New Mexico's Ladder Ranch | An Eco-Conscious Expedition -
american bison ladder ranch nm

What is your passion: fur, feathers, or flowers and fauna? Or perhaps you are an aficionado of rocks and ruins, or the history of Native Americans, Buffalo Soldiers, ranchers and miners? Maybe you look for adventure in hiking, biking, or hunting? All of these interests can be explored with Ted Turner Expeditions on the 156,439 acres of the Ladder Ranch near Truth or Consequences.

We met David Barfield, the activities director for Ted Turner Expeditions in Southern New Mexico, at the Sierra Grande Lodge, a Turner property. Despite arriving on the first day of August, it was pleasantly cool. Lunch had been prepared and packed into a cooler and our gear—sunscreen, hat, sunglasses—was reviewed.

As we drove to the Ladder Ranch, David gave us a rundown on some of Ted Turner’s holdings — 16 ranches in the western US with 1.2 million acres in New Mexico alone. These include the Ladder Ranch, Armendaris Ranch, and the Vermejo Park Ranch.

According to the website, “Ted Turner Expeditions’ (TTX) eco-conscious adventure tours are individually crafted and tailored to their specific locales; these unique adventures are intended to deliver an insightful and restorative experience, and connect people with nature.”tortoise

Many of us have stumbled over bits and pieces of news and reports about conservation efforts at Ted Turner’s vast holdings, including raising bison, introducing controversial black-tailed prairie dog colonies to the ranch, and rescuing black-footed ferrets from extinction. These tidbits don’t give the broad scope of the Ted Turner Foundation’s mission. The family foundation is comprised of Turner and his five children, with a mission to “protect and restore the natural systems—air, land, and water—on which all life depends.”

Once we arrived at the ranch, we moved our gear from the SUV to a Polaris Ranger for tackling the extremely rugged terrain we would be exploring in our search for bison and other wildlife. One of our first stops was the Ladder House, which was built in the early 1900’s and now is used for guests. It has been restored with modern conveniences, but retains the historic feel with a stone fireplace, heavy wood and leather furniture, and Mimbres pottery on display.

The Bunk House nearby often houses hunters, scientists, researchers, and interns. The Ladder House can be booked for overnight stays for $2,200 per night for four people (plus $400 for each additional person), which includes a gourmet chef to prepare meals and a guide for trips on the ranch.

Visitors to Ladder Ranch have many options for exploration. I’m a fur and feather naturalist, so I was looking forward to seeing as many of the rare and seldom sighted creatures as possible.

We had no difficulty spotting the black-tailed prairie dog village and the burrowing owls that shared their space.

“Ted could talk to you for hours about prairie dogs. They are a keystone species,” David explained, talking about the re-introduction of prairie dogs on the ranch funded by the Turner Endangered Species Fund (TESF). Prairie dogs are the main prey species of the endangered black-footed ferret, which the TESF is also preserving. This is the first of many times during the five-hour safari that David highlighted the conservation efforts on Ladder Ranch and all the Turner properties.

We easily walked right up to the enclosures for the endangered bolson tortoise, arriving in time to flip one back upright and perhaps keep it from roasting to death.

The TESF is working to prevent the extinction of bolson tortoises while also establishing free-ranging tortoises on both the Ladder and Armendaris Ranches. This large and rare tortoise may once have lived throughout the Chihuahuan desert, but is rarely seen today. The efforts to rescue the tortoise began with a group of adults and hatchlings donated by Ariel Appleton of Arizona. In 2015, TESF announced the 500th hatchling, which was born on the Armendaris Ranch.

We continued on to the ranariuman—an area dedicated to propagation of the endangered Chiricahua leopard frog. Here, we saw the floating masses of frog eggs and tadpoles growing in great round troughs. This native frog was listed as endangered in 2002. The TESF partnered with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and New Mexico Game and Fish Department to conserve the frogs on Ladder Ranch—the last substantive Chiricahua leopard frog population.

David told us there are more than 250 species of birds at Ladder Ranch. While we easily spotted the familiar Gambel’s quail and scaled quail, as usual, the Montezuma quail eluded us. We also spotted Rio Grande turkeys, one of two species of turkeys that inhabit the ranch, along with ducks, mourning doves, a roadrunner, swifts, and several hawks. For conservation and hunting purposes, watering and feeding stations are scattered around the ranch to maintain the bird populations.

