"The care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope." - Wendell Berry

Greg Moore kicks off the day

On July 13th, the Western Landowners Alliance (WLA) partnered with landowner Greg Moore to offer a Stewardship and Policy tour on the Moore Land & Cattle Company ranch. The ranch is located near the community of Wagon Mound, on a beautiful northern New Mexico landscape consisting of shortgrass prairie bordered with piñon juniper forest. Discussion topics throughout the tour centered around prescribed fire, drought and wildlife management.

Close to forty of us—mostly ranchers from New Mexico, Colorado and Montana, and a few other practitioners from non-profits, private businesses and state agencies—gathered in Greg’s workshop to start the day. Dennis Brown, Greg’s trapper, carried several coffee makers over from the ranch house—together with Greg’s entire collection of coffee mugs—and we all sat on straw bales, sipping coffee and listening to a few presentations before heading out on the land. Greg gave us an overview for the day and a little bit of context for his unique approach to management. He’s been ranching on this land since the early 1970s and considers himself a “practical resource manager,” taking just about everything into consideration—cows and wildlife, pasture and riparian areas, planned grazing and fire, economics and ecology—when making management decisions. Greg rotates his 250-300 mother cows between 20 different pastures, and has also designated specific areas as wildlife sanctuaries. He considers his decision to place over 25,000 acres of his property into conservation easements one of the best of his career.

Connor Jandreau, from the New Mexico Land Conservancy—which holds the easements on Greg’s land—explained the process of creating conservation easements. He emphasized the landowner’s critical role in designing the terms of an easement to accommodate the landowners’ goals and anticipated future needs, particularly around development and infrastructure.

Scott Wilber and Connor Jandreau, New Mexico Land Conservancy

Following Connor’s presentation, we all piled into trucks to start the tour. Greg guided us through a wide range of discussion topics including wildlife management and a possible, much-anticipated reintroduction of the black-footed ferret on his land; grazing management and the use of prescribed fire to maximize pasture health and production; and drought—the constant anticipation of, and preparation for, the next drought.

At Prairie Dog Village, where Greg’s land is home to roughly 1500 acres’ worth of prairie dogs, Greg addressed his wish to reintroduce the endangered black-footed ferret: “It makes me feel good to save the species,” he said. The black-footed ferret, once common in many western states, was thought to be extinct before a small population was discovered in Wyoming in 1981. Since then, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has been working with landowners on a voluntary basis to reintroduce the species on private lands with a large-enough population of prairie dogs to sustain them (prairie dogs make up 90% of the ferret’s diet). Greg sees this initiative as win-win: the black-footed ferret can keep the prairie dog population in check, and Greg’s ranch can provide a safe habitat for the ferret. He is working closely with the FWS to develop a Safe Harbor Agreement, which will ease restrictions on his activities and allow for incidental “takes”—or deaths—of the endangered animal both on his land and on neighboring properties. Despite his enthusiasm for the ferret’s potential to control the prairie dog, Greg was the first to admit that prairie dogs do earn their keep on the ranch: they keep chollas and possibly even prickly-pear under control.

From Prairie Dog Town we moved on to a Native American artifact site. According to Steve Post, a retired archaeologist from Santa Fe who volunteered his time and expertise for the day, Greg’s land may be home to one of the largest recorded sites in northern New Mexico. The village spans about 7.3 acres and contains over 118 tipi rock circles, together with innumerable pottery shards, arrowheads, rock tools and other artifacts. Steve believes this site dates as far back as the 1500s, when nomadic groups of people travelled across the landscape with a pack of dogs to pull their belongings.

The remainder of the day focused on drought and prescribed fire, all within the context of managing healthy, productive lands to sustain both a cattle business and wildlife habitat. As Greg mentioned early in the day, “we’re either coming out of a drought or going into the next one. Every morning I wake up thinking about how I’m going to beat the next drought.” And for several decades now, he’s done just that, through careful management that includes planned rotational grazing and prescribed fire.

The widespread practice of fire suppression over many decades has offset natural rhythms and created an ideal environment for juniper and piñon encroachment. After years of trying to push them back with front-end loaders and chemicals, to no avail, Greg decided to try fire. He now uses controlled burning to decrease encroachment by piñon, yucca, cholla, juniper, weeds and brush into his grasslands, thereby saving water for the benefit of healthier grasses. He showed us a 6,000-acre burn that he did this spring. The burn was over in a matter of days, but the prep leading up to the burn made up the lion’s share of the work and happened well before the actual burn. Years before. Greg started preparing the land for that burn back in 2006, by spraying herbicides to kill piñon and juniper—which in turn led to what he described as an “explosion” of grass growth. The increased grass growth built up the needed fuel load to carry fire across the landscape and ensure a successful burn.

Once the land is ready for fire, the conditions have to be just right. Greg very carefully considers such variables as temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, weather forecast and other important details that, together, create the ideal—if unlikely—conditions for burning. Communication and permitting with the proper agencies and local authorities are also part of fire planning. Once permits are secured and the perfect window of opportunity appears, Greg calls on his team—family and friends who are willing to respond on short notice—and heads into the field. His goal is to get as much of the burn as possible completed in a single day, while the conditions are good and the risks manageable.

Sid Goodloe and Greg Moore

Greg credits Sid Goodloe, owner of Carrizo Valley Ranch in southern New Mexico, for inspiring him to start using fire. Sid is well-known in New Mexico for his experience and expertise in using fire to restore forests and grasslands. As Sid explained, “fire is friendly to grass and an enemy to brush” because brush grows from the end of limbs, and fire kills the limbs. Grass, on the other hand, regenerates from underground, from the root base. “That’s how fire maintained this country,” Sid added.

For landowners wanting to use controlled burns to manage land health, cost is often a limiting factor. Jeremy Bailey, the fire training and network coordinator for The Nature Conservancy, advised landowners to coordinate burns so as to provide a contracted burn crew with enough work—and enough acres across properties—to make it worth the contractors’ time and travel, while also ensuring a lower per acre cost for landowners. Jeremy estimated that costs would range from as low as $5-10 per acre for juniper piñon country, up to as high as $300 per acre for land with infrastructure to protect. Landowners can also take advantage of a cost-share program available through the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

Like all WLA Stewardship and Policy tours, this gathering of landowners, managers and other practitioners provided an ideal setting for knowledge-sharing and peer networking. These tours are all the more valuable because of the collective experience and knowledge of everyone who shows up and speaks up. And at the heart of the conversation—and core to WLA’s work—was the understanding that economics and ecological health must go hand-in-hand in order for each to thrive.

Many thanks to Greg Moore for hosting the tour, and to everyone who showed up and helped make the day a huge success. Special thanks to Jack and Jill Chatfield, who catered a delicious midday meal out of their Headquarters Restaurant in Mosquero, New Mexico.