AoR 64: Mark Kossler & Carter Kruse, Conservation Ranching at Landscape Scales

Ted Turner started buying ranch land in the early 1990s as both an investment and to conserve habitat for imperiled species at a spatial scale that would be meaningful. Today, Turner Enterprises owns nearly 2 million acres of land across the Western United States. Mark Kossler manages the ranching operations on these 15 properties, all of which include bison. Carter Kruse is the lead scientist for the management efforts behind numerous species conservation efforts on Turner's holdings.


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>> Welcome to The Art of Range a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host Tip Hudson, range and livestock specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at

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>> My guests today on The Art of Range are Mark Kossler and Carter Kruse. Mark is the vice president of ranch operations for Turner Enterprises. And sort of met several months ago in the process of lining up plenary speakers to talk about conservation through ranching for The Society for Range Management's annual meeting. And Mark's lead scientist Carter Kruse who is also with me today ended up speaking for the SRM because of the flavor of the rest of the plenary panel on ranching. But there's an awful lot to talk about here. So, I'm delighted to be talking with Mark and Carter today at the Turner Enterprise's office in Bozeman Montana. Mark and Carter welcome.

>> Thank you.

>> Thank you.

>> I would - being a ranch manager is not a terribly small niche. But managing the people who run nearly two million acres worth of lands that you know really do double or triple duty as ranch - experimental range and wildlife area, is pretty unique. Can you talk a bit about what the job is and what was your pathway to being VP of ranch operations for Ted Turner?

>> Well, in our operations the ranch management core, the staff on the ranches obviously make everything work. Getting the right people in the right place is really the primary function of our oversight in office is probably maybe one of the more difficult things we do is finding qualified personnel. And the direction or mantra of our ranching operations is a little different. We're not just production. We strive to marry if you will or find a balance between commerce and conservation. What we need to be solvent. And we need to pay our bills. Make money. But we don't want to do that at the expense of the conservation values of the properties that we manage. And so, finding qualified personnel that can understand and sign on to that mission, if you will for our operations is not easy. And so, it it's a - however, we have been able to put together a very good staff of ranch management. Our core ranch management personnel I think are as good as anyone in the industry. And they tend to at least initially be a little broader-based in their view of our - of what an AG operation is. Or they quickly learn and adopt that broader view of having consideration for the conservation and conservation values of our operations as well.

>> And Carter, maybe say again what you do for Turner Enterprises for those that didn't have the plenary talk, which will be quite a few.

>> Yeah. Yeah. I'm - my current title is the director of conservation and science for Turner Enterprises. And that is a job that has evolved over the course of my tenure here. I'm trained in the aquatic sciences and started as an aquatic scientist with Turner Enterprises. And then over time as our biological programs have grown and our biological staff has grown, I'm kind of expanded oversight of what we call The Turner Biodiversity Program. And work closely with the Turner Endangered Species Fund to implement conservation projects. And now as we kind of turned a new - into a new phase here at Turner Enterprises really taking a conservative focus on research and the science across the, across both our conservation and ranching operations. My job is expanding yet again a little bit to coordinate that broader spectrum of science to look into work through.

>> Uh-huh. And you've been here for about 20 years?

>> It will 21 years in June.

>> Yeah. And what did you do before that?

>> Well, I wasn't too long.

>> Were you still wet behind the ears?

>> Wasn't too long out of school. But I did, I did take a job with the federal government. I was actually working for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission before I came to Turner Enterprises. I always envisioned a kind of a government state or federal job, which a lot of natural resource positions are.

>> Yeah.

>> And profoundly grateful that I stumbled into this opportunity 20 years ago.

>> Yeah, I think it's a pretty cool role. To what extent does aquatic sciences overlap with fisheries biology?

>> The - it's one in the same. Yep, yep. And initially, there was a - it's still one of the two largest cutthroat native cutthroat trout resolution projects that's ever been completed. That project was in its infancy here on Flying D Ranch just outside of Bozeman for westslope cutthroat trout. And they needed a - they needed someone to lead that project. And that was kind of my in with Turner Enterprises.

>> Uh-huh. And Mark, what was your pathway? What was your I guess career path before you ended up here?

>> Sure, right. I was raised on a family ranch in Colorado. And about the time I got out of high school and my dad sold the ranch and relocated to Idaho. And I helped him move and ended up going to the University of Idaho. I got a degree in range livestock management. And started on a career of large ranch management right out of college. I was lucky and got with someone who kind of mentored me for ranch management. I learned a lot very early. And worked in the ranch management. I managed several fairly good size ranch operations from the time I was out of college until 1999 when I had the opportunity to come to work for Turner Enterprises. I - my background is you know beef cattle production and cattle ranching. And I did make the transition to bison from there. And I've been with Ted now for 21 years. And managed two of his large ranch operations. The Flying D Ranch here at Bozeman which is about you know 113,000 acres. And has about 4,000 or 5,000 bison on it through the course of the year. And then I managed it for seven years. And then transferred to New Mexico and managed Vermejo Park Ranch which is our largest most complex ranch. It's 565,000 acres. A very high well-- like component to it I guess service operation, timber operations, gas well operations, as well as having some bison on the ranch. And I was there seven years. And then had the opportunity to come back and lead the management office here in Bozeman in 2014.

>> Yeah, I think we might have met when I visited probably the Flying D at the tail end of my undergraduate degree also at The University of Idaho. And I think you might have been the one managing the ranch. I recall there're several things about the differences between how bison and cattle behave that I'm pretty sure you were the one talking about.

>> Yes. You know in - with my background of cattle management, bison intrigued me. It's one of the reasons I was kind of drawn to come to work for Ted. You know the science if you will of managing bison on a large ranch landscape was pretty new. And there's a different animal than cattle. They're similar in some regards. But different in others. And I was intrigued by those differences. And kind of rose to the challenge of settling in and trying to figure it out.