We stopped for lunch under a large tree near a rock and adobe homestead. Clouds had been building all morning, piling up high above the mesas. We saw slashes of lightening and heard the thunder. The resulting breeze was refreshing, bringing in the scent of rain and alligator juniper trees.

After lunch, we kept moving with an eye on the distant storm. As the Polaris growled across the rocky terrain toward Las Animas Creek, I spied a black bear running down the side of the ravine. As we rounded a curve in the trail, we spotted a second bear, which raced up the road in front of us and disappeared into the brush.

We soon arrived at a spot on the creek to admire the largest sycamore tree I’ve ever seen. We speculated about how long it may have been growing there. According to research by Harley Shaw and published in River of Spirits: A Natural History of New Mexico’s Las Animas Creek: “These sycamores, growing along a twenty-five-mile reach, constitute the only known natural stand of this species within the Rio Grande watershed and functionally the only stand east of the continental divide.”

These trees may have been growing in the area for more than 300 years. Since the nearest DNA match is 35 miles east of the nearest native stand in the Gila, researchers are unsure how the Arizona sycamore arrived at Las Animas Creek. Like many birders, I was aware of these trees along Las Animas Creek. It’s a favorite birding destination, since the riparian area and the trees attract many birds, such as western wood-peewee, ash throated flycatcher, bridled titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, and Lucy’s warbler. However, I had not realized the unique character of the Arizona sycamore growing in that area.

For explorers who have more interest in the formation of the earth, there are many geologic sites exposing where faults divided, crystals formed in rocks, and caves were created from lava tubes in an area that climbs from 4,500 feet to 8,800. Four watersheds come together on Ladder Ranch: Animas, Seco, Palomas, and Cuchilla Negra.

“Every watershed has its own personality,” David explained. As with any desert location, water is a critical concern. During the day, we saw man-made dams and ponds, natural creeks, and numerous watersheds. As we arrived at the ranch, I had noted the terraces of alfalfa and the irrigation system. David said this remnant of cattle ranching is necessary to maintain the ranch’s water rights, plus it provides grazing for the deer, elk, and bison.

In Ash Canyon, a jutting cliff once sheltered the Mimbres people as today it provides homes for swifts soaring on the currents. This location is a treasure trove of pictograph, smoke smudges from ancient fires, cobs of 900 year-old corn, and bits of flint from early tool-making. The Mimbres culture thrived in the area 1,800 years ago, but disappeared about 1,000 years ago. Remnants of their stone walls and distinctive black and white pottery are all that remain. We were taken to a site where a Mimbres village once stood, and where the pottery in the Ladder House had been excavated by archaeologists.

The Mimbres people were followed in history by several Apache tribes. Like the Mimbres, the Apaches left their marks on the ranch in petroglyphs on rocks, abandoned sites of their wickiup dwellings, and rock hand tools. These tribes ultimately were driven from the land by the influx of ranchers, herders, and miners. We visited several abandoned adobe and rock homestead sites in the area.

During the exploration of the ranch, we passed through several ranch gates. “You have to tie them just right, or the bison can open them,” David said, as he hopped out to open and close a metal ranch gate.

After hours of exploring the ranch, we had not spied any bison, the iconic western motif of the ranch. This is a bit surprising, since there are more than 50,000 of them in herds throughout the ranch. However, with more than 100,000 acres in which to roam, they are difficult to locate, despite their individual massive size and the size of the herds.

Other creatures that roam Ladder Ranch include javelina, wolf, cougar, ring-tailed cat, coatamundi, oryx, and big horn sheep. We also spied a herd of more than 20 elk across a canyon.

As we switched from the Polaris back to the SUV for the ride back to Sierra Grande Lodge, I noticed the bumper sticker on the vehicle. It summed up Ted Turner’s efforts at Ladder Ranch and his other western properties in two simple words: “Save Everything.”


Ted Turner Expeditions offers the following experiences:

Hiking, Biking, Sunrise Wildlife Tour, Sunset Wildlife Tour, Ladder Ranch Heritage Tour, and Birding. Any expedition package costs: $350 for 2 people; $100 for each additional person (Max 4 Total). Packed lunch included.
To learn more or book an expedition contact (877) 288-7637 or email [email protected].

Written by Jackye Meinecke for Neighbors Magazine

This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead

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