Wolf Springs Ranch rises over the mesa on La Otra Banda, the volcanic plateau that spreads to the west from the rim of the Rio Grande gorge. There is not much water out there. No lakes, no rivers, no creeks and just a few meager springs. If you want water you’ll have to dig several hundred feet down beneath the basalt bedrock that blankets the plateau.
Water does fall from the sky. On occasion. The rain generally comes in brief downpours hanging from silver-tipped clouds that swiftly move on to the east and over the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Many times, the moisture does nothing more than tease from the clouds as wisps of gray virga that evaporates hundreds of feet above the ground.
“Even just on the ranch we see a significant variation in rainfall patterns,” says Tony Benson. “We can have a downpour going on just over there while here it is totally dry.” Benson, the owner of Wolf Springs, placed a significant chunk of his 3,450-acre ranch under conservation easement in 2003. The professional geologist wanted a piece of land that he could both actively ranch as well restore. And the land indeed needed help.
The area is known as Cerros de Taos (Hills of Taos) for the forested volcanic plugs that dot the otherwise flat mesa. Over one-hundred years ago the region was largely, but not exclusively, grassland crowned in a juniper or oak savannah. That ecosystem was decimated by over grazing in the late 1800s and first few decades of the 20th Century. In those days millions of sheep and cattle moved seasonally from the mesa to the mountains and back or north to the train in Colorado where they were shipped east. When the grass was all eaten up, the wind took the soil and whisked it away. The sagebrush moved in and became the dominate ecosystem and the tracks of wagon wheels eroded into arroyos.
A properly working ranch can have significant benefit to landscape health and Benson, who also serves as a board member for the Taos Land Trust, is starting to see positive results for his years of hard work restoring the ranch.
In the early to mid 2000s a beetle destroyed about 90% of pinyon pine trees in Taos County. Benson’s ranch didn’t escape the carnage. For a number of years he worked to clear out the dead trees to reduce the threat of fire. He has also thinned the overgrown stands of juniper trees on the higher elevation sections of the ranch. Without the junipers blocking the sunlight and soaking up the meager rain, grass seeds, banked in the soil germinated and the natural savannah-like ecosystem that once dominated the upper reaches of the cerros began to return.
A similar recovery can be seen on the lower elevation portions of the ranch where an intense sage removal and grass seeding program has resulted in a healthy growth of grasses.
From his house Benson points out where grass returned easily. “And in that section there it took the good rains we’ve had the past few years to get established. There by the rise, well that will only ever be sagebrush and probably always was,” he says.
The grasses are dotted with the cattle, horses, llamas and alpaca that Benson runs on the ranch. And it is a pretty impressive diversity of grasses. From Blue grama and Sand dropseed to Squirrel tail and bunch grasses. With more grasses and vegetation the land can better hold the water and so the wagon-wheel arroyos are filling with soil, rising and slowly healing.
The healing in turn brings back the wildlife. Scott’s oriole, Towhee, thrasher, sage sparrow, vesper sparrow, wren, Bluebird, swallow, kestrel and hummingbirds can all be found on the Wolf Springs Ranch these days. Not to mention deer and elk, pronghorn, coyote and even the occasional bear and mountain lion.
In addition to helping the Taos Land Trust protect more valuable wildlife and agricultural land in northern New Mexico, Tony Benson sits a several public lands management committees. He also hosts educational rangeland seminars on the ranch.
“We like to show off a little bit what we’ve been able to do,” he says.