>> Yeah. Yeah, I'd like to come to back in a few minutes. I wanted to ask I know that Turner Enterprises is one of the largest you know single landowners in the country. And saying that somebody else is larger, these things are not all quite equal. You guys have multiple properties as you mentioned. I think you said there's 15.

>> Yes.

>> Is Turner the largest single land - largest single landowner in the country? And who are some of the other ones? And are they doing similar work?

>> The other large landowner is John Malone I think is the largest landowner. He does have multiple traditional cattle ranches. And - but he also has some very large tracts of timber like in Maine.

>> Hmm.

>> I don't know a lot about their operations. I believe there manage with some conservation ethic interwoven into their production cycle as well.

>> Yeah.

>> I'm not really familiar with a lot of the other large landowners other than Mr. Malone who is a, who is a friend and confidant of Mr. Turner's.

>> Hmm. Uh-huh. I think I read or maybe you said, Carter in your talk for the SRM that it was about the late 1990s that Ted Turner started purchasing land. I think mostly with the goal of conserving open space for its own sake as well as you know keeping large chunks of contiguous wildlife habitat intact. And especially for a certain, you know imperiled species like bison. You know people probably would feel like it's also an investment in the sense that land is a pretty good place to put good money. But you don't realize the appreciation on that land unless you sell it. And I gather that's probably not the goal. So, can either of you say a little bit more about what the organization's goals are with owning land and running with bison cattle on it? Because as you said I think that is unique in the world of you know large land investment.

>> From Ted's early acquisition of ranches, he wanted to figure out a way to ranch with native species i.e. bison, not cattle. And to ranch in a way that would be sensitive to conservation values so that the conservation values of large ranch landscapes would not degrade. And if possible, would actually get better. And so that was the early mission that he put us on. And our early mission statement up until very recently has been to manage Turner lands in economically sensitive, and ecologically sustainable manner while conserving native species and habitats. And so, we - that was our mission statement for a very long time. We're - Ted now with the - he's at the pinnacle of his career and looking ahead. He's - he wants his ranches to continue. He wants them to be examples of how to ranch with native species.

>> Hmm.

>> And have a high conservation ethic. I'll maybe let Carter talk a little bit about the two organizations that we're going to move into eventually.

>> Yeah. We're - one correction. Ted started purchasing ranches in the late 1980s.

>> Hmm.

>> I think he mentioned 1990s. But yeah it was in a pretty significant growth curve for about 15 years in terms of adding acreage and things. But yeah, as Mark said, we're you know we're trying to find this balance, or you know really have been working on the balance of economic sustainability and environmental sensitivity you know since the kind of the early formation of a mission for Turner Ranches. And as we look to the future, the intent right now at least is to most of the properties would flow into one of two charitable organizations. Either the Turner Conservation Trust which is focused essentially on again this balance of large-scale ranching and conservation and making that work in an economically sustainable framework. And then the second organization would be what's been called The Turner Institute of Eco Agriculture. It's an agriculture research organization. So, a portion of the properties will also go into that. We'll have very similar objectives in terms of again this economic sustainability and environmental sensitivity. But with a certain research focused to look at you know what - how can we better understand? So, it leads back to questions about bison as an ecological engineer or you know ecosystem services. And the ways we can sustain large landscapes in a ranching economic sort of framework but still accomplish a lot of these conservation goals. So that's - that - those are the two organizations that the properties' will likely go into as we move into the future. So, really like Mark said, trying to, trying to carry forth what we've been doing and maybe bring a little more muscle to that in terms of research and science.

>> And promote the ideas more broadly.

>> Yeah.

>> Yeah. Can you - in your plenary talk you gave a summary of what the Turner ranch properties are right now. Can you give a brief overview of those? I don't know whether or not you can do it off the top of your head. But you mentioned a couple of them, The Flying D and the Vermejo, you mentioned. Yeah say a little bit more about what some of the other properties are and where they're located geographically.

>> There's -- currently there're three ranches in Montana. The Flying D Ranch was the first large ranch purchase that Ted did back in 1989. It's a very traditional cattle ranch that he bought and then converted to bison production. There're two smaller ranches in Montana. Snowcrest Ranch and Red Rock Ranch. Both have some bison on them. Both have some recreational components. Fishing which is a very important part of Ted's land acquisition early on. He liked to fish. And so, he liked my angle you know ranch landscapes that have fishing and or aquatic attributes to them. If we move into the planes there're six ranches in the Sandhills of Nebraska. TI is kind of the heart of our quote-unquote bison engine. Sandhills Nebraska are an incredible grassland.

>> Uh-huh.

>> And very productive. And so that's where a large part of our bison heard is centered on those six ranches. There're two ranches in South Dakota as well. In Pierre South Dakota. Bad River Ranch and Standing Butte Ranch. Both of them are - were traditional cattle ranches. Again, were purchased and converted to running bison. The bison do very well in Montana and Sandhills Nebraska. And South Dakota they just fit that ecosystem and climate very well. And they're very productive. We have one ranch at Medicine Lodge Kansas, the Z Bar Ranch. It has a lot of conservation projects and attributes to it. Also runs bison as well. And it's in the foothills.

>> Redhills.

>> Yeah. Okay.

>> Hmm.

>> If we - and then we have three operations in New Mexico. Vermejo Park Ranch is our largest acreage ranch operation. It's on the Colorado border. Actually, part of the ranch is in Colorado. So, it's technically in two states. And a very iconic ranch. It was an old Mexican land grant. It was let in 1842. So, it's.

>> Wow.

>> 565,000 acres of private land in a block.

>> huh.

