Beyond Human Regeneration

Words and Photos by Christie Green

Four-inch-diameter plastic shade balls in the stock tanks float on the surface and reduce evaporation by 91 percent—saving sixteen thousand gallons of water each year.

When I didn’t draw for elk in the spring 2021 lottery, I purchased a private tag for Unit 53 from a landowner in San Cristobal. Now I scan Gaia, Bureau of Land Management, and US Forest Service maps, looking for clues and making a plan for the five-day hunt.

I imagine small herds of elk circulating among these places of high and low, seeking cool shelter from the warm November daytime temperatures and descending quietly into the open, grassy areas come nightfall. The ground is hard, dry, grazed. The last snow drifted and settled nearly two weeks ago.

When I ask the game warden and the cashier at the local hardware store, “How have the elk hunts been? Anyone getting into them?” they respond similarly: “Nope. No snow. Some guys have hunted the full five days and haven’t seen one elk. The herds are up high, huddled in the timbers. No weather or snow to push ’em down.”

After first light on opening day, I walk the contour of a north-facing slope, following tracks of two elk that walked here within the last twelve hours. The dense trees enclose me, darken and shade my way as the sun rises, illuminating treetops.

Frozen tracks show a bear’s path through the center of an overgrown Forest Service road. Based on the large size and singular track without smaller accompanying cub tracks, I’m guessing it was a boar who walked here during the last snow. The definition of the tracks has blurred with each daily freeze-thaw cycle. The bear reminds me that I am a visitor here whose human plan could be overturned at any moment.

The animals decide what’s next.

* * *

I’ve chosen to insert myself into the local food chain as a grower of fruits and vegetables and as a hunter for meat. I feed myself, family, and friends as much as possible from what I’ve harvested and hunted. This choice to situate myself as a part of, rather than separate from, nature is complex and also reflects a degree of privilege. I do not earn a living from the food I produce.

Like the geologist Marcia Bjornerud, I hope to gain, and inspire others to gain, “a radical shift in worldview, a life-altering change in their perception of who they are. . . . a deep sense of themselves as citizens of the Earth.”

To become citizens of our planet is to remember and reactivate a land-based connection that embodies reciprocity and respect. Rather than viewing water, soil, plants, animals, and even air as resources to be extracted and used for human sustenance and profit, what would it be like to embrace them as beings equal to—or greater than—ourselves? What would we see as intrinsically valuable and, therefore, worth protecting and cherishing?

I consider the thirty-three endangered and twenty threatened species (forty animals, thirteen plants) in New Mexico as I reach out to ranchers, farmers, biologists, and leaders in land stewardship. What emerges during our conversations is a key principle of regenerative land practices: relationships. Rather than focusing on one element within an ecosystem, these stewards emphasize the importance and complexity of connections among people and place—animals, habitat, water, and soil. The health of each determines the resilience of the whole.

* * *

“We have people who build soil, reduce erosion, and harvest water on working landscapes—places with cattle or agriculture—and also those who simply want to improve habitat for wildlife,” says Sarah Wentzel-Fisher, executive director of the Quivira Coalition. “There’s a private landowner east of I-25 who’s been implementing regenerative practices to enhance habitat for mule deer. And another who calls herself a grass farmer who’s specifically interested in diversifying and fortifying grassland species. Neither of these landowners produce cattle, but they do utilize cattle as regenerative tools on their land to improve soil health and forage production.”

Sam Ryerson of Grass Nomads, LLC, echoes this, saying, “Yeah, we’ve had a landowner call us to bring in a group of eight hundred yearling cattle for a short-term, four-month grazing rotation. He recognizes the benefits of the cattle to add vitality to the grassland ecosystem by invigorating grass growth aboveground while stimulating root vitality below. The cattle also add benefit to the soil with their manure and mechanical integration of nutrients with their hooves. We see how their big, heavy bodies move through shrub cover, rubbing leaves and organic matter onto the soil surface, too.”

Clockwise from top left: Tuda Libby Crews of Ute Creek Cattle Company in Harding County; elk track; plastic balls in stock tanks at Ute Creek; and entrance to twenty-three-acre bird sanctuary at Ute Creek.

