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Meredith Ellis is a second-generation rancher in Rosston, Texas, a small agricultural community in the northeast part of the state. Working ranches are an incredibly important part of the fabric of wildlife habitat connectivity woven between public and private lands in America, and responsible grazing practices benefit huntable species in many ways. Ellis is part of a new generation of ranchers who are also thinking about their contributions to climate resilience and how certain agricultural practices can boost carbon storage and soil quality while benefiting their businesses. This is powerful motivation, because—like hunters and anglers—ranchers are out on the land every day, on the front lines of climate change, seeing how it is already impacting our natural world.
Here is Meredith’s story of witnessing those effects and taking action.
As a rancher, my job requires that I am outdoors every day, and one of the most satisfying aspects of this is seeing how animals use and provide a benefit to our grazing lands. I have documented over 500 species, including 91 different species of birds. Bald eagles roost in one of our pastures in the fall and winter. We also have an elusive river otter family that refuses to be photographed.
I have documented nine different types of milkweed, alone. Milkweed is toxic to cattle, so they do not consume it, but it’s a great example of what native species are giving back to our land. Monarch butterflies rely on milkweed, as most people know. It also contains a deep fibrous taproot that enhances water infiltration and holding capacity in the soil, so that when it rains, milkweed helps to prevent erosion and allows for every drop of water to percolate deep into the ground, making it available during long periods of drought.
Society has historically undervalued grazing lands, despite the important role they play in species conservation, the hydrological cycle, water quality downstream, and carbon sequestration and storage.
The loss of our native grasslands to development reflects this misunderstanding.
Across the U.S. and Canada, around 80 percent of our grasslands have been converted to other uses and about 97 percent of tallgrass prairie, in particular, has been converted. Texas is separated into ecoregions, including the blackland prairie—what was once 12 million acres of pristine grazing land that has now dwindled into just 5,000 acres. A few miles down the road from my ranch, there is a 300-home subdivision going in. What was once a pasture for grazing cattle is now completely paved over.
Then there’s climate change. I grew up on this ranch and was part of growing it from 450 acres to 3,000 acres over the last 40 years, and I’ve noticed a great deal of ephemeral changes occurring over time. I’ve seen very early or very late blooming periods, more severe weather, and heavier sporadic rainfall followed by extensive dry spells.
I’ve seen a monarch butterfly that had clearly begun its migration way too early in the season—it was jumping from spot to spot in search of milkweed that would not grow for another month. I’ve also experienced the terror and heartbreak of the freeze of February 2021, when the temperature in Texas was colder than the north pole. One morning at first light, it was -6 degrees. I bundled up, headed to the barn, and noticed a mockingbird perched on a limb, frozen solid.
Perhaps this is why I feel that it is becoming increasingly necessary to build in climate resilience through land stewardship principles in the face of increasingly devastating weather events. Ranches must be both drought and flood resilient. It is a matter of our national food security.
Growing up on this ranch, I was a tomboy and was rarely indoors. You could usually find me somewhere on the ranch riding my horse and building forts. I attended our small local school and upon graduation, with the know-it-all attitude of an 18-year-old, I was so very ready to get out of here. I wanted to see the world, and I did. I have been to Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and beyond.
I eventually found myself at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where I received my bachelor’s in business and a master’s degree in landscape architecture with a focus on sustainability. As far away from ranching as that sounds, it was there that I realized the importance of what my dad was doing back home on our ranch. Through my studies, I learned about urban sprawl, the truncation of migratory patterns and pathways, and became keenly aware of most Americans’ disconnection with where their food comes from—and with nature as a whole.
I headed home with the conviction I needed to learn the skills necessary and continue our ranching operation as the second generation.
Around this time, I also became a mom. As all new moms realize upon holding their newborn, suddenly my life wasn’t just about me anymore—it was about my child and his future. What would this world be like when he was my age? There had been more and more studies about how detrimental the beef industry was for the environment in terms of its carbon footprint. I wouldn’t be able to say I did the best I could for my son’s future knowing I was a contributor to climate change.