>> An incredible landscape that goes from the sawgrass prairie at 6,500 feet to the alpine tundra of 13,200 feet.

>> Hmm.

>> Five different ecozones on that ranch. Has a smaller herd of bison. And it has a lot of wildlife attributes and conservation projects on it. Further south in New Mexico we have The Ladder Ranch and The Armendaris Ranch. The Armendaris Ranch is on the northern tip of the Chihuahuan desert. And the Ladder Ranch is on the southern tip of the Rockies. A very mountainous rugged desert ranch. Both those ranches have small herds of bison on them. Both those ranches have very significant conservation projects on them as well.

>> Hmm. That's fascinating. And how many bison total are on - across all of those?

>> We - the numbers go up and down. But it's about 45,000. 45,000, 46,000 bison is our total bison herd currently.

>> And on the one's where you have cattle as well, are the cattle and bison together? The comingle?

>> We have no cattle.

>> Okay.

>> It gets back to our mission statement native species.

>> Yeah.

>> And Ted is always.

>> Okay.

>> More at his ranches to work with native species. And so, we have no cattle production on our operations. It's all bison.

>> Wow. What would you say are some of the major challenges with managing that much land?

>> The major challenges first and foremost get around to hiring the right people. It is - once you get above a certain scale it's the quality of people that you can put on the ground. Their knowledge, their experience or expertise. And their ability to manage people. Because on a large ranch it's not, it's not a one-person or one-family ranch. It's most of our ranches are large enough to have three or four employees involved with their families. In the Sandhills of Nebraska, those ranches are all you know 50,000 to 70,000 acres. It takes two or three or more employees to manage them. So, you've got to hire that management expertise and they have to be able to hire and manage good people. And that's what makes the operations work. Being able to dovetail into the conservation side of the operation. Working with Carter and the people that work under him with one identifying conservation attributes that we need to work on, manage forward. Maybe even using our bison to manage toward a conservation goal. There was a crossover there that's not normal in most ranch operations. And so, finding people that can one kind of accept that. That's part of the duties. And two understand and actually buy in if you will.

>> Yeah.

>> To knowing that we may give up production in an area or two to enhance conservation attributes on some of the properties. And so, it's the quality of the people. The character and integrity are the number one thing we want to hire for. Followed quickly by experience and education. And just flexibility. And finding folks that are flexible.

>> Yeah, that assessment reminds me of a sociological study that I think was conducted out of UC Davis a few years ago when they trying to identify what are the common management factors in ranches that had really healthy riparian areas. And fish populations. Health stream zones. And I think I'm recalling correctly, and I'll apologize to somebody if I got the location of the study wrong or the conclusions. But my recall is that the take-home message was that aside from any specific management practice or principle, by far the single common denominator in ranches that had healthy riparian zones was having a manager that was committed to achieving a healthy riparian area. 20:16 And one of the ways they measured that was you know man-hours of attention to livestock management. And somebody who you know was - had these end goals in mind. And was on a daily basis managing toward them. That seems to fit with what you're saying.

>> It certainly does. And you know management - livestock grazing, [inaudible] grazing is a management tool. And our managers see it as such. They recognize that. It's not a - it can be a means to an end for several things. One is, you know red meat production for money. That's one of them. But the other is, is using that grazing management to enhance habitat for other species if you will. And so that is key.

>> I think Carter, you said in your talk that the - all of the ranch properties are self-sustaining economically. Mark, you mentioned that just a minute ago too. How and why was that decision made? And you know are those internal reasons or externalize as in public relations? And is that common in the world of corporate ranching?

>> Just a minor clarification, but an important one. The goal is to be economically sustainable. Not all of our operations are.

>> Huh.

>> Some are more economically sustainable than others. And there is an overlap so that some of the ones that are more economically sustainable help cover some of the expenses on the ones that are not.

>> Yeah.

>> When it gets to livestock production It really gets down to how much grass can you grow, how effectively and efficiently can I graze it. And turn it into a product that you can sell. The drier ranches down south are at a disadvantage. Drought is chronic. You know stocking rates are much lower.

>> Uh-huh.

>> Yet, you've got significant overhead you still have to carry. So, not all of our ranches cashflow every year.

>> Yeah.

>> Many of them do. And so, we're working with an average.

>> And is it a bigger challenge or is it helpful that what your marketing is bison and not beef? I can see that potentially being worth more money. But also, a challenge to sell maybe.

>> the bison market has been higher in the last 10 or 12 years than the beef market typically.

>> Hmm.

>> And so, net per animal has been much higher than if we would have had beef animals. But you're right, the marketing and moving that much bison is the challenge. And we work with some very good marketers. Essentially, we are, we are a grower. And we tend to own our animals until the time of harvest. And then we sell to essentially wholesalers who then fabricate the product and move it on into the retail sector. A large part of our production does go through a major partner in Denver. And it is a grain expose, or grain-finished bison product for high-end retail restaurants of which ted has - has had 40 some restaurants. And so, those - our restaurants by from that wholesaler.

>> uh-huh.

>> And a recent initiative for us is to get into the grass-finished bison market. And we're working with about four right now very good smaller wholesalers that essentially buy bison that are finished just on grass. Never exposed to any grain or grain concentrates. And we see that as a growing venue. It's.

>> Uh-huh.

>> Become known. So, those are the two directions we're currently producing for.

>> Yeah. I had not heard of feeding out bison on a relatively large scale like you're doing. At what age would they be going into a feedlot and for what is it? 90 days on feed before.

>> Bulls are typically - and we run - because we own land and we own grass first and foremost. We keep them on grass as long as possible.

>> Yeah.

