Heartland Ranch Nature Preserve Expansion – Jagers Phases 2 & 3

Heartland Ranch Nature Preserve Expansion – Jagers Phases 2 & 3

Black-footed ferret released on Heartland Ranch. Photo credit: Liz Young.

The mission of the Southern Plains Land Trust (SPLT) is to create and protect a network of shortgrass prairie preserves that ensure a future for all native animals and plants. Through this land acquisition project, SPLT expanded our Heartland Ranch Nature Preserve in Bent County in southeastern Colorado by adding 17,899 acres, bringing the total contiguous area of the preserve to 42,674 acres or 17,270 hectares.

SPLT established Heartland Ranch in 2015 and has been steadily expanding it to preserve ancient shortgrass prairie broadly, as well as advance our highest priority conservation projects. SPLT’s top conservation goals on Heartland Ranch are: recovering the American bison (Bison bison); protecting black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus), and reintroducing their obligate species, the endangered black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes); protecting prairie elk (Cervus canadensis); rehabilitating streamside areas and their ecosystem engineer, the American beaver (Castor canadensis); and safeguarding grassland birds, including the imperiled lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus). Grasslands are among the world’s most endangered ecosystems, and through this acquisition, we made our most significant leap forward yet to protect southern plains shortgrass prairie grasslands.

The Quick Response Fund for Nature (QRFN) grant encouraged other funders to remit their grants and lenders to approve financing to accomplish this acquisition. QRFN responds very quickly, has a streamlined application (and reporting) process, which is critically important so that organizations such as ours can focus on making these conservation acquisitions succeed rather than trifling with endless paperwork.

SPLT’s preserves are managed for native biodiversity rather than human uses. However, our type of nature-based restoration endeavor generates substantial community benefits. SPLT works closely with local communities in southeast Colorado. Most of our staff live near our preserves, and we routinely team up with local schools and area non-profits. The local economy has been flagging for decades due to its reliance almost solely on agriculture, and SPLT aims to diversify that economy by advancing an ecological restoration economy. We are one of few entities attracting grant dollars to the area, much of which we spend locally by sourcing materials and labor from towns closest to our preserves. This is important in a region suffering from economic stagnation. For instance, the poverty rate in Bent County, where Heartland Ranch is located, is three times the state’s average. Since 2015 - excluding land purchases - we have supported at least 125 local businesses through direct expenditures. This is significant in a region with 1-2 people per square mile. Attracting visitors for volunteer projects from afar further also helps diversify the local economy.

The next steps for SPLT are to pay off the financing required for this preserve expansion and to pursue other opportunities to expand Heartland Ranch or establish new preserves. There continues to be an urgent need in the southern Great Plains to provide shortgrass prairie wildlife with safe refuge and these ancient grasslands with permanent protections.

Authored by SPLT, edited by Sanjiv Fernando