As I walk over to the corrals I rub my arms to warm up. The sun is still hiding behind the Sangre de Cristo mountains, whose peaks race to the sky to well over 4,000 meters above sea level. The mountain wall puts an abrupt end to the flat land that lazily stretches out in the San Luis Valley, Colorado. The cool air smells of leather and horses. Kim and Sabrina, the wranglers, strap the saddle girths and correct stirrup length with steady hands. When the sun peeks over the mountains it warms our backs and make us cast long shadows on the ground. Thousands of wild sunflowers turn their petals towards us, as if welcoming us into their golden land. Side by side, we trot into the immense, yellow field.
By Åsa Björklund. Photo Sigurd Fandango, Katie Loewen, John Pitocco, Steve Weaver.
“This is what I love about Zapata,” says Penny Croft, from Liverpool, England. This is her second time at the ranch. “You aren’t nose to tail as on other ranches,” she explains. When it comes to guest ranches, Penny is an authority. A retired teacher, she now spends every vacation horseback riding abroad, because “you get to see parts of the country you wouldn’t normally as a tourist.” The American West is one of her favorite areas because of the liberty of not using a helmet.
“It ́s freedom! You can gallop and feel the wind in your hair. You can just run and let the horses go. And to me that ́s the most glorious feeling,” she explains.
Jeff, the ranch manager, sports a suntan any North-European would envy, and a smile that evokes chewing gum commercials from the 1950 ́s. He explains today ́s mission: to herd the 132 cattle into another pasture. This gives them new grass to eat and prevents overgrazing, all part of the Zapata Ranch ́s sustainable land management model.
While many other ranches consider environmentally sound practices as a costly waste of time, Zapata Ranch shows the contrary. A healthy ecosystem is key for this ranch, which is owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the largest environmental nonprofit organizations in the United States. TNC is famous for simply buying large areas of land to protect its flora and fauna, rather than waiting for the government to turn them into national parks. The organization protects this 417-square kilometer ranch (roughly the area of Köln), because it’s home to several rare animal and plant species—some found nowhere else in the world. However, a healthy ecosystem is not the only focus at Zapata Ranch. Protecting the tradition of ranching in the West is another goal. Zapata wants to set an example for other ranches that you can run a thriving business while still caring for the environment.
At the first water trough we see a group of cattle. Jeff tells us to split into groups to have a better chance of finding the rest of the herd. He gives us directions, pointing at landmarks that are invisible to me in this enormous, flat landscape. Small green dots of Grease Brush and yellow Rabbit Brush stretch out in all directions, as in a Monet painting if the great painter had ever visited America. Just beneath the mountains, I can see the rolling shape of the sand dunes, the largest in North America. Jeff scans the surroundings, then he points at the only tree on the horizon.
”Go a little to the right or left of that tree.” He pauses. ”And when I say ‘a little’ I mean about a mile,” he adds with a smile after recalling that not everyone might consider a mile ”a little.”
We split up and Sabrina and I take off trotting around the bushes and over prickly pear cacti. Occasionally the horses trip into a hole in the sand, dug out by a rabbit or a snake. We ride up a low, sandy hill and peer out over the pastures. No cattle. Anywhere. Far away we see the shapes of Jeff and Penny, equally unfortunate in their cow-hunting mission. After a while they join us and together we ride toward the final trough, where we are supposed to lead the cattle. And there the cattle stands, calmly sipping water, glancing at us as if to say “you didn ́t think we knew where to go?” Melancholically, they moo as they shuffle around the trough. The sun glares down on us, white and harsh. Jeff ́s dogs jump right into the water tank to drink and cool off.
After six hours out in the field the horses are still full of energy. They are extremely fit because the ranch applies natural horse keeping. This means they don ́t get any supplements, only hay in the winter, so to eat enough grass the horses have to move over large areas. As a bonus, they never suffer from colic.
The following morning we swing our stiff legs over the horses and set off to find the bison. It might be an impossible mission because there are plenty of hiding spots on an area that equals Hanover in area (202-square kilometers), which is the part of the ranch where the herd roams around.
Luckily, we see a bison herd almost immediately. The animals graze calmly and sometimes lift their massive heads to glance at us riding past. Their shaggy coats seem hot under the sharp sunlight, but in fact they are so well insulated that snow can settle on their back without melting. Suddenly, a young bull breaks away from the herd and comes toward us. I realize I wouldn’t particularly enjoy a close encounter with a bad-tempered bison bull that can grow nearly 2 meters tall and weigh up to 900 kg. Every year overly curious tourists get rammed by bison in Yellowstone National Park, the only area where they still live unfenced and completely wild. Despite looking like their heavy heads might make them fall facedown any second, the bison can run as fast as 65 km/hour. So the odds are not in our favor. Eventually, the bull looses interest in us and walks back. Little does he know that he might soon end up on the dinner table. Considered a delicacy, the bison meat tastes like a cross between beef and venison. It ́s also healthier because it ́s lower in fat and cholesterol, yet higher in protein than beef. Zapata, however, keeps the bison to conserve the species, not for meat production, but once a year some 500 animals are slaughtered or sold because the land cannot sustain more than 2,000 heads. This is the only moment when staff interferes with the herd, so in practice it can be considered wild. During a couple of weeks, veterinarians vaccinate the bison against brucellosis and screen their level of residual cattle genetics by taking DNA samples. If the level is too high the bison will be removed from the herd. In the past, ranchers interbred cattle and bison to save the species, but today conservationists want the bison to be as pure as possible.
But before this work can be done, the bison has to be gathered and moved into the corrals. Like in the old West, the roundup is done on horseback, because no vehicles can drive fast in this terrain. The roundups are extremely dangerous. Because bison run so fast the wranglers must ride at full gallop. However, it ́s impossible to see what hides beneath the dense brush that covers the ground. Tripping over at full speed can mean certain death, for horse and rider. Also, wild bison can be unpredictable. Katie Matheson, hospitality manager at the ranch, remembers when she was galloping along the flank of the herd.
“Then the bison decided to change direction and came toward me.” Kate found herself riding with several hundred animals stampeding behind her back. “One bison pushed my horse away, but luckily we got away unhurt.”
Zapata ́s conservation focus attracts guests. Heather and Bob from Seattle have never stayed at a dude ranch before, but are long-time supporters of TNC. They are particularly impressed with the high educational level of the staff, who often share their expertise in for example biology, anthropology, and environmental studies, with the guests.
“The staff at the ranch is extremely knowledgeable. And what is interesting is that they ́re enthusiastic, despite that they must be repeating themselves every day,” Heather says.
Bob particularly appreciates learning about sustainable land management while participating in the daily ranch activities at Zapata.
“They ́re not focusing on a 5-star physical experience, but rather a 5-star experience for your emotions and your soul. So you come out of this bigger and better and have a different view than if you had gone to a resort and looked at another great pool and had another great cocktail,” Bob says.
Hopefully, more ranches will follow Zapata ́s model of combining business with conservation. To be part of this model, if even just for a few days, is truly inspiring.
For more information on accommodation and activities at Zapata Ranch, please visit: www.zranch.org.