We wanted to share a few photos from the wonderful opening reception and gallery talk we attended for the Rediscovering the Prairie Exhibition last October, held in Colorado College’s Coburn Gallery. We had a great time and really enjoyed the live music provided by the students. We couldn’t have been happier with the way the multimedia exhibition came together in the space, or with the turnout for the reception. Engaging people through these exhibitions has been a wonderful way to start conversations and open people’s eyes to the wider issues in grassland conservation and rangeland management. We hope you enjoy show, and as always, thank you CC!
All You See Is Grass
The discovery, of course,
the milkweed, the current, the glint
of red in grass
when light lengthens
and then, with a shudder,
Here, the birdsong, There the bones—
The plow with all the rest of the rust.
Old hands finger threads
in the grass:
This dugout, That homestead,
But all you see
blanketed in snow.
Unbidden, I wake to see
small clouds of breath
erupt from the nose
of a deer— I assume
are coated in ice.
We take these victories
move our feet
through the snow,
marvel at the bulkiness
of our tracks
compared to the sharp perfect
punctures of the deer’s
in the new snow—
Pour the coffee,
Be sure to check out Rediscover the Prairie’s latest in
“Equally thrilled and terrified, we began to organize 300 pounds of gear into the four pack boxes we would live out of for the next 82 days. Armed with a tent, iodine, maps, fencing pliers, an inordinate amount of mac and cheese, and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, we set out across the Northern Great Plains.”
Continue reading here.
“So have you had success with your guard dogs?” I asked Leo Barthelmess. Robin and I stood in the fading light of a too-long, too-hot day, happy to see the evening come, next to the old one-room schoolhouse where we would be spending the night. Our horses grazed amid the playground equipment, eagerly seeking out the overgrown clumps of alfalfa scattered throughout the former lawn. Too curious to hold back my questions until the morning, I was pestering him about the dynamics of his 18 to 20 Livestock Guardian Dogs that watch over the sheep on his place. They work in teams of up to 8 dogs, each team protecting hundreds of sheep out on open range. “Well, without the dogs we couldn’t run sheep, and with them we can, so I’d say they’ve worked pretty well for us,” he told me. We looked out over the vast grasslands where Leo, his wife, and brother have run sheep and cattle for decades. Essentially, he explained, keeping the dogs has successfully reduced predation, at least to the point where it is possible to run sheep again. There is still some loss every year, particularly around lambing, and some years depredation is still significant, but now it is manageable. Before they brought in guard dogs, losses from predation made running sheep economically impossible.
Sheep once grazed most of the country we rode through. Now nearly every ranch only runs cattle. Everyone we talked to suggested the same reason for this shift – just too many predators to run sheep now, they said. While eagles and mountain lions take their share, the biggest problem is usually attributed to coyotes. The coyote numbers in much of the Northern Great Plains have climbed steadily over everyone’s living memory. We heard their calls often, though we only saw two coyotes over the three months we were on the road.
There are a few reasons why cattle ranchers might want to run sheep. By running both cattle and sheep, ranchers can diversify their business and reduce their exposure to fluctuations in the beef, lamb, and wool markets. They can also more efficiently utilize the forage on their land because sheep tend to prefer leafy shrubs and forbs and cattle tend to prefer grasses. Sheep can also be a huge help when dealing with certain invasive noxious weeds. For a month Robin and I rode our horses along the Powder River, where the bottomlands are heavily infested with leafy spurge, a plant poisonous to cattle and horses but tolerated by sheep. Some ranchers are finding sheep to be helpful in utilizing the otherwise ruined pastures, and that by grazing the aggressive weed, the sheep help give native plants a chance to compete. Running sheep can help ranchers stay in business, which is good for grasslands threatened by development and plow-up. Ranchers cannot run sheep profitably, however, if predation losses are too high.
There was a time when predator numbers throughout the Northern Great Plains were extremely low. Between the huge numbers of homesteaders that once filled the prairie like exurban-ranchettes, a thriving fur trade, government sponsored bounties and predator control officers lacing animal carcasses with poisons, even coyote numbers were decimated. The sheep industry flourished at one time with Irish and Basque shepherds building huge flocks on the open range. Where grizzlies and wolves had been killed off, shepherds and homesteaders waged war on the coyotes and “chicken hawks” that took their lambs. The ranchers’ only defenses against the predators were poison, traps, and guns that they used liberally to defend their sheep. Since the rural population has readjusted to the realities of the climate, certain poisons were banned, and the Endangered Species Act was created, many predators have rebounded dramatically.
