LADDER RESERVE – A flurry off to the side of the rutted dirt road leads guide Ken Stinnett to slam on the brakes on the side-by-side.
“Look,” he points as a young Swainson’s hawk swoops past. “Its mother should be around here somewhere.”
Sure enough, the words are hardly out of his mouth before a larger version of the original swoops overhead. The two catch an updraft and soar away above the impossibly lush landscape on the southernmost of Ted Turner Reserves. Between three large parcels across New Mexico, Turner – CNN founder, former Atlanta Braves owner and ex-husband to Jane Fonda – owns about one million acres in the state.
At 156,439 acres, the Ladder is the smallest of the reserves and covers the extensive drainage areas of the Las Animas Creek, which currently looks like a raging river, and Seco Creek. Lined with cottonwoods, Arizona cypress and several varieties of oak, the creeks eventually feed into the Rio Grande.
Rolling hills, basalt-capped mesas, sheer canyons and upper and lower flatlands that abut the Black Mountain Range make the reserve a haven for all sorts of critters from large carnivores like bears and the reintroduced Mexican grey wolf. A variety of raptors fill the skies as hummingbirds frenetically flit from plant to plant.
Here some 100 of the purest bison remaining in the U.S. wile away their days noshing at the undergrowth and rolling in the dust and muck while consistently replenishing the herd under the watchful eyes of the range manager.
Since the bison replaced cattle on the reserve’s grazing areas, healthy watersheds and increased biological diversity has helped the rangeland and riparian areas flourish.
An army of biologists and their interns oversee the one-of-a-kind operation to reintroduce the Chiricahua leopard frog back to its native lands in the Chiricahua Mountains astride the southern New Mexico-Arizona border. Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2002, the Chiricahua leopard frog has suffered significant population declines due to factors including disease, invasive species, habitat degradation and drought, but is now well down the road to recovery.
The Bolson tortoise, nearly extinct when brought to the reserves, has also make remarkable strides as even more biologists have created a livable habitat for one of North America’s largest terrestrial reptiles. In the past two years, 75 mature, breeding, carnivore-resistant tortoises have been released in the wilds.
And in 2021, two Mexican gray wolves and their pups were released onto the reserve’s farther reaches in upper Seco Creek area. This pack has been thriving with more pups born on the reserve this year.
Across the reserve, ancient Native American sites abound, with Mimbres pottery sherds and chipped arrowheads scattered in various locales. Pictographs painted on cliff walls and petroglyphs etched into basalt rocks give testimony to those that came before.
Amid these conservation, preservation and rehabilitation efforts, this vast territory also is slowly being opened to minimal-impact eco-tourism, said June Strange, general manager of Turner’s southern New Mexico properties.
The Ladder Reserve’s four-suite Country House – complete with private chef – has been extensively renovated and will soon be unveiled at grand reopening of the site in October. The eco-tourists will have access to a range of experiences like wildlife exploration, conservation education, exploration of ancient cultural sites including petroglyphs, pictographs and remnants of past civilizations, archery, e-mountain bikes, hiking, hot air ballooning and other authentic New Mexico experiences, Strange said.
But by doing so on a limited scale, it will prevent the reserve turning into a “Disneyland experience,” while also helping support and expand the ongoing scientific efforts, she said.