How Private Land Reserves Are Saving Endangered Species (and Inviting Travelers to Witness the Revival)

Nighttime sky in VermejoCourtesy Image

There’s a lot of land between our coasts, much of it unexplored by travelers. American or foreign, tourists seek oceans, mountains, bright lights, and big cities. They don’t often drop into the “flyover states”, nor engage with the Big-Sky expanse and sprawling grasslands.

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Think about what these travelers are missing: National Parks notwithstanding, these states offer the last sweeping look at undeveloped American land. Sure, it’s monotonous to drive across the desert or the plains when your sights are set on San Francisco, Denver, and New York, but this middle ground is a destination as well. And, it’s one that many people and organizations—non-profit and private alike—are fighting to preserve, so that it doesn’t soon end up as Las Vegas 2.0 or Drilltopia Dystopia.

Sun setting behind wildflowers in Armendaris
Sun setting behind wildflowers in Armendaris Courtesy Image

The charm of this land is its wildlife, much of which is now endangered by private ownership and for-profit greed. As pipelines pummel through the plains and forests bow to bull-headed developers, all counter efforts are needed. Travelers can proactively support such causes by staying on reserved land protected by these organizations. Visitors get to engage with wildlife and put their dollars towards restorative and protective efforts.

For your next vacation, be it in a tent or a luxury resort, consider the sprawling American Prairie Reserve in Montana, and Ted Turner Reserves’  four retreats across New Mexico. The two organizations are taking different approaches to the same end: Buying and protecting land from overdevelopment, reviving endangered species (like the American bison), introducing travelers to the terrain, promoting outdoor recreation (from safari-like drives across the land, to fly-fishing and sanctioned hunting of deer, pheasant, and duck).

Whether it’s an upscale romantic reprieve or a weeks-long outdoor adventure on a budget, guests get an unforgettable experience under the stars. Here’s what both TTR and APR offer visitors—and the environment, too.

Ted Turner Reserves Vermejo lodge
Ted Turner Reserves Vermejo lodge Courtesy Image

Ted Turner Reserves

Mission: When you stay at Ted Turner Reserves, you witness the efforts of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, which helps repopulate and protect precious wildlife in tandem with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. Endangered species such as the American bison, Chiricahua leopard frog, bolson turtle, Mexican wolf, and Rio Grande cutthroat trout. With each expansive property acting as the home to a number of recovery programs, Ted Turner Reserves and the Turner Endangered Species Fund have helped conserve and restore many species.

For example, the population of Rio Grande cutthroat trout had been reduced by 92 percent from historical distributions, competition with introduced salmon, as well as habitat degradation and exploitation. But there’s been “a 20 percent increase in the number of stream miles currently occupied by Rio Grande cutthroat trout”, according to Carter Kruse, TTR’s director of conservation research, education and management, which means the trout is no longer on the endangered species list.

Where they are: Spread across 1.1 million acres in New Mexico, Ted Turner Reserves host visitors at three different properties, and offer tours at one more: Half of that land is at Vermejo, in the north, with private cottages, an eight-room lodge, and a 25,000-square-foot mansion. Between El Paso and Albuquerque in the south and west are Sierra Grande, built on a geothermal mineral hot spring; Ladder has exceptional biodiversity and a ghost-towny appeal; and the exploration-only Armendaris is accessible from Ladder and Sierra Grande, featuring hikes, hot air balloon rides, and a chance to see over a million free-tail bats flying in tandem.

Ranch-raised bison at Vermejo
Ranch-raised bison at Vermejo Courtesy Image

Guest experience: Ted Turner Reserves give visitors a luxurious retreat-like experience, with outdoor activities that celebrate and incorporate both land and wildlife. Activities include safari-like expeditions, nature hikes, nature-photography classes, horse riding, mountain biking, clay shooting, fishing, ice fishing, kayaking, cooking, geocaching, geothermal spa treatments, and more. The best part of it all is to see the wildlife the Turner Endangered Species Fund has helped protect and revive, in addition to the creatures enjoying life on private, sanctioned grounds: American Bison, elk, bear, bighorn sheep, deer, antelope, bolson tortoise, and more. “Guests not only see these animals in their natural habitat, but also have a chance to learn about the work that goes on behind the scenes to help some of these previously endangered species,” says Jade McBride, director of hospitality at Ted Turner Reserves.

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How to get there:  If you’re going to Vermejo in the north, you have to fly into Denver, Colorado Springs, or Albuquerque, then drive the difference. Same for the other properties, targeting Albuquerque and El Paso airports. Even after you enter the private property, you may have to drive a while before reaching the lodge, since that’s the charm of these isolated lands. The lodging at Vermejo, for example, is 45 minutes deep into the property.

Swift foxes playing in Montana
Swift foxes playing in Montana Courtesy Image

American Prairie Reserve

Mission: American Prairie Reserve’s goal is multi-tiered: “We want to create the largest nature reserve in the continental United States, on the northern plains of Montana,” says Beth Saboe, APR’s senior external relations manager. She next cites their mission statement: “This calls for stitching together three million acres of existing public lands with roughly 500,000 acres of private lands purchased from willing sellers.”

APR restores plowed land, removes fencing, revives plant and animal life in streams, and provides financial incentives to ranchers who are willing to farm alongside wildlife. Chief among their efforts, though, is a return-to-glory for the American bison: “APR’s overarching goal for bison restoration is to establish a conservation herd of at least 10,000 bison that interact with the full complement of other native species and ecological conditions that have characterized this landscape for thousands of years,” says Saboe. “We focus on bison because plants and animals of the mixed-grass prairie co-evolved with bison for thousands of years. Bison are a keystone species and scientists have shown their presence increases habitat diversity for native plant and wildlife communities. We hope to be a catalyst in the effort to bring many wildlife populations, such as mule deer, white-tailed deer, big horn sheep, elk, cougars, and grassland birds back to significantly larger populations than currently exist in the region.”

Since reintroducing a small herd of bison to this land in 2005 (after 120 years of absence), there are now 800 bison roaming APR’s land. That number should expand rapidly in the next decade as American Prairie Reserve targets the 10,000 mark.

Where they are: North-central Montana, in large, spaced-out patches on either side of the Missouri River.

RV Camping
Courtesy of American Prairie Reserve

Guest experience: You can visit APR and the surrounding lands in any fashion. Check their lodging options to explore RV camping among bison herds, safari-style lodging at Kestral Camp, traditional camping (just check the camping rules on neighboring public lands), as well as other nearby accommodations.

On the lands, you can watch for birds and bison herds, hike, bike, geocache, and even hunt for regulated animals (like deer, duck, pheasant, and geese). And of course, you can see the stars clearer than ever, since this is Big Sky country.

How to get there: This depends on where you’re starting, and which part of the sprawling reserve you intend to visit. Study APR’s interactive map for your own estimations. However, from Billings and Great Falls, it’s a 4-hour drive to the heart of the reserve. From Bozeman, 5.5 hours, and from Missoula, 8 hours. (Montana is big.) Regardless of your destination (or various stops), you’ll need a 4WD vehicle for the journey since the road stability and weather conditions can both be unstable. And before you go, consider weather and preparedness tips, namely your food and supplies checklist.

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