The return of some predators to the prairie is cause for celebration. All eagles, hawks and falcons are now protected under federal law, and many cherish their flight above the prairie. The grasslands soundscape would be deeply impoverished without the wild yipping and bizarre cackling of coyotes. Ecologically, by keeping the rodent and rabbit populations in check, a moderate predator population helps stabilize population explosions of those tiny but voracious grazers. On the other hand, an overpopulation of predators, just like an overpopulation of herbivores or an overpopulation of noxious weeds, can be unhealthy for the ecosystem. If there were a way to make ranching profitable and ecosystems balanced without once again totally annihilating these predators, it would be a huge win for grasslands, keeping the land undeveloped, unplowed, and ecologically healthy.
There was one tool that the immigrant shepherds left behind in the old world: Their guard dogs. From the late 1800s to the late 1900’s, Livestock Guardian Dogs were not a part of the American rancher’s predator control repertoire. Slowly, over the last several decades, more and more people have been importing the dogs, breeding them locally, and experimenting with the their use. They are gaining popularity, and that’s good for both the sheep and the predators, and by extension the ranchers and the environment.
Riding past flocks of sheep huddled under the shade of a few trees or an old piece of farm equipment, there was often a guard dog tucked in amongst them, panting with the lambs in the heat of the day. It was hard to tell them apart from a distance, fighting for the shade, but if we rode close enough the dog would walk out in front, sizing us up and staring us down, barking a great deep bark if we drew any closer.
Livestock Guardian Dogs have been bred over generations to instinctively protect the livestock they bond with from wild predators, stray dogs, and thieves. Unlike herding dogs, they are not trained to help move the livestock. They are imprinted on the livestock from a young age, and live with the livestock at all times, working independently from human commands and directions. They are trained to be respectful and submissive to their handlers, but not to perform tasks the way a herding dog is. There are many breeds of livestock guardian dogs, from the huge white Great Pyrenees, Akbash, and Komondor, to the Anatolian Shepherd Dogs, the Spanish Mastiff, Kangal Dog, Maremma Sheepdog and Sarplaninac. The breeds have different traits, but largely work in the same manner. They live independently from humans with the livestock, eat at feeding stations near the flock, and patrol the area for predators. Some breeds and individuals tend to stay close to the livestock, barking as a warning to any predators and only engaging a predator if it actively attacks one of its flock. Others have been bred to more actively chase away or kill predators that come too close to their flock.
While their ancestors were bred to protect flocks from marauding thieves and unscrupulous neighbors, they generally pose no threat to passersby, and so I wasn’t too worried for our safety when we passed guard dogs. If we left their sheep alone, I was confident the guard dogs would leave us alone, only barking to warn us of their presence. On the other hand, I was a little nervous about our dog Winnie.
People we met on the trail warned us to keep our dog close by because their guard dogs might kill her if she was alone. “It’s happened before” they told us regretfully. Livestock Guardian Dogs instinctively protect their flocks from stray dogs. That is usually a good thing. Behind wild predators, stray dogs are the second leading cause of livestock loss in the United States. As it was, we kept a close watch on Winnie, our black German Shepard cross that looks a little more wolfish than might be good for her, and learned to heighten our vigilance whenever we saw a flock of sheep down the road. Luckily, the only guard dogs we came across unaccompanied by their owners were young and too submissive and playful to pose a real threat to Winnie. It turned out that the biggest injury we sustained from a guard dog was the theft of a freshly baked slice of banana bread stolen from our camp by a friendly dog named Liam. Seeing as we were sleeping in his tractor shed and charging our camera batteries in his sheep’s manger, we really couldn’t blame him.
As consumers, one of the steps we can take to help with the stewardship of our country’s prairies is to buy products that help support the healthy management of grasslands. We can buy grass-raised meat from animals finished on pasture and range, cutting out dependence on feedlots and monocultures of corn that replace diverse native prairie. Buying Organic and All Natural certified products can also reduce certain negative impacts of conventional agricultural systems on native prairie ecosystems. Another option is just beginning to make its way onto grocery store shelves in the form of products labeled “Predator Friendly” or “Certified Wildlife Friendly.” These new certifications encourage and acknowledge ranchers for their use of non-lethal predator control methods, which often include the use of livestock guardian dogs. Dogs are usually used in conjunction with other practices, such as corralling livestock at night, use of electric fences, moving livestock away from high-conflict areas at certain times of year (such as a pasture near a wolf den), or having herders with the livestock. Of course, many ranchers will choose to use wildlife friendly practice such as guard dogs and not seek certification, but seeking out certification may be of interest to others.
