Tom Waddell climbs to the highest point on the Armendaris Ranch and squints toward Elephant Butte, blue and blurry on the southern horizon.
“There,” he says, pointing. “That’s one end of the ranch.” Then he wheels and gestures north, toward the marshes of the Bosque del Apache, where a lone hill indents the line of sky. “And that’s the other.”
All the land in between belongs to media magnate Ted Turner, and nearly all of it is being restored to its natural state, in effect becoming the private version of a national park, one roughly the size of Grand Teton in Wyoming.
And in his own larger-than-life way, Turner is part of a trend.
He is among 16,000 private landowners around the country working to restore wildlife habitat on their property, said Mitch Snow, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. An additional 2,000 are on a waiting list for help in setting up similar programs.
“There has been a dawning recognition there is no way that Fish and Wildlife and the (National) Park Service could team up and buy all the land necessary to maintain the current level of migratory birds, songbirds and other species,” said Hans Stuart, who works for Fish and Wildlife in Santa Fe, N.M.
“We need the help of private landowners. There are a surprising number who care deeply about the land.”
Stuart and Snow help administer a program called Partners in Wildlife, which provides start-up money and expertise to people who want to convert their land into wildlife habitat.
The program is a decade old but has taken on new urgency in a time of shrinking federal funding for wildlife protection. The program’s success, though, has spawned a new problem: “Right now, we have more people who want help than we have money,” Snow said.
In the last eight years, Partners in Wildlife has spent $4.3 million to restore nearly 89,000 acres of wildlife habitat in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma, said Stuart, whose office deals with those states.
Steve Treadway made it into the program under the financial wire.
Treadway, who describes himself as a semiretired farmer outside Brush, on Colorado’s eastern plains, said he has had to learn a new way of thinking since becoming involved in Partners in Wildlife.
“I’ve tried for 20 years to farm my land in a conventional method, but I’ve finally realized it wasn’t meant for that,” said Treadway, who grew corn and wheat and raised cattle on 115 acres along the South Platte River.
He worked with Partners in Wildlife to attract migrating ducks and geese to his property, which has several sloughs along the river. Instead of corn and wheat, he now grows grasses that waterfowl eat: smartweed, nut sedge and prairie cordgrass, all of which he once considered weeds.
“Now I find out that this stuff (cordgrass) is worth $300 a pound for seed, and here I’d been trying to spray it,” he said.
Treadway aims to turn a profit by selling seeds, hay and cattle he will graze on the grasses. Partners in Wildlife helped him with the start-up costs for converting from grain to grasses.
Turner may be at the other end of the spectrum financially from Treadway, but the two men share a common philosophy. And like Treadway, Turner consults closely with state and federal wildlife biologists on how to restore his ranches to pristine prairie.
The Armendaris, just east of Truth or Consequences, is one of three ranches Turner owns in New Mexico, along with others in Montana, South Carolina, Florida and Argentina. His three New Mexico ranches alone make up more than a million acres, about 1 percent of the state - more than double the combined size of all the national park land in the state.
As with all his ranches, Turner’s plan for his New Mexico properties is to make the land self-supporting.
Not for sheep and cattle, but for the bison, desert bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelopes, mountain lions and other animals that thrived there before Spaniards and Anglos settled the region.
“Man has sped the demise of these species, and it’s going to take man to bring them back,” Turner’s son, Beau, head of the newly created Turner Endangered Species Foundation, said in a telephone interview from the Vermejo Park Ranch in northern New Mexico.
One of the first things the Turners did after buying the Armendaris six years ago was to entice Waddell out of retirement from New Mexico’s Fish and Wildlife agency to be foreman for the ranch.
Turner’s instructions were simple, Waddell said.
“Take this” - again, the sweep of arm indicating all the land between the horizons to the north and south, the Fra Cristobal Mountains to the west, and the Oscuro range to the east - “and put it back like it was.”
Such simplicity proved deceptive.
For most of his first year, Waddell worked “seven days a week, dark to dark.” Studies were done to determine how many bison and desert bighorns the ranch - located where the northern range of the Chihuahuan Desert intersects the southern border of the Great Basin - could support.
The animals would need water, requiring the installation of miles of water lines and the restoration of creaky wooden windmills that stood in various states of disrepair around the ranch.
Turner didn’t want the mountain lions on his ranch hunted. Nor did he want his fledgling bighorn herd serving as the lions’ personal buffet. A shepherd - actually, a biologist studying the sheep - was hired to protect the lambs.