Protecting the Heartland Ranch Preserve through Women-Led Conservation

Temperate grasslands are among the most endangered ecosystems in the world, and once unsustainable agricultural projects plow them, these habitats are impossible to restore. Intact shortgrass prairies are a stable carbon sink, so their protection is vital for the planet’s climate health and native flora and fauna.

Through this land acquisition project, the Southern Plains Land Trust (SPLT) will expand the Heartland Ranch Nature Preserve in Bent County in southeastern Colorado from 24,774 acres to 42,661 acres. Alongside advancing shortgrass prairie preservation broadly, increasing Heartland Ranch’s extent to this landscape scale is vital for protecting and conserving local biodiversity.

SPLT manages Heartland Ranch for biodiversity by protecting and restoring native species and natural processes, working closely with scientists, conservation organizations, and government agencies. Restoration practices include removing fences, artificial structures, and trash piles, turning off and removing power lines to reduce electrocution hazards, grazing management, controlling non-native plants, reforesting prairie streams, and protecting keystone species, such as bison and prairie dogs.

Goals within the preserve include:

  • Establishing a breeding herd of at least 100 bison by 2024.
  • Reintroducing black-footed ferrets, perhaps as soon as 2022.
  • Increasing the extent of prairie dog colonies, which currently cover 1,262 acres, to 1,500 acres by 2024.
  • Creating at least one beaver population on the 57 stream miles within the project’s borders.
  • If possible, rewilding the rare lesser prairie chicken.

The social implications of the land purchase are significant. SPLT is women-led and firmly rooted in southeast Colorado. Most of the staff live near the preserves, and they routinely team up with local schools and area nonprofits to educate and spread awareness about the importance of the region.

The poverty rate in Bent County, where Heartland Ranch is located, is also three times the state’s average. Since 2015 - excluding land purchases – the program has spent over $745,000 in at least 128 local businesses in projects funded by Great Outdoors Colorado and others. Attracting visitors for volunteer projects from afar further helps diversify the local economy.

The expansion of Heartland Ranch is a vital conservation endeavor from a global and regional perspective. Globally, scientists and policymakers recognize the importance of protecting 30% of the ecosystems across the planet by 2030 for biodiversity and mitigation against climate change.

At the core of 30x30 are large wildlife refuges and corridors, such as Heartland Ranch Nature Preserve. About 50% of shortgrass prairie in the Great Plains has already been lost through habitat conversion. Protection is lagging – as little as 1% of the Great Plains lies in conserved areas. These factors inspire the SPLT to accelerate its land acquisition.

Regionally, SPLT’s work is also essential. Mapping by the Great Plains Conservation Network shows that southeastern Colorado is one of the most intact and resilient areas in the Great Plains. It is well-deserving of conservation attention, yet the region tends to be underserved by the conservation community and funders. SPLT is trying to change that by relentlessly pressing forward with expanding their preserve network and highlighting that their focus area in southeast Colorado is a biodiversity hotspot.

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