Take a look at Louise Liebenberg’s blog, which helps illuminate some of the challenges and rewards of working with Livestock Guradian dogs and operating as a certified Predator Friendly ranch.
While certification does not currently command high premiums, if demand for “wildlife friendly” products grows with consumer awareness of the label, the opportunity for producers to capitalize on the certification could be significant. More producers might also be willing to join the label if there was more flexibility allowing for responsible predator population reduction when deemed appropriate, as part of an integrated predator management program. As producers, even if certification does not make sense for your operation, integrating livestock guardian dogs into your management strategy might.
A few days after we turned the horses out in the pasture for a long winter’s rest, I drove to Colorado Springs to visit my family. To go entirely across a state and into another in a matter of 8 hours is a peculiar thing once you’ve taken about 3 months, or 2,016 hours, to do just that. Already it felt absolutely odd to be behind the wheel instead of in a saddle, to careen through a landscape in an enclosed vessel, cut off from the birdsong and wind. It struck me how easy it is to zone out while in a car and to count down the miles until you can get out of the car. You don’t hear one songbird. You don’t meet one rancher. You hardly notice where the sun is in relation to the horizon. Needless to say, by the time I hit Denver, I was in a strange mood.
As I made my way into the outskirts of Denver, through the suburbs and strip malls, that is to say, decidedly out of the native prairie that blankets so much of the country we had just become so intimately connected with, I had to pull over. Though it is, of course, easy to zone out in the car, to not notice anything that surrounds you except for traffic signs, I couldn’t help but notice the red glint of little bluestem in small tufts in the right of way alongside C-470.
Lest we forget, the land along Colorado’s Front Range is part of the prairie. The soil, much of it now covered by cement, was once likely covered in little bluestem, prairie june grass, and hundreds of other species of native plants. You would hardly make the connection, except for the small reminders, the remnants of prairie, that litter the landscape; the scattered stands of little bluestem in the right of way, for example. I don’t really need to paint the picture of my drive for you; you’re familiar with the urban sprawl, the strip malls, the factories, the condominiums, the apartment buildings, the sidewalks and parking lots that dominate the landscape alongside any given highway near an urban center. Depending on where you are, you’ll often see fields of wheat or corn or soy or sugar beets or alfalfa… And then sometimes you’ll see open lots. Most of them have big signs with red letters that spell out “LAND FOR SALE.” What a lot of people might miss, while driving by at 80, are the small stands of little bluestem right under these signs.
After spending what felt like an eternity, but what was really 3 months, marveling every day at the exact way little bluestem lights up when the evening light lengthens across it, I couldn’t help but notice every single stand of little bluestem in the right-of-ways and in the vacant but soon to be developed lots alongside the highway. What seemed like every day on the trail I would be filled up, awestruck, mesmerized by the delicacy of little bluestem seed heads in the wind during the half hour before the sun leaned into the horizon. During that half hour Sebastian would often get annoyed at me because I would jump off my horse and put myself belly down on the earth to try and capture the precise glean and glint of the grasses with my camera. I loved watching the horses bury their noses in big patches of it. I never was able to catch just how magical little bluestem can be, but here are a few tries:
Speeding away from a part of the country blanketed by native grasses, and into country blanketed by cement, and at such a furious speed, I headed into a breakdown alongside the highway. I pulled over and began to cry. When Sebastian asked me what was wrong, I answered him by asking “Where are all of the birds supposed to nest?”
Now, let’s be clear, I am an absolute emotional basket case and have been since I was four, people make fun of me for it all the time, but thinking of any number of the grassland birds that we saw during our trip try to make a nest in the grasses in the four feet on either side of c-470 is the most depressing thing in the world.
The thing is, when you are riding through the parts of the prairie that are still intact, you get the feeling that it is limitless. We were moving slowly enough across the landscape that it felt like it was never ending. The landscape is so immense, so very vast, filled with such grandeur, that you believe and hope it is indestructible, that it must stretch everywhere; It doesn’t. It is on the lip of disappearance, unsung and unnoticed except by few as more wheat goes in and more buildings go up. When you are riding through healthy prairie, when you are in the midst of the riot of its sounds and colors, it is difficult to imagine the edge of it; half a day’s drive will bring you to it. We talked with so many remarkable stewards of the prairie, had such heartfelt conversations about why it is important to them, that it seemed impossible that there are parts of the country where the prairie is not appreciated; but, of course, there are.
