The mixed grass prairie on Alexander Ranch in Barber County was brown and quiet on a February ride through the pastures. But while a casual observer might consider it “dead” with winter chill, a closer look found it teeming with life.
The beavers were busy building cattail dams and finishing dens for the next generation they’ll be producing soon. The white-tail and mule deer bounded suddenly from a hiding spot and ground birds took flight as the sound of a nearby vehicle.
The meandering stream called Stewarts Creek that runs through the ranch on its journey to the Medicine River was dotted with the ponds created by the beavers and wetland areas spreading out from them provide habitat for a range of critters.
Ted Alexander took in the scene, smiling at the sight of his Australian shepherd companion running through the grass and picking her way back across the high ground in the stream.
“Some ranchers hate the beaver,” Ted says. “They say all the ponds they make and the floodplains they create make it hard to move cattle. But I love them. I love watching them work and I love the diversity that they bring. Over time, they help bring back the harmony between wildlife and soil and grasslands and make it a community that also supports human activity.”
Ted is proud that nearly half of the known reptile and amphibian species in Kansas can be found on his land. It’s important to preserve habitat for species like the threatened red spotted toad and rare species like the pallid bats and Arkansas darters, he says, and he’s delighted to see a resurgence in lesser prairie chicken colonies.
Winner of Leopold Award
His view of the land as a living community where human activities need to be geared toward maintaining the health of the soil, the water, the plants and the wildlife, is an echo of the vision of the man for whom the Kansas Leopold Conservation Award was named, Aldo Leopold.
Ted is the 2019 winner of that award, presented annually by the Sand County Foundation, the Kansas Association of Conservation Districts and the Ranchland Trust of Kansas.
Leopold was an American author, philosopher, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist, and environmentalist. He was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and is best known for his book “A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There,” which has sold more than two million copies since it was published in 1949.
The prize includes a $10,000 cash award and a crystal award for display. It’s awarded for leadership in conservation, but more importantly for being willing to share knowledge and experience, something that is important to Ted, who has turned the active day-to-day management of Alexander Ranch over to his son, Brian.
In retirement, Ted says he hopes to use the publicity generated by the award to help spread his vision of a prairie covered in healthy grasses and forbs and free of water-robbing red cedars.
There is no “farmland” on Alexander Ranch. It’s all native prairie grass and grassy riparian areas replete with cattails, maintained with periodic prescribed burning and rotational grazing by cattle and the ruminant wildlife that share the habitat. Researchers have documented more than 160 plants on Alexander Ranch, compared to an average of 100 or less on other ranches in the same area.
Balancing the ecology
It hasn’t always been that way. When Ted took over the Skinner Family Ranch in 1984 — his share of a family inheritance — much of the ranch had been seriously overgrazed and was covered with invasive Eastern Red Cedar trees. There was no water in Stewart’s Creek and he put together a piping system to deliver water to tanks for the beef herd he started.
He set about burning or cutting the cedar trees that were robbing the grasses of water and driving out the Prairie Chickens and other ground birds. He envisioned a ranch where beef production could be maximized, providing economic viability, while maintaining harmony with nature.
He says rather than add more acres of marginal grassland to the 7,000 Alexander Ranch, he wanted to make the acres he had more productive. Rotational grazing allowed him to increase the size of his herd, while improving the health of the sandy soils. He burned or cut hundreds of acres of cedar trees and watched streams and springs come to life. Improved water and sunlight helped the grasses grow taller and more dense.
P.J. GriekspoorBUSY BEAVERS: With few trees to choose from to build their dams, the beavers on the Alexander Ranch use cattails to build their ponds along Stewart’s Creek, a meandering stream that flows through the ranch.
“I remember NRCS doing an ecology site survey of Stewart’s Creek where they says if we eliminate the cedars, the streams would flow. And then the cattails and the willows would appear, followed by the beaver and other wildlife,” he says. “I kind of scoffed at the cattails bringing beaver, but look, there they are. And now, I kind of wonder, what else do I need to learn?”
Lessons of wildfire
In 2016, the Anderson Creek Wildfire brought home a bittersweet lesson: fire is Mother Nature’s way of cleaning up the prairie. The Anderson Creek fire burned 450,000 acres in Barber County, including almost all of Alexander Ranch. Along with the grass, it burned stockpiles of stored hay, barns and other structures and thousands of miles of fence.
But the fire, which came in late March, was soon followed by the warmth and the rain of spring. The grasses came back, stronger, greener and more lush than ever. Four years later, ranchers are still rebuilding the infrastructure of human activity. Mother Nature rebuilt hers in a matter of months.
“It soon became apparent that the fire had provided benefits it would have taken us 20 years to achieve with management,” Ted says. “It gave us a chance to really get control of the invasive cedars because it burned tens of thousands of them, even large ones, on lands that had become absolutely covered with them. It took them out in the deep canyons where we couldn’t take machinery. I wanted to see us build on that moving forward.”
He was already a founding member of the Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition and Kansas Prescribed Fire Council and was a big believer in control by fire. But some of the neighbors who had not shared his vision had second thoughts when they saw streams begin to flow again. He set about convincing them of the benefits of following conservation practices.
Ted was instrumental in forming the rancher-led Comanche Pool Prairie Resource Foundation, dedicated to the improvement of the native prairies while maintaining the economic viability of ranches in the Red Hills. Along with Brian, he has hosted informational meetings to demonstrate how to burn successfully, how to cut cedar trees and how to knock down and mulch the fired skeletons.
“They provide a perch for birds that drop red cedar seeds beneath those trees,” he says. “And the fact that those perches are there means that the lesser prairie chickens and other ground-nesting birds won’t live there.”
His efforts have led other ranchers to follow his example.
“It’s not just this 7,000 acres of Alexander Ranch that have been improved. “This effort has influenced 250,000 acres,” he says. “My goal is to influence hundreds of thousands of acres more.”
Ted was the recipient of the National Private Lands Stewardship Award from the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies in 2011.
The first Kansas Leopold Conservation Award was presented to Sproul Ranch of Sedan in 2015. The 2018 award went to Hoeme Family Farm and Ranch of Scott City. Other finalists in 20-19 were Vance and Louise Ehmke of Healy in Lane County, Dwane Roth of Manhattan in Riley County and Z Bar Ranch of Lake City in Barber County.