FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Ranches are critical to the Rocky Mountain region, serving as the West’s water towers, food providers, land stewards and hubs of local economies and communities. With ranch managers now in high demand but in short supply, Colorado State University’s new Western Ranch Management and Ecosystem Stewardship program is designed to help fill the gap and preserve this critical role.
The new graduate-level program in the Warner College of Natural Resources builds on the expertise of college researchers, faculty and staff. Warner College professors have worked on sustainability and improving rangelands and the environment with ranchers, farmers and herders around the world, from Colorado to Mongolia.
“CSU and our college provide the perfect starting points for this new program,” said Dean John Hayes. “We have an incredibly strong group of researchers in several departments, including ecosystem science and sustainability, forest and rangeland stewardship and in the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory in the Warner College. It’s an honor to have been approached by members of the ranching community to launch this program and to partner with them.”
A business, natural resource and place of retreat and respite
Ranch owners view the forests and rangelands on their properties through multiple lenses: as a business growing traditional and non-traditional livestock, as a place offering hunting and fishing opportunities, as a natural resource with forest management and preservation needs, and as a place of retreat for themselves and guests. Managing all these values requires a unique combination of knowledge, skills and experiences.
The new program features academic and research components across the university, according to CSU Research Scientist Paul Evangelista.
A new Western Ranch Management and Ecosystem Stewardship specialization for the master’s degree in natural resource stewardship is housed in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship. A second facet fosters research on these working landscapes with the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory (NREL) at CSU. The third leg is a partnership with CSU Extension and ranching-affiliated organizations to develop an apprenticeship program that builds knowledge and skills for a working ranch manager.
CSU Research Ecologist Paul Evangelista assisted with creating the new program. He said ranchers recognize that today’s values, needs and technologies are different in many ways from those of their grandparents.
“Every rancher knows they have to diversify their operations to live with the land,” said Evangelista, also an assistant professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability. “This program is founded on establishing a basic ecological understanding of the land itself before deciding how to manage for it.”
The additional knowledge and pool of managers this program will produce can ensure that ranching practices continue working in tandem with ongoing changes in the land and in society.
A collaborative approach
The Western Ranch Management and Ecosystem Stewardship program is unique in that it is largely informed by the Rocky Mountain ranching community. Tim Haarmann, a manager at the Banded Peak Ranch near Chromo, Colorado, saw the need for a specially trained Western ranch manager because of the region’s diverse climate, ecology and natural resources.
“Colorado and the surrounding states are unique because of the Rockies,” Haarmann said. “We have a lot of ranches with varied elevations and topographies. These high elevation areas provide a unique set of challenges and opportunities for ranching.”
Haarmann earned a doctoral degree in ecosystems ecology from the University of New Mexico, worked for the federal government as a land manager, operated a personal cattle business and has been a ranch manager for the last 15 years. It’s unlikely that anyone more qualified could have approached Evangelista and CSU Professor Emeritus Bill Romme about organizing a formal program to develop ranch managers with a breadth of knowledge and experience.
This connection between ranchers and scientists became the first step in figuring out how to develop a community-led program that benefitted the landscapes and livelihoods of the ranching community while also fulfilling the university’s land-grant mission.
“CSU is doing an excellent job in providing a hands-on approach to experiential education,” Haarmann said. “Ranchers don’t usually have the resources or ability to conduct the needed training or research and the university can offer this.”
The ranching community and CSU have already formed a unique partnership: All members of the program’s steering committee work in or with the ranching community and will provide expertise, offer their land as classrooms, and even help fund the program through private donations, while the university provides the education and training for students.
“That says a lot about how invested the ranching community is with this program in belief and need,” Evangelista said.
A natural resource-ranching experience
Offering the program at the master’s degree level allows students to apply the backgrounds they’ve gained from past ecology, agriculture and natural resource courses and experiences directly on these ranches.
“Ranch management is multifaceted and complex,” said Tony Vorster, a postdoctoral fellow in NREL who helped to develop the program. “It forces you to bring all these different disciplines together. Ranch management and ecosystem stewardship can be intimidating topics, but all backgrounds add knowledge to these conversations and skills to related solutions.”
Vorster and Evangelista have firsthand experience applying their own scientific expertise while developing ranching skills during the program’s development. This varied from conducting a thorough landscape assessment to learning how to repair broken fences and equipment.
This exchange of knowledge is at the core of how the Western Ranch Management and Ecosystem Stewardship program will develop the modern Western ranch manager. Ranchers, natural resource professionals and academics will all learn something new. Evangelista said these private lands offer new and exciting conservation and management opportunities for land stewardship.
“The ranch owners we are working with are always finding new ways of doing things,” Evangelista said. “It’s a great way for science and management to come together.”
Learn more at the Western Ranch Management and Ecosystem Stewardship Program website.
— Karina Puikkonen, Colorado State University
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