Both Wentzel-Fisher and Ryerson speak about these holistic practices that benefit multiple elements of the ecosystem over time. In the arid Southwest, with an average precipitation of eight to fourteen inches per year, regenerative practices require a long-term and large-scale view to take hold. “Landowners realize the benefits to their cattle operation when they take care of the soil, water, plants, and wildlife too. Many ranchers really are conservationists who are committed to the land,” says Ryerson. Speaking of one cattle ranch he’s worked with, he adds, “Yeah, they want a healthy bottom line, but they want healthy land too. The most beneficial impacts of grazing promote diversity in forage species and in soil cover that leads to increased biodiversity below and above the soil.”

“How do the ranch owners view and deal with wildlife like elk that compete with the cattle for forage?” I ask.

“Ninety percent of their diet overlaps with cattle,” Ryerson explains. “The ranch does receive elk hunting tags from the New Mexico Game and Fish Department and runs a hunting operation [separate from our grazing lease], but what we’ve done is observe elk behavior over time. What often happens . . . is that the elk will come in right behind the cattle,” he says. “Resting the pasture after grazing helps save its root structure, so this means grazing lighter with the cattle in anticipation of elk grazing on top of that. Rather than trying to eliminate elk pressure, which is practically impossible, we focus on timing . . . so we anticipate the elk’s needs and move the cattle onto other pastures sooner.”

Later, I ask Rex Martensen, the Private Land Program manager with New Mexico Game and Fish, how elk grazing impacts cattle rangeland productivity. He acknowledges the challenges, noting that the department provides eight-foot fencing and posts for landowners who want to build fences to keep elk out. Martensen also tells me how their Habitat Incentive Program, for landowners who want to actively improve elk habitat on their land, has grown in popularity.

“We see the herds as stable, and actually increasing,” he says. “They’re doing well. They know how to adapt and, of course, populations fluctuate over time in changing conditions.”

* * *

My eye catches a fairy-tale opening where a narrow game trail peeks out from the forest. I see elk droppings that riddle the understory like breadcrumb clues. The shadowy portal beckons me to come hither, to tread farther into the timbers, cross between peaks and follow the trail to the wallow.

As I pass through the saddle and drop to the north side, I see a shallow puddle rimmed with dried mud, where rutting bulls clearly gathered in early fall. Urinating, stomping, and rolling in this shallow bog to cover themselves with their own randy scent, the bulls must have bugled, scraped their antlers against tree trunks, and sparred, signaling to cow elk their readiness to mate.

A flash of motion catches my eye. A snowshoe hare darts across the duff, the only white in a snowless terrain. I imagine her coat losing its color, shapeshifting into winter wear when the bear would have dug his den. Both are active now, this little rabbit conspicuously so, as if she were the only one notified of the changing seasons.

The forest rests, bare. The sky expands above, bald, cloudless.

* * *

The US Fish and Wildlife Service offers technical and financial support to landowners seeking to diversify and regenerate wildlife habitat. Since 1987, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program has helped landowners build healthy habitat in more than sixty thousand projects on nearly six million acres nationwide. Many of these projects take place on working landscapes where wildlife, forests, and grasslands intersect with farm and ranch operations. In New Mexico, the program has funded restoration work including the construction of perennial ponds for migratory birds on agricultural land in El Guique along the Rio Grande north of Ohkay Owingeh; planting pollinator-attracting perennials at the Española Healing Foods Oasis; and building berms, swales, and one-rock dams to support native trees and shrubs along an erosive tributary of the the Santa Fe River.

“Applications for our EQIP [Environmental Quality Incentives Program] program have taken off, especially during COVID, when so many people started growing their own food,” says David Griego, district conservationist for the US Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, which also offers funding to regenerate working landscapes. “Folks are interested in all of it, not just irrigation systems and tunnel houses, but water, habitat, and soil health.”

Of the increasing applications for federal support, Griego says they’re only able to fund about 30 to 40 percent each year, but that they encourage folks to reapply. When I ask what makes for a successful application, Griego says, “The people who are looking at the whole. The ones who want to integrate agriculture, livestock, soil conservation, growing season extenders, irrigation, nutrient and pest management, and wildlife habitat. And those that recognize the importance of active management. They get the highest scores.”

Each person I visit with emphasizes one essential—and critically at risk—element: water.

Aquifers and surface water sources like creeks, rivers, ponds, and lakes may be replenished through landowner and agency practices. “We help with wells, acequias, drip irrigation, and sources for livestock tanks,” Griego explains. A watershed approach that includes improving water quality and quantity is essential for the long-term health of habitat beyond the boundaries of rangeland ownership.

“One thing [livestock] producers provide on dry rangelands is a consistent drinking water supply through wells and pipelines where there would not otherwise be any water much of the year,” Ryerson of Grass Nomads reiterates, “and that benefits cattle and wildlife.”