>> There are eight requirements for high-end retail consumption. Typically, bulls need to be harvested at 30 months or younger. Heifers need to be harvested at 36 months or younger in the grain-finished market. And so, our bulls would enter the feed yard somewhere between 18 and 24 months. And they'd be on feed for 160 to 220 days on average. And then go to harvest. Our heifers would enter the grain finish cycle at usually you know 28 to 30 months - 26 to 30 months. And be harvested usually with 100 to 140 days on feed. And be harvested in the height - high-end retail grain market. The grass-finished market has much more allowance for age. So, animals tend to grow slower on grass so they're going to be harvested a little bit later. Bulls up to about 36 to 40 months. Heifers up to about 45 to 48 months. But those animals are free-ranging on grass all the time. And so those are the kind of the marketing requirements for the two venues that we're currently in.

>> I know I should know this. But the age requirement, that's a USDA standard to receive a quality grade with age maturity?

>> It is not. It's not a USDA standard. The bison.

>> Okay.

>> Industry is very small. And the USDA really has no standards.

>> Hmm.

>> These are the standards kind of established by the.

>> By the bison.

>> Industry.

>> Industry.

>> By the partners we're working with.

>> Huh. Okay. Maybe to switch gears just a little bit. What do you see as the benefit of these ranches to say commercial beef production? And I can imagine that you sometimes feel the stigma of the negative connotations that you know commercial ranchers might have with corporate ranching as opposed to family ranching. And you've probably thought that through. So, one, how are you received? And two, what do you see your role as in the world of commercial beef production?

>> Well, obviously public perception of who we are and what we're doing, I think has shifted my early involvement with Turner Enterprises. Early on there was a lot of bias against Ted, against bison, against even large corporate ownership in ranches. I've seen that soften in the particularly in the communities where we've operated. People understand that look we're kind of a livestock operation. Operating differently. But really with a lot of the same goals that traditional ranching has. The size and scale of our operation I think are important. We're big enough to be able to be innovative and try some things that a smaller operation really couldn't afford to do. And one of our missions and part of what Carter and his staff helped us with going ahead will be trying different things, getting some significant research that helps educate and lead people into maybe figuring out some new ways to operate. And education outreach is important. It's always important to us. We've always done tours on our ranches. Tried to explain to people how we're operating. And you know what our outcomes are.

>> Uh-huh.

>> And sometimes the things that we try that don't work are more important than things we try that do work.

>> Right.

>> And so, that's been always part of our operational ethic if you will. And I think that's going to be enhanced going ahead with the organizations that are going to assume these ranches into the future.

>> Yeah but let's talk about this idea of using bison as ecosystem engineers. Because that's pretty controversial you know in the scientific community. Especially among fisheries biologists, and wildlife biologists. And I think we have, we have this idea that, that any kind of intensive large [inaudible] grazing is maintaining or preventing a plat community from reaching a climax state. And I hesitate even to use the word because I feel like I've just begun to change my own ideas about how that should work. But you mentioned you talked, Carter that one of the objectives, is to keep portions of landscapes and patches of landscapes in different serial status if you will, you know to use terminology that some people would be familiar with. Can you say more about how you see that having happened historically with lid bison herd and to what extent - you know what are those mechanisms of useful disturbance? Because disturbance is often seen as a bad word. Something that we're trying to avoid. We want to graze without disturbance. But any grazing is a disturbance that can be beneficial.

>> That's a lot of questions. But just.

>> Yeah, that's a full.

>> Just start talking.

>> That's a full [inaudible] discussion. I think it kind of brings together some of the concepts we talked about earlier in the sense that you know our mission statement has this inherent tension in a way about the ecological and the economic side of things. And I think I mean this is an example of that where you - we might have if I can use the word traditional, more traditional approaches to grazing and the you know the guidelines take half, leave half. Or you know those sorts of things that are out there. And when we look at it from an ecological side and we think about how bison - well, and I do want to back up and say you know we talked about bison as ecological engineers. I think we can say cattle as ecological engineers too. And your point about how the animals are managed leading to outcomes on the landscape for instance recurring areas. I think is applied to any large managed undulate. I wouldn't sit here today even though we know, and we think we know there are certain differences between bison and cattle. I wouldn't be comfortable sitting here today. I don't know if say that a well-managed bison herd can lead to better or different outcomes on a landscape than a well-managed cattle herd. I think we; I think we you know there are inherent differences in animals with how you use them can get you, can get you to similar places. But I totally agree. You know and I think you know a couple of things that are real obvious to us with bison, bison don't like to stay in their recurring areas like cattle do. So, you - the management of the animals are just different from that aspect in terms of potential impacts on recurring areas.

>> Yeah.

>> They're moving more often. They'll travel further to get a drink of water. Things like that, that you can you know you can think about in your management scheme. But as a biologist, as I think about how bison historically used the plains and how we can integrate that better into our operation. It pushes a little bit on the again the traditional paradigms of raising in the sense that you know not every overgrazed pasture should be looked at as a bad thing. There are lots of you know species that were adapted to shortly grazed or bare earth in the prairie. And the Nebraska Sandhills are a perfect example. There're whole communities that are adapted to sand blowouts where there's no grass at all.

>> Hmm.

>> And in a lot of thought today that sandhills are more stable today. And more grass covered today than they ever have been.

>> And that might not be a good thing.

>> Well, it's just a different state, right.

>> Yeah.

>> But as you think about what you're trying to do from a conservation perspective, we may want to try and encourage blowouts in some cases so we can you know have places for those biological communities. And we have done that on occasion. We've in our words overgrazed pastures and kept them in an overgrazed state in order to you know to encourage certain species to recover or have places to go. So, I think for me working with ranch managers it's a thought process of maybe pushing some pastures harder than they might typically in their traditional sense of grazing. And then.

>> Hmm.