So, I jumped at the chance to participate in a new effort to quantify carbon sequestration through land stewardship in agriculture—a part of the Noble Research Institute’s Land Stewardship Program which was a pilot for what is now known as the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium. I shared enormous amounts of data with the ESMC, including our fuel usage, fertilizer usage, rainfall amounts, forested land, grass type, pasture boundaries, and where and when each cow was grazing on our ranch 365 days out of the year etc.
It was an enormous amount of work, but as a result of that process, I received reassuring news: After accounting for the methane our cattle burp, our fuel usage, their grazing impact on the land, and any other element considered a carbon source, and then weighing that against the carbon being sequestered on our operation, initial data modeling indicates that every year on average, we are sequestering a net 2500 tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere. That is the equivalent of taking 551 cars off the road.
This valuable knowledge indicated to me that ranching can either be a cause for good and a climate solution or a detriment to the environment, depending on the day-to-day decisions of the rancher.
The key to our success is how we allow cattle to exist on our land. If you go back hundreds of years and think of how bison migrated across our national grazing lands, you discover a symbiosis between ruminant herds of animals and the grasslands. Grasslands thrive on appropriate disturbance of the landscape, such as trampling dead leaf matter, allowing it to make contact with the ground, turning it to compost and eventually to soil. As ruminant animals move through the landscape, they knock seeds onto the ground, push them into the soil with their hooves, and then fertilize them with their manure.
Through multiyear biodiversity studies comparing grazed versus under-grazed areas of our ranch, the grazed areas are much healthier and vibrant. There is greater biodiversity in these areas, as well.
All of this led me to the conclusion that removing cattle from the landscape was not the answer but allowing cattle to mimic their natural instinctual migratory patterns, just as the bison did hundreds of years ago, was essential. Ultimately, my job as a rancher is to allow my cattle to exist appropriately within the landscape that they co-evolved, acting as a catalyst for land health. To achieve this, I am the ultimate observer, watching my cattle’s interaction with the landscape and knowing when to “migrate” them to the next pasture. It is a knowledge that is science-based but also comes from years of living outside within this landscape with my beloved cows.
I believe the ranching community is embracing these kinds of changes. I am a board member of the Integrity Beef Alliance, which, along with partners, has been awarded $30 million through the U.S. Department of Agriculture climate-smart commodities grant. Funding goes toward not only education and outreach about land stewardship practices but also boosting transparency in the beef industry. We want to set apart climate-smart and conservation-oriented ranchers, like me, from ranchers who aren’t doing right by the environment, and give customers a choice at the supermarket. The program, called Integrity Beef Legacy, is 100-percent producer-led and -developed, and I really think it is going to revolutionize the industry, putting the power back in the hands of the land stewards.
Photos courtesy of Meredith Ellis.
When it comes to our public lands, it is possible to have it all—healthy wildlife populations, accessible trail systems, and a vibrant outdoor recreation economy. But given the many uses and increasing pressures on our public lands, that won’t happen by accident.
As our recent analysis shows, about 40 percent of the most important elk habitat in Colorado is already impacted by motorized and non-motorized trail users. A clear framework for balanced land management offers our best chance of reducing conflicts between user groups while also minimizing impacts to our shared natural resources.
That’s why we’re calling on the Colorado Bureau of Land Management to set a clear, consistent direction and ensure informed management of the most important big game habitats on public lands. Here’s what you need to know.
In Colorado, we’re fortunate to have a variety of big game animals—such as elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn—and opportunities to recreate outdoors 365 days per year in some form or fashion. Wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation often overlap on public lands, and it’s clear that interest in, and usage of, public lands for recreation is increasing. From 2012 to 2017, trail-based recreation in Colorado increased by 44 percent, and visitation to Colorado state parks and BLM lands jumped by more than 20 percent every year for the past few years.
At the same time, in some parts of the state, guides, outfitters, hunters, and local business owners reliant on hunting-related income are frustrated, because the number of limited hunting licenses available for antlerless elk in Colorado is not even half of what it was 18 years ago, representing a loss of almost 70,000 cow elk tags. This is an attempt to stabilize the state’s elk herds, as elk cow-calf ratios have been declining for the last 20 years in much of the state, meaning our herds have lower success at producing and raising elk calves than they used to.
These declines are due to several factors, but chief among them is habitat loss.
