows and creeks in order to reduce erosion.
Next is the LK Ranch, near Meeker, on about 13,000 acres in the northwest part of Colorado, abutting the White River National Forest. Owners the Klinglesmith family host about 1,000 cow-calf pairs as well as elk, mule deer, mountain lions, black bears and greater sage grouse. The family have been partners in Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s White River Habitat program, which seeks to improve conditions for wildlife and resolve big game conflicts.
LK Ranch’s grazing management, fencing and watering systems have made the ranch more ecologically and economically resilient, according to the Sand County Foundation, and conservation easements ensure water rights will remain for agriculture and wildlife in perpetuity.
“New irrigation equipment reduces the amount of water needed to irrigate hay fields, and any late season hay growth is left standing to feed mule deer and elk,” the foundation says. The ranch seeds high-quality grasses for the mule deer, elk and sage grouse, and has established recreational trout fisheries and wetland waterfowl habitats.
The third finalist is the 15,550-acre May cattle ranch near Lamar, about 100 miles east of Pueblo.
The May family leased ranchland for decades before purchasing the land in 2012, in part seeking to preserve wildlife protections on it. But the purchase meant the ranch would have to pay and keep paying. The family switched to all-natural, grass-fed cattle production on the prairie. And it partnered with Audubon Rockies to preserve habitat for birds and other wildlife.
“It’s obvious to anybody that’s involved that if you have habitat that birds can thrive in, every other species of wildlife will thrive in that habitat,” rancher Dallas May told Audubon.
The Mays’ pasture rotation “creates a diversity of habitat types, from sparse vegetation where Horned Larks pluck insects from flowers, to tall grass where Grasshopper Sparrows sing, swaying in the wind,” according to Audubon Rockies.
The Mays also have installed wildlife-friendly fencing, improved wetlands and streams, restored playas and planted native trees, according to the Sand County Foundation. And the Mays host surveys of bird species, tours and other biological inventories on the ranch.
In Colorado, the Leopold award for extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation is presented by the Sand County Foundation as well as the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The recipient is due to be announced in April.
An earlier version of this story misstated the number of acres on the Collins Ranch.