Ryerson lights up when he tells me about a relatively new practice they’re trying at the Ojo Feliz Ranch near Ocate. “We’re building these beaver dam analogues. Beavers can be so critical to watershed health, so we’re trying to mimic the structures they build that slow the flow and filter the water. We’ll be holding some educational workshops on how these work this spring.”

Ute Creek at Ute Creek Cattle Company.

Later in the afternoon, I descend a narrow drainage that drops to the west, off the saddle. I’ve just passed an icy puddle encircled in thick, frozen mud. Bull elk tracks riddle the puddle periphery and understory. Multiple piles of old sign and at least six rubs on spruce trunks tell me this is a wallow, where bulls congregated during the rut earlier this fall.

Dropping down from the wallow, I arrive near the truck in time for lunch and decide to sit in the shade to cool off and ice my feet. I shed layers in the midday heat, unlacing my boots and pulling off my thick socks. I wiggle my toes and pump my ankles, then push my soles and arches into the iciest part of the creek, welcoming the numbing frigidity and immediate contact with the water that has carved these drainages.

* * *

One land steward I spoke with shared her experiences and observations after having returned to her family land in 2000. Much of what Tuda Libby Crews and her husband, Jack, have implemented at Ute Creek Cattle Company in Harding County has been what she considers an experiment. “I figure you’ve got a fifty-fifty chance of something working out. May as well try something new . . . it just might succeed!”

And that’s what she has done in the two decades she’s been at the fourteen-thousand-acre ranch.

Crews is a person whose lifestyle and livelihood are literally grounded in soil, water, plants, and animals. A seventh-generation rancher, she inherited the ranch east of Roy from her parents, and, in partnership with her husband, her neighbors and community, and federal and local organizations, has transformed it into a vibrant shortgrass prairie and riparian ecosystem with robust diversity of life. The inaugural recipient of the Leopold Conservation Award in New Mexico in 2021, Crews has been recognized for her leadership in innovative conservation techniques and partnerships. “It’s about relationships,” she emphasizes as we sit down to a brisket and caramelized onion slider lunch in her colorful dining room.

With funding from Partners for Fish and Wildlife as well as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the ranch was able to remove invasive species like salt cedar from ten miles of Ute Creek that flow through the property. The wood from the trees that were removed was stacked and used to stabilize creek banks and provide habitat. What was an atrophied trickle when Crews first took over the ranch has now grown into a consistently hydrated meander, teeming with hawks, songbirds, antelope, and other native animals. Grazing was restricted along six miles of the river, eliminating creek access to erosive cattle traffic and allowing the creek banks to rest, revegetate, and recover from overuse.

On the ranch’s rangeland, four pastures were converted into twenty-six distinct areas to allow for rotational grazing. “We use time to determine when cattle should be moved from one area to another,” Crews tells me. Some areas are left fallow for at least three months “so that plant species and soil may recover, and regenerate depth and vitality of roots while also sequestering carbon.”

Another experiment Crews considers a success is her collaboration with a Los Alamos scientist to find ways to conserve water. “We’re using these four-inch-diameter plastic shade balls in the stock tanks. They float on the surface and reduce evaporation by 91 percent. We’re saving sixteen thousand gallons of water each year!”

Her enthusiasm is infectious. “We have a twenty-three-acre bird sanctuary that is designated as shortgrass prairie habitat for birds—water, forage, cover, nesting. I see this as being futuristic, providing for future generations. We don’t know if bird numbers will increase, especially given this current climate crisis, but I’m doing everything I can to ensure that habitat will be cared for and enhanced.” Since Crews and her husband took over the ranch, the bird species count in the sanctuary has grown from seventeen to over a hundred.

Crews is also involved with the Central Grasslands Roadmap project, a collaboration between Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Crews beams as she describes how this effort transcends political boundaries, recognizing the importance of the shortgrass prairie ecosystem extending across North America.

“Birds are nature’s indicator species,” Crews says. “They show us what’s not healthy, so we must listen. Now we’re looking at how to regenerate entire migratory flyway paths.”

Crews pauses before continuing. “You know, it’s about multispecies rotational grazing and interspecies partnership. We must work with the land as opposed to working on the land. The cycle of nature is harmonious and there’s a rhythm to it. It behooves us to pay attention to it and all that happens at different times of the year, working in symphony with the land to create a magnificent harmony.”