>> Maybe resting pastures longer than we might want to in an economic sense. And trying to find that balance between you know how do you, how do you get those two extremes on a landscape and still be economically sustainable? And a lot of the managers with flexibility that they need with the herds they have to move around the landscape and accomplish their production goals too. So, that's a, that's a really fun challenge. And it's really in my mind it's kind of a culmination of how our operations have evolved over the years from a - the early days of land purchase and ranch buildout being the focus on the ranching side. And the biologics side the conservation side getting their legs in terms of kind of single species conservation. And one of the most progressive and - one of the largest private conservation efforts I think that's out there. Now both those sides coming back together in the sense of okay now how do we - we've got these ranches built out. We got great staff in place that understand the mission. How do we now begin to use the animals to further the goals of the conservation side to? We're just - that's fairly new to us. Although we, we've talked about it a lot over the years. It's really now I think - I don't know. Maybe Mark disagrees. But I think it's really coming together in a sense of how do we use these animals now too. And the easy one to talk about is grass [inaudible] can use for example.

>> Uh-huh.

>> What do we need to look at? What do we need to measure? And how do we need to use our animals to promote you know and help defining grassland communities? And it's - we're really just starting to understand or - we're really just starting to try to understand what those mechanisms can be and how we can use our animals differently than we have in the past. And I would hold our managers up and the grazing they've done on our ranges. I think our ranges look really good. It's really trying to get these concepts of you know maybe we'll keep a certain area in a which you might think a degraded state from a range condition. Or certain areas in you know ungrazed condition longer than we might have under a more traditional approach to a grazing rotation. And I think you know bringing in those concepts together and measuring the biological community response, I think is going to be an area of work for us. And we like Mark talked about you know having the luxury of being able to make some mistakes or trying some really innovative things to understand how we're impact the ecosystem services and you know some of those other things that might be marketable commodities in future markets.

>> Yeah. I was talking with Clayton Marlow this morning at breakfast.

>> Yeah.

>> Clayton from Montana State University. And he's done a fair bit of work on riparian zones. And we were visiting about ideas of extended rests that are good for riparian areas. You know say you acquire a ranch that has unhealthy riparian zones you know lack of a riparian gallery of trees in places that ought to have it. Down cut channels. What - how would you begin to manipulate grazing management using bison in those landscapes to get the riparian zone to begin to heal up and build back up? What grazing principles would you be applying in that scenario?

>> Well, I'll take a first quick from the biological aspect and then let Mark respond from more of an animal aspect. But you know it's interesting when ted bought a lot of these ranches his gut reaction was - and some of the [inaudible] areas were fairly degraded in the Flying D was an example. You know grazed pretty hard and had impacts from grazing. And the reaction was, well let's fence them out and let them be. And in that moment that might have been the right answer. Just get animals off for a while. But it wasn't the long-term answer. I think we started to see issues with decadent willow stands, noxious weeds or you know things like that. And I think, I think, I think the range community has evolved in that regard over time too.

>> Yeah.

>> It's like you know it's again the managed grazing versus just no or full grazing that really right impact the [inaudible]. And so, we like using this range again for example. A lot of those riparian fences have come out and they're - the managers are you know hitting them quick. So, real quick grazing with a yearling herd for example. Grazing in the wintertime when you're not - you know the ground is frozen and you aren't going to impact the banks so much and still get some of the benefits. So, I think you know you just, you just have to have that feel as a manager in terms of you know what kind of impact you're having. And Vermejo the ranch we have down there with the elk populations and the bison, we just were having - the riparian areas just never had a chance to recover especially during dry years. So, we, you now know we went in and fenced some of those areas.

>> Uh-huh.

>> And we got you know an amazing response. And I think the goal has always been once we get the riparian community back to a place where it can handle some browsing, we'll take those fences down. And then manages the grazing the best we can both with you know wildlife management and livestock management. Mark.

>> I think one of the things I've certainly learned in my career from coming out of college and being trained you know somewhat at least at a lower level for range management is always and never are-always and never are two terms that don't fit very well. We're never going to graze are riparian area in many systems will lead to problems because of overgrowth and decadence and lack of incorporation of material back into the system. But always grazing all the time again leads to its own set of horrors.

>> Uh-huh.

>> And the art of grass management I think with our bison herds and many well-run cattle ranches is mixing it up. Creating edge effect. Patchiness is important to other species. Being in a riparian system and having some minimal animal impact but not overdoing it. And having infrequently or changing time of use and severity of use is a big deal. And that's really what we're focusing on now. We've got - have been doing training with our managers now for almost two years on regenerative principles of grazing where we try to get animal density's up. And moderate impact a year from severe or light. But getting more plant material to the soil. And again, the focus for us is starting to be more and more on managing the soils and using animals to do that. And it's a fairly new addition to us. But that's something that we're working on pretty hard.

>> Uh-huh. What are some examples of maybe success stories within imperiled species that you've seen over the last 20 years?

>> Well, we've had, we've had what I would consider some pretty significant successes and some pretty same out failures. But I would hold our - in my world you know we've had a cutthroat trout conservation initiative that's unparalleled certainly from a private perspective. We're in the final stages of finish about 400 kilometers or 250 miles of native cutthroat restoration across four different of our properties.

>> Trout restoration. Not riparian restoration?

>> Trout. Trout rest - yeah, trout. Actually.

>> Well, they go together. but.

>> Yeah, exactly. Yeah. But yeah that actually focus on.

>> Yeah.

>> Driving the water. We've had long-term programs with grey wolves. Long-term programs with the prairie dog. Black sable ferret communities. Lots of different fisheries. Wetland. Wet meadow restoration in the sandhills. I'm missing a whole bunch of them I should be bringing up here.

>> the initiative on Z Bar with.