Part of our project objective revolves around the celebration of the prairie— to challenge the common narrative that surrounds the plains dominated by adjectives such as “boring,” or “flat,” a narrative that suggests the prairie contains very little of note. Not one mile of the landscape we traversed was boring, and very little of it was flat; I hope we succeeded in conveying this.
In addition to celebrating the landscape and the people that care for it, we hope to draw attention to the very real fact that little intact prairie remains. The huge swaths of native prairie we rode through, though they seemed absolutely boundless at the time, are the small remainders of an ecosystem that has all but disappeared. The meadowlarks, the ferruginous hawks, the kangaroo mice, the Sprague’s Pipits, the little bluestem, all of these trademark prairie species have greatly diminished. Their habitat has shrunk to stamp size islands increasingly isolated from the next checkerboard piece of viable habitat. I wrote a little bit about what this means for grassland birds in a previous post here.
The loss of native prairie has secured grasslands the title of one of the most imperiled ecosystems in the world. The mixed grass biome that we rode through has shrunk to 29% of its historical distribution. Estimates for remaining tallgrass prairie dip to fractions of 1%. The populations of 80% of grassland bird species are in decline. 74% of the species reliant on grassland habitats in the Northern Great Plains are listed as imperiled by federal, state, and provincial governments. The fact is, the country we rode across, much of it native prairie, is some of the last remaining intact prairie left on the planet. What seemed like huge tracts of prairie while we were riding across them are really islands. They are shadows of what they once were. The tracts of prairie that took us weeks to ride through take a couple of hours to drive across. My point here is that they are treasures. They demand celebration.
Mixed into the soil of the Great Plains landscape are beauty, peril, promise, fear, rapture, and something all its own that transcends all of this. The long-term health and resilience of the prairie is not at all a given. The future presence of many of the species that now exist in its remnants is even less certain, even improbable. The populations in many of the rural towns we rode through have considerably shrunk since the 20’s. In the threads of stories woven into these grasses are countless individuals who cherish the prairie. Many of them do their part to protect it, each with a unique approach. Each approach has its limitations, no one attempt will likely result in a final solution, but the remarkable truth is that each of these efforts will have a resounding impact on the story that unfolds. It was such a joy to learn about each of the efforts made every day in the lives of so many of those that live off the land we rode through; I feel lucky to be able to share some of the stories of the people, the pipits, and the grasses we had the distinct pleasure of getting to know.
Oct 1: Day 1 of Non-Trail Life
And so our days will forever be divided. Yesterday in a cold rain we rode to the foot of the Big Horn Mountains, which had been rising higher on the horizon for a week. We brought this stretch of the trip to a close as we pulled off the pack saddles and unloaded everything into a barn. As I write this, I’m sure the horses are munching frantically to get their fill, thinking that we will call them in tomorrow morning for another day’s ride. Luckily for them, they’ve got a little while to get to know their pasture. There’s a great little stream that runs right through it, a shed for cover when it snows (which it happens to be doing right now), plenty of deer to spook them into a trot, and lots and lots of grass. Pearl even has the most perfect sandhole to roll in.
Having a moment to begin to reflect upon the last 3 months, I am absolutely floored by all of the kindness and generosity we encountered while on the trail. We were welcomed so seamlessly into so many homes and invited to share so many meals and to be part of so many beautiful lives, if only for a few days, and our horses were offered hay and green pastures. I know that none of us ever smelled all that good, so it truly is a remarkable thing. It does something to a person, to look towards the horizon and be able to go see about it. There is an openness about the prairie and its horizons that has been imprinted on my heart. I know that I will crave that sense of being fully alive, fully a part of my environment, drinking from the same watering holes as pronghorns and weathering the same storms, for the rest of my days. Feeling entirely at home in a creekbed or meadow or open prairie flat. With the least nuclear looking family you could imagine, Pearl, the horses, Sebastian and I found home, along with a deep sense of belonging, wherever it was we pitched camp for the night. That sense of place, discovered and rediscovered every day on the trail, is one that will continuously affect me, even now that we’ve hung up the slickers for the winter.