* * *

Sunday, the second day of the hunt, ends like a quiet exhale. I sit, my back against a naked, fallen tree situated smack in the middle of the meadow I walked just before lunch. No elk. No other animals. No activity, nothing passing before my eyes or into my ears except another exceptional sunset. The rising moon, waxing silver, swells in the red sky. Finally, in near darkness, I stand, look behind me, and walk to the pickup.

Back in the Airstream, I scour the topographic lines on maps, reviewing where I’ve been, what I’ve seen, and where I want to go. I’m torn in disparate directions. It’s too warm and dry, and the elk are elusive, but I want to keep going.

I scan the maps again after supper and decide to walk behind the locked gate where the New Mexico Game and Fish game warden had suggested I try when I called him a couple of months ago to ask about the unit.

“That’s a good, secluded area, Christie. Right there at Midnight Meadows, but off limits to vehicles. They’ve closed it for restoration. You might try walking back in there.”

* * *

Walking at dawn on the third morning, there is elk sign everywhere. Broken branches where musky bulls rubbed their hormonal aggression, tracks pressed into soft soil, and piles of droppings scattered on every inch of ground. I can tell they’ve been here. But still, no elk.

I imagine the cow elk, crossing the saddles and dropping down drainages to the mouth of meadows for moonlight grazing. Her muzzle presses to the earth, she takes in her nourishment without fork or spoon. I envy her, this direct proximity, where her tongue deciphers taste, bootless hooves read intimate topography, nose steers her from danger, and her thick hide serves as shelter from storms. She uses no tool or accessory.

As I trace the cow elk’s steps that crisscross Cabresto Creek, I consider her life compared to mine. Her abilities. Her strength. My vulnerability, my neediness.

I am an intruder in her home. I ask the ultimate sacrifice: her life, her body, her surrender to death so that I may eat.

* * *

I consider our asserted place as the apex species in the food chain and web of life and tend to believe it’s time to invert our position. Given the progressive soil, water, and habitat projects that locals are implementing across broad scales of time and space, will we be able to shift our role from anthropocentric consumers to earthling neighbors and providers?

Along with new technologies, creative partnerships, and constructed systems that mimic nature, perhaps another type of attunement is necessary: a change of heart.

If we recognize plants and animals, along with water, air, and soil as our kin, if we slow down to listen to the teachings of elk, hare, beaver, and bear and observe the wisdom of water and soil, how might our relationship with them change?

Could giving supplant taking?

As David Abram, a cultural ecologist and philosopher and the founder and creative director of the Alliance for Wild Ethics, reflects in “Wild Ethics and Participatory Science: Thinking Between the Body and the Breathing Earth”: “If we wish to bring humankind into a new reciprocity with the rest of the biosphere, then we will need to release ourselves from the tyranny of outmoded concepts. . . . We’ll need to renew our felt experience of the land as a complex of sensitive and sentient powers, as a boisterous community of beings in which our own lives are participant and to which we are beholden.”

* * *

Back home, I put the stockpot on to boil. I’ve set aside the day to peel the skin and hair from the elk’s face, cut her ears from bone, and open her lips and tongue, pulling them from the rigid armature that’s held the soft tissue together. Once I have most of the meat scraped from her skull, I will place her in the boiling water.

She came to me at 7:15 the third morning of the hunt, an unlikely intersection between species at the meadow-timber edge after I had veered off my planned course. Something nudged me toward a darker, less exposed place beyond the locked gate.

I smelled her first, her powerful musk scent swirling among conifer needles and dry scrub oak leaves. Our eyes met, suspended in that flash of a moment before I chose to pull the trigger.

Her eyes bulge back at me now as I scrape the skin. Her teeth, more exposed without the cover of velvety lips, rest in her closed lower jaw. I see the top two teeth, her ivories, the only upper front teeth she has. I work them round and round and pry them loose with my fingers. The ivories are a vestige of another time when elk ancestors roamed the earth with long, curved tusks protruding from their mouths.

The elk have evolved, tuskless, but the ivory remains, centuries later. I hold her teeth in my palms, rub my thumb over their antique sepia veneer, wondering all the while how much more my split-second shot took than this one life at hand.

Christie Green
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Christie Green is a mother, hunter, and writer, and the principal landscape architect at radicle. Raised in Alaska and on her grandfather’s farm in West Texas, she now resides in Santa Fe. With food and water as catalysts, Green seeks to pique sensual connection and uncomfortable curiosity.