>> Oh yeah.

>> Dekalb.

>> Lesser prairie chickens at the Z Bar. Grog species. Butterfly species. You know really, really running the gamut. And like - but I mentioned earlier we've been kind of - the conservation side because it was the long-hanging fruit and the way approached it out of the gate. It's kind of single-species focused you know. And now we're you know a lot of those low-hanging fruits have been picked. And we've been successful in stabilizing or restoring populations. And now we're you know taking a step back and saying okay probably looking at this more from a community level and how we use you know the ranch management aspects to promote the you know the conservation of the native species.

>> Yeah. I think you used the term a little bit ago, shorebirds or grassland birds. It seems obvious. But I've seen some places in Washington State where the species that we might call shorebirds disappear because things like phragmites australis, giant reed begin to encroach on those water margins. And pretty soon you have no open water except a patch in the middle. And they begin to terrestrialize some of these you know pothole wetland systems. And it can take pretty aggressive grazing to hold some of those things back. Is that - do you - am I getting it what is necessary for some of these grassland birds? Or is that a whole different thing than migratory waterfowl that we would call shorebirds? Is it similar principles in terms of trying to keep things a little bit open? Or other habitat attributes that you're trying to target using grazing?

>> Yeah. Well, of course, it's species-dependent.

>> Right.

>> It's hard to talk about it as community. But in the large-scale analysis of grassland bird community decline, it's actually the water, waterfowl which is slightly different than the shorebird in water bird community but.

>> Yeah.

>>That has been the one success story. Because there've been huge investments in wetland mitigation and wetland restoration over the years in the prairie pothole and other areas. Which in my mind gives hope that if there's focus given to some of these other bird groups that are declining in the grasslands that if you know if you put the attention and the focus and the right effort on it you can reverse that decline. But sure, I mean you look at, you look at long bill [inaudible] for example which are in that kind of that.

>> Uh-huh.

>> Bird community that you're talking about. They like really short prairie. They're going to be in the in quotes overgrazed areas of the prairie. You know in those margins and things like that. Versus.

>> They don't like the vertical structure.

>> They don't like the vertical structure. But then there's going to be other birds like bitterns and things that are you know they're going to be vertical structure focus. So, it's really about I think Mark made a good point talking about [inaudible]. It's about creating the patches and the diversity and the whole aspect of the community. And believe me, if I didn't make the point earlier you know may be under more traditional grazing practices that we're I think we're now expanding from, you have more of this middle ground, well managed. The extremes were less focused.

>> Missing.

>> On.

>> Uh-huh.

>> And that's - that's the concept you know trying to bring into a little bit more to our grazing. And it's hard. Because there's a tradeoff to all that. Yeah.

>> Yeah, I think you're right. I think both in the grazing - grazer community and in the you know wildlife community, there's a tendency to think that it's going to all or nothing. That if we apply this kind of grazing here that looks like it's pretty severe. But we don't want that everywhere. Therefore, we can't have that kind of grazing there. And trying to find management approaches or encouraging people to think about applying management that results in that kind of patchiness, seems to be one of the keys. In part, a large ranch, large ranch landscapes like [inaudible] kind of have an advantage. Because you have enough room to do something different somewhere all the time. And to me, I think what I learned is that's the key. And maybe measuring total biological carrying capacity. What's out there? What's using this landscape? And is it increasing or decreasing? And as we manipulate grazing, you know we've used the term over-grazing a lot. And obviously, it's different than overutilization. And the two terms are different. Oftentimes we overutilize an area to treat it for something.

>> Uh-huh.

>> We tend to not over-grace a lot. Although in the case of the Sandhills and crating blowouts I guess we are. Because overgrazing changes species composition. Usually takes it to about - a very early sterile state which might be bare sand.

>> Uh-huh.

>> And so those are the exception rather than the rule. And so, we want to mix things up. And we want - I think going ahead we're going to have a focus not just on monitoring our rangeland but monitoring the biology that's on our ranches. And that might include soil biology as we again talk about the regenerative principles that we want to put in. Are we building carbon stalks in our soil? Is because soil life leads to biological life on top of the soil. And maybe something we haven't been focused on as much but we're certainly going to be going ahead.

>> Yeah. That. I think that is pretty important and makes me think of another question that I've neglected to write down but wanted to ask you. I feel like a lot of ranches now are looking for some creative ways to generate revenue from a ranch aside from selling calves. And if a place is managing for this kind of diversity of habitat, and can show that it exists, what - do you have any idea of what opportunities there are out there for you know capitalizing on that in various ways? I suppose conservation easements are one. But that's a little bit more - that's a different thing than say you know carbon contracts or agritourism.

>> You know I think obviously carbon is in the news a lot. And you know what's happening with our you know global environment, global warming. No matter where you're at in that. And how carbon sequestration whether it's in a forest or in rangelands plays into that. I think its rangeland carbon I think is in it's infancy. I think the science of actually measuring what's there and knowing whether you're growing or depleting the soil carbon is I think it's just coming online.

>> Uh-huh.

>> And so that could reliable and countered on because you can't monetize something you can't measure. And as they have with forest carbon it is am, I doing better than industry average? Do I - I don't get paid for just what I would normally be doing. I'm getting - going to be get paid potentially for increasing above the industry average in soil carbon from the normal. I think that's where this is going to go. That's where the temper carbon industry has been. So, I think it's new. You know potentially a way to monetize good management. Other projects might be ecosystem services for water holding. Cleaning of water. Certainly, Carter was able to negotiate with us you know a monetized lesser prairie [inaudible] on one of the ranches. So, that essentially, we were paid to create.

>> Uh-huh.

