American bison herd. Image credit: Courtesy of Lauren McCain for the Southern Plains Land Trust

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.

Black-footed ferret in prairie dog burrow. Image credit: Courtesy of Nicole J. Rosmarino for the Southern Plains Land Trust

Goals within the preserve include:

  • Expanding the current breeding herd of 19 bison.
  • 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.
  • Rewilding elk to the region.
  • Bringing back the rare lesser prairie chicken, if possible.

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

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