Inspired by seven generations of family on the land and Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, Tuda Libby Crews approached land restoration by collaborating with others.
Tuda and her husband Jack realized restoration of Ute Creek Cattle Company required open minds, innovation, and financial/technical resources. Implementing conservation practices has transformed their shortgrass prairie ecosystem.
Partnering with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in 2002, an Environmental Quality Incentives Program contract helped the Crews establish an adaptive grazing system to create 23 pastures from the original four. A water distribution system was established with pipelines and storage tanks to provide water for livestock and wildlife.
Time-managed adaptive grazing of their Angus cow herd remains critical to all of the Crews’ soil health and wildlife habitat goals. This system maximizes forage production, soil disturbance and natural fertilization, while increasing wildlife habitat on the once ecologically-degraded landscape. Grazing riparian areas in the dormant season protects bird species in that prime habitat during breeding/nesting seasons.
Tuda and Jack stabilized creek banks with erosion-control materials. They cut and piled three miles of dead salt cedar trees to create habitat for quail. Grazing goats also helped control salt cedars and other invasive species. Within 10 years of partnering with NRCS, New Mexico Water Trust Board, and Ute Creek Soil & Water Conservation Service, Ute Creek was a perennial water source and regional model of riparian restoration.
Diverse wildlife and bird species have increased and so has the quality of the cow herd; the sale of high-quality calves provides the ranch with operating revenue. To diversify income, the ranch has a hunting-lease enterprise to manage its elk, pronghorn, and white tail and mule deer populations. The Crews plan to re-introduce prescribed burning to improve grass palatability, stimulate forage production, and increase species biodiversity.
Nationwide, habitat loss from development, the climate crisis, and shortage of healthy forage under the vast migratory flyway has imperiled shortgrass prairie birds. With the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Tuda established a 23-acre wild bird sanctuary providing water, a small grape vineyard, breeding and nesting areas, bird houses, and a few shade trees. As nature’s indicators of land health, bird species numbers are used as the yardstick to measure progress. The number of identified bird species has increased from 17 in 2004 to over 100 in 2018.
As a national advocate for preserving prairie ecosystems, Tuda’s land ethic is felt beyond the ranch’s fences. She helped form Partnerscapes, a national landowner-led conservation organization, which encourages landowner-leaders to become part of the solution by implementing conservation practices on private lands.
Tuda and Jack aim to leave the land healthier than they found it, and that mantra includes succession planning for future generations. Their adult children: Libby (Peter) Wood and Ted (Sadie Jo) are involved in ranch management decisions. Grandchildren Bella Wood, Bennet and Seth Crews, and Isa and Sadie Smokey are committed to upholding water/land conservation, animal welfare and wildlife habitat while providing all-natural, quality food for beef consumers. The Crews' lead-by-example approach earned them a regional Environmental Stewardship Award from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in 2019.
Two years later their hard work, ability to work synergistically while holding themselves to a high standard of land stewardship is being honored with New Mexico’s first Leopold Conservation Award.
Header photo by Christi Bode