>> Good habitat for lesser prairie chicken, a species that's not been doing well. And I think those opportunities coming up should be - will be coming online may be developing. Nature tourism or ecotourism we have gotten into that market with our guest service operations. Particularly in New Mexico. And it - and the issue is people that have both an interest and a conservation ethic wanting to go and recreate in areas that are focused on that. And learn more about it. And again, it's starts becoming an education component. Taking people, having them have a great time recreationally and yet teaching them something about conservation or bison production or wildlife management. Incorporating that into their experience. So, we actually are engaged with that. And our operations are called Ted Turner Reserves. And we focus on ecotourism guests. Even though in our operations we obviously sell both hunting and commercial hunting and fishing as well as a way to economically support our operations. 50:09

>> Uh-huh.

>> Yeah, and there seems to be - there seems to be a growing momentum or market for you know even economically for the product you're producing and the way it's raised or produced. And you know I think those markets will continue to develop you know. We talked about the grass-fed market. But then there's - you know there's starting to be these premiums for you know autobahn as a program for how grass-fed animals that adds a premium if they're improving habitat for grassland birds. And I really see.

>> Hmm.

>> Our operations having an opportunity to - as those markets develop to capitalize on that. Because that's really what we've tried to do for 25 years is you know manage our ranches in a sustainable way that really was promoting those habitats. And so those markets are starting to get some traction too.

>> Uh-huh. I won't ask about conservation easements. Because it seems like that's potentially one of the mechanisms that might help provide you know say a ranch family some structured guidelines for how to you know move toward creating that kind of habitat. Most conservation easements have monitoring and management guidelines that are part of the easement. But they're pretty controversial within the world of ranching. You know for a lot of people that's just a creative way of selling out. But I think that the opinion on that has begun to change also over the last 20 years. I'm curious whether there are any conservation easements as part of the Turner Properties or if you consider you know Turner Enterprise, Turner Reserves as essentially being that?

>> We have a couple conservation easements on our properties that were put on early on. One in the southeast. One here on the Flying D ranch have a - Ted - his first large acquisition he put a conservation easement on. And then we stopped. We didn't do any more easements. I mean it was - I think there was enough not just controversy but uncertainty surrounding how they would operate going into the future. And so.

>> Uh-huh.

>> We have our efforts to move the properties into our entities that Carter described previously, in a way or putting them into a form of keeping them whole and intact.

>> Yeah.

>> In large ranch operations that are commercially viable, that's one thing they do that shouldn't be underestimated. Our big issue largely with a lot of conservation is fracturing the landscape. Is ranches continually broken up in smaller pieces and being developed with more roads, more houses, more powerlines. All those things affect a lot of conservation values. And so large ranch landscapes that can stay economically viable keep that from happening. And that is a positive thing for everyone. It's very good for the species. But it's also good for open space longevity down the road. The emphasis if you will by a lot of the conservation community on migration corridors. Keeping enough unfractured landscapes so the animals that migrate have a way to migrate. Big thing. And that's been part of the push to get easements on some properties to keep them from being fractured. It is one of the tools that I think that the landowners can use to keep themselves economically viable is conservation easements. But they certainly are not without controversy in how they're structured. And who oversees or manage them can be a big component.

>> Uh-huh. I think it was the Montana Land Reliance that has or had at one time, the slogan cows not condos. And that's been a pretty effective slogan. And that I feel like the phrase has become mainstream. So that it's now a figure of speech and not just a slogan that's attached to a you know an individual land trust. And I think that idea too has kind of come of age. Particularly because it seems like for many people ranching on its own meaning just the revenue from ranching on its own isn't always sufficient to keep ranches as a ranch. And these trusts are one good way to do that. But if I understand correctly, the way these trusts work either has to be money coming into a land trust that pays the rancher to retire all or part of their development rights. I know this isn't necessarily your bailiwick, but it would take a lot of money for those to be done in lots of different places. Where does that money typically come from? And do you think that these land trusts are a viable tool for you know say the average rancher? You talked about a bit. But the issue of money seems like a significant one.

>> Certainly, it is. I think the source of funding for many of the land trusts that would put easements on properties are coming from either corporate or wealthy individuals with a conservation ethic that realize the - and understand the importance of keeping large open spaces. And perhaps fostering or helping management that will help to restore or at least maintain if not get better. Store more water. Store more carbon. Have more biological species on it. And so, most entities that are putting easements on are getting money from other places but they understand what that money is being for is to help sustain what I think is going to be incredibly important to us going ahead which is open space, large landscapes that are still functioning. And supplying habitat if you will to a whole host of species. And so, once I didn't at all. I think there are some ranching operations where an easement may be a segue into long-term economic viability if it's managed correctly. Under operations may not be able to do that. And it's a hodgepodge in my opinion of how it works within the industry.

>> Uh-huh. A part [inaudible] use it there -- if a ranch is managing for a wide variety of ecosystem goods and services, it opens up a number of opportunities for them even just economically. You know internal to an operation. But also, some of these other things that are happening externally. So, I wanted to come back to this Institute for Eco-Agriculture. Because I think what I'm hearing is that you're - you have the idea of using that as a way of exporting these ideas and these skill sets to other people. Is that the case? And if so, how would you define eco-agriculture?

>> It certainly is the case. I think I'll let Carter speak to it. He's been more in the middle of it. Because it - he and his side of the operations going to move us that way.

>> Yeah.

>> Well, I think it - I think it's important to note that that accomplishes several goals for us as an organization. You know there's some strategic planning goals that that's important for. There's operational goals that that's important for. And then kind of a new you know exporting or increasing in that exporting are use of science to help the industry you know is another goal of that organization. But it's really this idea eco-agriculture is you know a fairly new term. I don't know that it's brand new in philosophy. But it brings together several of these ideas of you know ranching in a way that is supportive, or you know is enhancing the ecosystem around you. And mindful of the ecosystem services. And the species. And the biological diversity. Rather than the you know the just the focus on maximum production and.

