By Andrew Gunther
As director of AWI’s Animal Welfare Approved program, I recently had the opportunity to visit the Arapaho Ranch, in north-central Wyoming. At 580,000 acres, it is the largest USDA certified organic ranch in the U.S. - and one of the most inspiring ranches that I have ever seen. Arapaho Ranch is actually part of its environment, working in harmony with nature, rather than trying to control it.
My visit began at the front of the local high school in the town of Thermopolis, where I met with David Stoner, who manages the Arapaho Ranch on behalf of the Tribal Council of the Northern Arapaho Nation. David is one of those people who can say a huge amount with very few words, and as we drove out to the first pasture it quickly became clear that the Arapaho Tribe had struck gold by appointing him to manage their ranch. David talked passionately about the grazing strategy that he uses to maintain the productivity of the land. He rotates the cattle around the different areas of the ranch to graze throughout the year. This rotational grazing strategy ensures that the grassland is always vibrant and full of young, vigorously growing grasses, ready for grazing on the next rotation. And as they graze the pasture, the cattle also consume mature grass seed, which is later deposited elsewhere on the land - encased in a healthy dollop of natural fertilizer - helping to encourage the multitude of ancient grasses to naturally reseed.
The more we moved around the ranch, the more I realized just how unique this space was. As we chatted, we saw more non-farmed animals than farmed, with moose, elk and deer grazing the pasture. David explained that this method of ranching recognizes these fellow "users" of the range as equal inhabitants, rather than as competitors. Indeed, the farm’s website proudly proclaims the Northern Arapaho Tribe’s intent "to reconnect with its strong traditions as a hunter/gatherer society whose very existence depended on its willingness to live in harmony with nature."
This mission is reflected in the unique wolf management plan at the ranch, which has been approved by the federal government and gives the tribe full control over decisions concerning the local wolf population. In its opening paragraph the plan states that: "Traditional views of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes recognize wolves as kin, as helpers, as strong, and as deserving of respect and placed here by the Creator for a purpose." I knew wolves lived on the ranch and had heard tales that wolves would readily take both wild and domesticated animals. So how did the ranch deal with this threat? David quickly put me straight: First, he isn’t convinced that the threat is real; second, the plan - and the beliefs of the Arapaho Tribe - means that he can only address the challenge using non-lethal management.
The wolf control plan at the ranch is as fascinating as it is plain old common sense. David explained that the whereabouts and hunting patterns of the wolves are well-known by him and the ranchers, so they simply ensure that any cattle that graze in the areas patrolled by wolves are cattle that are "not prey." I must have looked a little confused. "Wolves take the injured, sick and young," he explained. By ensuring that any injured, sick or young cattle are not grazed in the range of the wolves, the issue of predation is avoided. It’s a very simple and symbiotic solution to the challenge, which is reflected elsewhere on the ranch. These older, stronger cattle drift as they graze and this spares the riparian pastures and encourages seed spread. The ranch team is made up of cowboys who grew up with the philosophy of respect for and knowledge of their surroundings, and who know how to interact with the "other" inhabitants of the ranch.
I noted that surface runoff from rainfall and snow melt isn’t as big a problem here as it is in other farms I’ve visited. Heavy rains can lead to flooding and fast moving water, which can flatten large areas of pastures and cause soil erosion. I asked David how he managed to keep runoff damage down. "Beavers," he said. My eyes must have spoken volumes. I had no idea how you might control runoff with beavers, but I knew that this was going to be interesting. As we all know, beavers chop down trees to make dams and, in doing so, clear small patches of forest where light can fall on the highly fertile soil. These are great for grazing cattle, he explained, while also providing access to water. But perhaps the key byproduct of the beavers’ presence is that their dams act to slow down the flow of water and control runoff, like man-made dams but in a less heavy-handed way.
It was clear that what David and the Council are doing with this land is right, and that the care and compassion that David and his team show for the flora and fauna profits everyone and everything on the ranch. But as we prepared to leave, my heart sank in the realization that this farming utopia could not possibly make a bottom-line profit without some complicated argument about the value of habitat conservation; or the fact that grazing the pastures in this way actually locks atmospheric carbon dioxide into the ancient grassland through carbon sequestration; or by explaining the net positives of not using artificial fertilizers, which inevitably leach nitrogen and phosphorus into the water table.
So I was utterly taken aback when David said that the farm was making an operating profit. Here is a living, breathing, working example of how to farm in a truly sustainable way and still make a living - even by today’s skewed perceptions - yet be a billionaire in the eyes of those who value nature and the planet. The Arapaho Ranch is not just the pride of the Northern Arapaho Tribe: It’s an example to us all.