Ranching, and birding, amid Colorado’s suburban sprawl
Across the West, women are changing the ways land and livestock are managed. Ashley Ahearn saddled up for the Mountain West News Bureau to chronicle their big dreams – and daily challenges. This is the second story of a three-part series. Find the first here.
Adrienne Larrew grew up outside of Denver in the ‘80s and ‘90s. She remembers making visits as a kid to her grandparents in a more rural part of the front range.
“It felt like you had to travel, like to the moon, to get there … “ she says. “And now, it's all blurry. It's just that development has filled in that entire gap along I-25.”
Now, Larrew ranches on one of the last large chunks of open agricultural land outside of Colorado Springs. Ranchettes and mansions surround her.
This sort of suburban sprawl is getting to be more common in the West. Idaho was recently ranked as the fastest-growing state in the nation. Utah, Montana, Arizona and Nevada also cracked the top 10 list.
But instead of resenting her neighbors, Larrew wants to connect with them. She’d like them to appreciate agricultural land as a place “where the wild flowers are blooming, or that's the open space or that's the most beautiful part of my drive to work is that it's not a bunch of houses.”
For Larrew it’s not a simple choice between new homes or livestock – she says we need a patchwork. A local food system where people are closer to their meat.
And not just any meat. It has to be meat raised in harmony with the surrounding environment.
Larrew raises pigs and cows on this 1,500 acre ranch, and sells her meat through her company, Corner Post Meats. They have plenty of space to roam, and she moves them regularly, so they don’t put too much stress on any one part of the landscape.
On a tour of the ranch, she points out one of her favorite sows amid a grunting, squealing pile.
“That's Ewok,” she says, pointing out a pig named for a Star Wars character. “Right there [the] hairy one. Yes, the bigger kind of cranky one, she's one of the lead sows.”
Ewok’s life is a stark contrast to the industrial pork farming model, where hundreds and hundreds of animals are crowded together, with limited amounts of sunlight or fresh air, creating lagoons of waste.
Here, all around Larrew, are expensive homes tucked into the trees – and her pigs are thriving.
But the pigs aren’t the only ones benefiting from this open space.
This ranch is actually owned by the Audubon Society. Not too long ago, the organization started exploring how birders and ranchers could work together to keep land from being developed.
“Quite frankly, it comes down to habitat,” says Alison Holloran, executive director of the Rocky Mountain branch. “If we don't have the habitat for birds, we're not going to have our birds.”
Holloran started the Conservation Ranching Program and this ranch – with Larrew running it – was the first to get certified. Now there are many more.
“We have over 100 ranchers in the program right now, across 13 states, and just about two million acres enrolled,” Holloran says. “That's a lot of land. That's a lot of bird habitat.”
Ranchers who join the program must agree to certain management practices. For example: Larrew can’t send her animals to feedlots, or use pesticides or herbicides. She can’t cut hay when birds are nesting. And there are annual bird counts to monitor progress.
In exchange, Larrew gets a branding benefit. She can put the Audubon bird-friendly seal of approval on her meat. It’s sort of like the dolphin-safe seal on canned tuna.
Cruising around the ranch with Larrew in a four-wheeler, Holloran says bird populations have increased here since Audubon started the program. Goshawks came back – they’re a rare kind of hawk that swoops through forests to hunt. They hadn’t been seen on the property in years.
There are plenty of other animals too – like the elk they spotted in a shady stretch of forest.
“It's amazing too, as we've seen the development happen around here, just the wildlife being pushed onto this place because they, you know, they have to have someplace,” Holloran says.
Larrew cuts the engine and watches as six or seven female elk run through the trees ahead. They’ve come here – to this last patch of open space amid all the sprawling subdivisions – to give birth.
These elk and all the birds and other creatures share this space with Larrew’s pigs and cows.
It may be just a sliver of their original habitat, but it’s still a better option than sharing it with any more humans.
Part 3 of our series takes a look at a new generation of women ranchers. For more, check out the new podcast from the Mountain West News Bureau. It's called Women’s Work, and you can find it wherever you get your podcasts.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.