>> Right.

>> Or the other side of it just preservation, land preservation. But rather kind of marrying those two ideas that we can you know. Especially with - now I'm going to get out of my world here. But the precision agriculture. You know some of the you know that's a, that's a huge industry in and of itself. But some of the things I've seen from that in terms of you know being able to use that technology to understand where you have unproductive areas of your fields. Which you know you could put back into a wetland. Because you're not - you're losing money farming it anyway.

>> Uh-huh.

>> Because you now know how much fertilizer you have to put in exactly. And what your you know your.

>> Right.

>> Bushels of return are. And really, so in my mind, it's kind of using those concepts like we can you know we can, we can, we can identify the areas or the ideas or the objectives from a production side. But then marrying them with these, with these ecosystem goals as well. And we're really excited to look at - trying to understand that interface better. And in some cases, can we have our cake and eat it too, for example in terms.

>> Uh-huh.

>> Of production goals but also our ecological goals. So, but it also, it also is a way of memorializing Mr. Turner's wishes about what he wants the future of his places to look at it. It protects them. It provides sidebars on what can be done on the ranches. And then it you know it provides some certainty to the ranching operations. It preserves the large landscapes that we're interested in preserving. That was his goal and direction for what he wanted the places.

>> Uh-huh.

>> In the future. But it's a new concept. It's an agriculture research organization is a public charitable structure that's recognized - was recognized by Congress fairly recently. As far as we know there're only two other organizations that have filed for and been approved to be an agriculture research organization. We'll be the third. And we're just kind of really excited to see you know what we can make that be for us.

>> Uh-huh. Yeah, that term institute usually means research. But often can mean something more than that in terms of outreach. What is the - if it's more than research, what is the target audience of the institute if you're trying to do outreach with it? Mostly landowners?

>> Well, I would - a wide swath. I would say you know students, landowners, natural resource professionals. I think.

>> Yeah.

>> I think we really want to have an operation that has something for all of those. And one of the requirements of - one of the legal requirements of an [inaudible] or the institute is that you are conducting research in collaboration or in partnership with a land grant university. So, education is a huge part of this. That you know they'll be students involved. There'd be academic professionals involved working with our staff.

>> Uh-huh.

>> And that in and of itself is a great outreach you know because those products will be going through the university system. And you know seminars. And extension.

>> Yeah.

>> Service. And all that. And we see that as a great way to get some of these ideas out too.

>> Yeah. Last question. If you ran into the guy in the coffee shop who doesn't think very highly of Turner Enterprises. The guy with 500 cows who's struggling to pay back his operating loan. Looks like another little drought's coming. And you can tell he's feeling pretty antagonistic. But he doesn't say so. Or maybe after a couple of beers, he does say so. You know what do you - how would you engage him? Can you - for example, you know do you think there're some ways that people can diversify? Do they buy bison? Do they you know work toward being more economically sustainable as a way of improving profits? Any thoughts on you know how you would respond to that guy who says, yeah, it's all fine and dandy for you guys. But it's tougher here in the real world.

>> You know the probably the bane of traditional agriculture - and that's my roots. I was raised on a cattle ranch and grew up in it. It is that tradition, the lifestyle, and the culture. Change is very hard. And for those that are very embedded in the traditional culture of animal agriculture in the west, it can be a difficult conversation. They just, they just can't get past the hurdle of it has to be cows and we've always done it this way. And so, but if there's a way into it is just talking to them potentially about you know what could be different in their operation. And how it may, it may allow them, if they're economically more viable to include more [inaudible] going ahead. Actually, most ranchers have somewhat of a conservation ethic. I mean they.

>> Uh-huh.

>> Really - they don't want the habitat to get worse. Many of them - most of them they really do but they may not know how to get it - you know what they need to do or what they would change to enhance or get better. So, just talking to them about some stories of what we've done and how things have gotten better. And how the economics has helped support that from our operations. And how we operate would, would be the best chance of maybe piquing some interest and maybe finding someone that's an early adopter that's looking for a different way. And so, just I hope that that would carry the day. And you could have a reasonable conversation. And just share with them from our experience. Another thing I would add, and I point I made in the talk is that you know sometimes it takes getting out of your comfort zone or out of your box in terms of who you willing to partner with.

>> Uh-huh.

>> Who you're willing to get ideas from. And you know an easy one to pick on is state and federal resource agencies. You know a lot of people are skeptical or fearful, or you know have some trepidation about engaging with them just because of you know maybe some true horror stories that they've heard. Or a lot of things - you know falsehoods there. But we love.

>> Yeah.

>> Our state and federal partners. And they have, they have helped us achieve many of our goals. Helped us learn. Helped - one time I told one of our partners, I said, we probably would have done this anyway. But partnering with you allowed it to do - allowed us to do it quicker, faster, better. And so, that's just one example. But there're lots of private organizations. We talked about land trusts and things like that. But there're resources out there that might allow folks to get into other markets or different information then they.

>> Uh-huh.

>> Currently have.

>> And I suspect for most of those groups it's pretty rare that they get approached by a rancher saying, how can you help me do this? And if I was in their shoes I'd be thrilled to be asked. And would be.

>> Exactly.

>> Happy to help.

>> Yeah. Exactly.

>> That's the good word for the day.

>> Yeah.

>> Mark, and Carter, thank you for your time.

>> Yep. Yep. Thank you. We appreciate the opportunity to share. Thank you for listening to the Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email to show@artof Ro articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast please see the show notes at Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission empowering rangeland managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by Connors Communications in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washing State University. The project is supported by The University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own. And does not imply Washington State University's endorsement.

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