In fact, we haven’t hung them up just yet; this morning I pulled mine out during a hailstorm that peppered us as we moved 242 cows from one side of the ranch to the other. For a little while at least, we’ll be helping out here, and as the horses rest up, our real work will begin to share the stories we found while on the trail. We cannot begin to thank everyone who took part, in some way or another, in this trip with us. Your encouragement and support and well wishes meant and mean so much to us. We surely never would have set out without them, so thanks for getting us out the door and onto the trail. I imagine it won’t be long before we’re back on it.
* * *
Whether it was Randy Claybaugh who brought out his refurbished sheep wagon for us to stay in on a bend of the Powder river, complete with a cooler of ranch raised beef, elk steaks, beer, and sweet corn, or the families who cooked us hot meals in the mornings: eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy, or the kindness of a stranger we met who dropped off cheeseburgers, cold cokes, a dozen eggs, cookies, sausage, steaks, and m&m’s on the side of the highway, we are so grateful for every meal, bed, floor, shop, sheep wagon, sheep shed or pasture offered so thoughtfully to us. As travelers, you gain a new respect for the thoughtfulness of hosts and hostesses, the care taken to take care of their exhausted guests. I’ve never felt more cared for in my life.
When we started the trip, Robin and I had no real way of being sure how our horses would hold up on the trail. Considering the challenge, they did amazingly well. Nonetheless, they are due for a long rest. With saddles on for nearly three months, their backs were getting sore and their enthusiasm waning. Despite their cranky attitudes at being saddled recently, the amazing thing is how they took to trail life, and still enjoy our company. When we turned them out to run free yesterday, they ate the grass all around us for hours, even when we whooped and hollered to get them to run for a good photo. Now those are some tired, happy horses. Perhaps a better test was walking out to meet them today, and they all came trotting up, Pearl insisting on an ear scratch as usual. They followed us as we walked away. It’s been so wonderful to see a bond form between the horses, the mule, and the two of us that goes beyond treats and training.
After we arrived here, turned the horses out, and headed for the house, we hesitated. Shouldn’t we be setting up the sleeping bags in the pasture? We almost did. Life has become the tone of belled horses, the snap of cold air inhaled from a warm sleeping bag, and steaming cups of cowboy coffee and hot oatmeal as the sun warms the day. Life has become the nomadic rhythm of daily moves; eating, packing up camp, riding, riding, riding, setting up camp, eating, sleeping, repeat. Every day to a new spring, a new cove, a new bend in the river. Every day to new grass. No two days were the same. To those who think the Great Plains are monotonous, try horse packing through them. All you have to do is slow down a little to notice how incredibly different every single mile is, and every single hour. Every day is unique. Every minute new. Maybe it was the linearity of the trail that made time seem new and precious. Appreciate this here now, because soon you will be passed it, and the next stretch will be different.
With the coming fall feeling like winter already, the warmth of sunrise has been eluding us. The key in the last week of the ride was to stay dry as grey clouds hung low and autumn winds blew rain and sleet against our slickers, stinging hands and faces. That sort of weather made the transition back to sedentary life, and the decision to sleep indoors, a little easier. So does the snow today. A hot shower and warm bed feel awfully good at the end of a day like that.
Now, some of you may have noticed that we didn’t make it to Oklahoma, or Missouri, or Eastern Kansas, or any of the potential ending destinations that we originally set out for. For some, that may be a major disappointment. I hope not. We may be able to continue on next spring toward one of those geographic goals. For us the physical distance traveled and the end location was never the most important goal at all. Our goal (careful what you wish for!) was to slow down. To slow down enough to see and understand the landscape, to learn from and share with the people that we met, to learn the local flora and fauna even as it changes from county to county, drainage to drainage, to notice the precise way the sunlight gleans off different bends in the river, hear and see and recognize and celebrate the wildlife we passed, the changes in vernacular of the families we visited with, to notice the change in soil types, rainfall, management practices, and to relish, fully, the prairie. We originally thought that we would be able to meet a family one night and hear their story the same evening and begin riding again in the morning. Once we started we found that usually we had to stay for at least two nights and a full day in between if we really wanted to begin to get to know them and learn something about their relationship to the land. So we slowed down. We had heard it was possible to average 15 miles a day riding 5 days a week, but we didn’t realize what and who we would miss riding 15 miles a day 5 days a week. That wasn’t slow enough. So we changed schedule, making new objectives to accomplish our larger goal. We think it was a worthwhile compromise, one that made our journey that much richer, and enabled us to dive a little deeper into the country we rode through. And now, with a roof over our heads and internet at our fingertips, we’ll be able to share what we found with you.
Thank you everyone for everything.
All the best,