As elk and other big game habitats are increasingly squeezed by residential, commercial, and industrial development, what habitat remains is often fragmented by roads, train lines, fences, and recreational trails. Studies investigating elk herds’ struggles to produce and raise offspring are ongoing in Colorado, and recreation-driven disturbance to elk is one of the major focuses for researchers.
Given the clear potential for adverse effects on big game herds by motorized and non-motorized recreation, the risk of increased conflict between stakeholder groups over competing management priorities is concerning. That’s why it is critical that an overarching strategy guides land-use management in a way that reflects the latest data and science and balances interests in order to facilitate consistent application of best planning and management practices and avoid further conflict and controversy.
However, despite the significant proportion of Colorado BLM public lands that overlap with high-priority big game habitat, and the abundance of mapped trails on those lands, there remains no clear, consistent direction for responsible recreation management on public lands managed by the agency.
Right now, however, Colorado BLM has the opportunity to incorporate the latest science on big game behavior and habitat needs and provide consistent recreation management direction to its field offices across the state through its ongoing Big Game Resource Management Plan Amendment process.
The BLM can reduce impacts to big game animals—including elk, deer, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep—in a number of ways. This includes directing recreational development outside of important big game habitat, where possible, or limiting route densities within important habitats and employing seasonal use limitations when and where it’s needed.
Ensuring that Colorado maintains its world-class outdoor recreation opportunities and thriving wildlife populations is a top priority for state agencies and elected officials. Governor Jared Polis’s 2020 executive order creating the Colorado Outdoor Regional Partnerships Initiative set in motion a process for developing a statewide Conservation and Recreation Plan to balance the needs of wildlife and recreational public land users. It will be informed by regionally developed priorities for recreation and conservation, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife Habitat Conservation and Connectivity Plan, and, ideally, the BLM’s Big Game Resource Management Plan Amendment.
The BLM’s adoption of well-vetted management actions would help minimize big game habitat loss, compensate for some of the adverse impacts to Colorado big game herds, and facilitate responsible recreation development throughout the state. Join us in calling on the BLM to set this direction. Take action using our simple advocacy tool to push for the responsible management of recreation and big game habitats through the Big Game Resource Management Plan Amendment.
Photo: Dan Swackhammer
The Owyhee River begins in Northern Nevada and flows for more than 300 miles through some of the West’s wildest remaining country, forming an integral part of the sagebrush steppe landscape. According to the latest U.S. Census data, less than two people per square mile call this region home. For anyone who has spent a few nights in the river canyons or stared at the vast starry skies from the mountains and plateaus that define this place, its remote character is a defining feature.
What this region lacks in human population, it makes up for in wildlife. These canyons, encompassing more than 2.5 million acres of wilderness-quality lands, provide vital habitat for mule deer, elk, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, and more than 200 other species. Anglers catch native red-band trout in the beaver ponds of the West Little Owyhee, cast for 20-inch browns in the reach below the Owyhee dam, and introduce their kids to fishing on the abundant and easy-to-fool smallmouth bass found throughout the river basin. Hunters in the area enjoy some of the best opportunities in the West for mule deer, bighorns, antelope, and chukar.
Until recently, its distance from population centers has allowed the Owyhee country to maintain its backcountry character. Today, increasing pressures from renewable energy, mining, oil and gas, and off-highway vehicles grow with each passing decade. The recent surge of growth around Boise and the outdoor recreation industry within the area from rafters, hunters, anglers, hot springs enthusiasts, and other recreation-seekers also presents difficult management challenges. The impacts of these increasing uses, combined with invasive annual grasses, wildfire, and climate-change-fueled drought, all threaten the unique fish and wildlife habitat within the region. While sagebrush steppe habitat faces many of the same challenges across the West, these pressures are particularly acute in the Owyhee country.
Both the health of the landscape and the rural economies of the nearby communities need more resources to address these issues. Thankfully, Oregon’s congressional delegation is seeking pragmatic solutions after multiple requests from the ranching, conservation, and Tribal communities. In 2019, Senator Ron Wyden introduced a bill after a series of many stakeholder meetings that sought to find common ground for legislation that would promote the long-term health of the landscape, while providing for economic development and the continued traditional uses of public lands. Debate of and refinements to that first bill have continued since then, and in September 2022, Sen. Wyden introduced a revised Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act (S.4860) that is now awaiting a hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
In a nutshell, S. 4860 would:
At the outset of this decision-making process, the TRCP partnered with the Oregon Hunters Association, Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Friends of the Owyhee, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Soul River Inc., and the Oregon Wild Sheep Foundation to form, organize, and engage a coalition of hunting- and fishing-based conservation organizations called the Owyhee Sportsmen. Since August 2019, the coalition has worked closely with the Oregon congressional delegation—especially Senator Wyden’s office—to provide input and recommendations on legislation that would improve the conservation of the region’s fish and wildlife habitat.
We continue to encourage our elected officials to work together to move S. 4860 forward in Congress. Our coalition is also focused on educating the public about the need to protect Oregon’s Owyhee canyonlands from development by highlighting the abundant opportunities the region provides for hunters, anglers, and outdoor recreators of all types.
Over the past few years, I’ve had the chance to hunt and fish together with several other members of the coalition to showcase the opportunities it provides for sportsmen and sportswomen. We were accompanied by Alpenglow Press Productions, who recently completed a film for our coalition that highlights a successful mule deer hunt in the heart of the Owyhees. We’re also finalizing a short film that tells the story of a flyfishing adventure in search of some of the Owyhee’s famous 20-inch brown trout.
There are few large areas of land and water left in the U.S. where one can get truly lost, where skies at night are completely free of artificial light, and where sportsmen and sportswomen can chase such iconic game animals, upland birds, and trout. Oregon’s Owyhee country is such a place, and we are committed to keeping it that way.
In a 2022 poll of hunters and anglers conducted for the TRCP, 19 percent saw climate change as having an impact on their ability to hunt and fish right now, while a combined 51 percent believe climate change will have some impact in the future—whether in five years, 20 years, or the next generation’s lifetime.
While not surprising, it is potentially dangerous to view climate change as a distant threat to fish and wildlife instead of a very present one. Intense storms, flooding, heatwaves, drought, and wildfires are ruining hunting and fishing conditions and access. Invasive species are pushing out native fish, while big game animals are displaying different behavior and migration patterns in reaction to weird and variable weather. Anglers are kept off the water by algal blooms or high water temperatures that threaten coldwater fisheries.
To help illustrate this, we set out to find hunters and anglers willing to share their experiences with these impacts of climate change. Here’s what we heard from you:
Changing weather patterns are recognizable, particularly to folks who have hunted or fished the same areas for a long time. One hunter writes, “Waterfowl hunting is nowhere what it used to be. Not enough cold fronts to push the birds down.” Another follower called out a major challenge for anglers: “Annual fishing closures in mid-summer on cold water river fisheries.”
The proliferation of wildlife disease and parasites came up a few times. “As a hunter in the Northeast, I would have to say the yearly spread of ticks into new areas and changing weather patterns. I hunt a friend’s property that he has owned over 25 years, and due to the elevation and cold winters he never had to deal with ticks. However, in the past two years they have started turning up on harvested deer and on people who spend time in the woods.”
A friend to the north writes about the effect this has on hunting opportunities: “Here in Ontario, the boundary between whitetail and moose range runs straight through the province, but as the climate warms, deer are moving further and further north, encroaching on moose habitat and bringing along parasitic brainworm. This, combined with the increase in winter ticks, is doing a real number on our moose, and getting a tag has become extremely difficult.”
One Instagram follower notes, “Historic temperature rises in the Arctic have delayed caribou migration by several weeks.” A climate-driven shift in animal movement and migration has outsized impacts on subsistence hunters in Alaska, a topic that author Seth Kantner previously wrote about on our blog.
According to the poll mentioned above, 72 percent of hunters and anglers believe that climate change is happening, and a majority agreed that climate change will affect their ability to hunt and fish one day. Hunters and anglers also believe that we can positively impact fish and wildlife habitat through human intervention—and that’s what we’re calling on decision-makers to support.
Want a cheat sheet on what to look for when it comes to climate change impacts? Download our two-page guide on 10 ways climate change is already affecting hunting and fishing.
And if you missed our call for real-life examples, you can still send us yours right here.
Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.Learn More