Mike Phillips, wolf czar, left Yellowstone National Park to run Turner's biodiversity programs.
Mike Phillips, wolf czar, left Yellowstone National Park to run Turner's biodiversity programs. (Kurt Markus)

One Nation, Under Ted

Ted Turner and his son Beau aren’t your typical green crusaders—the kid is a hook-and-bullet guy, and dad is hatching plans to sell buffalo burgers as theme food. But together they control 1.8 million acres of prime U.S. ranchland, where they’re unloading a fortune to revive endangered species, revolutionize grazing, and (don’t tell the neig

Mike Phillips, wolf czar, left Yellowstone National Park to run Turner's biodiversity programs.
Jack Hitt

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The thing is, there’s this red dot,” says Beau Turner, standing quietly in a long-leaf pine forest on his Avalon Plantation, 25,000 red-clay acres half an hour south of Tallahassee. It’s 6:30 on a late-spring morning, and the humidity is rolling in like a fog; already I regret the hot coffee in my hand. One of our chores today is to band some new woodpecker chicks with Avalon identification, but then the red dot came up and I was anxious to see it. Not much bigger than the head of a pin, the red dot is a nearly Zen idea of nature’s beauty. It sits behind the ear of the male red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species that Turner has spent the last four years trying to reintroduce to this land.

Ted Turner's 114,000-acre Flying D Ranch, near Bozeman, Montana Ted Turner’s 114,000-acre Flying D Ranch, near Bozeman, Montana
Ted provides the cash and brash opinions. Ted provides the cash and brash opinions.
Beau "eats, breathes, and sleeps" the work on the ground. Beau “eats, breathes, and sleeps” the work on the ground.
Birdland: Greg Hagan cradles a woodpecker chick. Birdland: Greg Hagan cradles a woodpecker chick.
Star of the restoration drama: a gray wolf penned up at the Flying D Star of the restoration drama: a gray wolf penned up at the Flying D
Home again on the range: a portion of the Flying D's 5,000-head bison herd Home again on the range: a portion of the Flying D’s 5,000-head bison herd
Mike Phillips, wolf czar, left Yellowstone National Park to run Turner's biodiversity programs. Mike Phillips, wolf czar, left Yellowstone National Park to run Turner’s biodiversity programs.

“It’s like a bird hickey,” drawls Greg Hagan, a woodpecker specialist and former U.S. Forest Service biologist who bolted to Avalon four years ago to work with Beau. During mating season, the red dot gets shown off to the females, and it pretty much reduces them to shameless tramps. Hagan points to a towering pine, taking note of a shower of splinters catching the light. It’s no red dot, but it’s as close as we’ll get. Following the wood chips up a column of sunshine, I finally see him. A red-cockaded woodpecker pecking away, foraging.
It is a lovely sight, and the work it’s taken to put that bird in the upper story of this forest is critical to understanding why, at 33, Beau Turner is one of the most important conservationists working the land today.

Reintroducing the red-cockaded woodpecker has cost millions of dollars—probably tens of millions, if you consider that the bird is just part of a much larger attempt to restore Avalon’s entire longleaf-pine ecosystem, which is in turn a mere fraction of the projects under Beau’s management. The youngest son of cable magnate and billionaire Ted Turner, Beau is in charge of an unprecedented bid to return almost two million private acres to their original state of biodiversity—bringing bison back to tallgrass prairies, desert bighorn sheep back to New Mexico mountains, and wolves back to great swaths of the Rockies—in an effort to prove that responsible environmental stewardship can pay off, not only in beauty, but in bottom-line profits, a form of enlightened stewardship that Beau calls “holistic land management.”

At Avalon, that translates into a massive program of weeding thousands of acres of invasive tree species and reintroducing the controversial tool of fire to revive the longleaf pine forests that once thrived here. The hope is to establish selective harvesting of the pines in a land-management system that will do it all: make money, permit the Turners to preserve the plantation’s historic use as a quail-hunting spread, and restore these woods to their ancient role as habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker. So the red dot is an emblem of a larger-than-life ambition—the type of thing Americans have come to associate with the Turner name.

RCWs, as birders call red-cockaded woodpeckers, are “persnickety birds,” says Hagan. They prefer to bore holes about 40 feet off the ground in tall, old, longleaf pines. The hole must be precisely 1-7/8 inches in diameter, not a fraction bigger or flying squirrels will climb in and depredate their eggs. And to keep out snakes and other ground predators, they like to peck little holes around the entrance so that the pine leaks its sap, a stubborn whitish glue.

When Hagan got started at Avalon in 1998, he built 40 RCW nesting chambers in his workshop and placed each box in a notch he chainsawed high up in a pine, complete with sap-mimicking white paint stripes. That year, he released ten young RCWs obtained from the Apalachicola National Forest; one pair flew off, but eight stayed, settling into Hagan’s phony nests for a season before building their own. Each year Beau and Hagan have released another ten birds or so; the current population is near 45 birds, stable enough that the woodpeckers are beginning to breed.

“Check this out,” Beau says. He and Hagan are looking at a small video monitor, part of a device Hagan dreamed up. On a long extendable pole, he’s placed a tiny camera, like something David Letterman might fasten to the head of a monkey. He can dip its lens directly into an RCW nest. On screen, two chicks—bald and helpless—tumble over and over each other. Hagan straps a narrow ladder to the trunk of the pine and climbs up in a safety harness, like a telephone man. At the hole, he uses a dental mirror to peer in, and another little device to scoop up the chicks in a tiny sling. He climbs down and carefully places a chick in Beau’s hands. With the banding tool, Hagan marks the bird twice, once with a Fish & Wildlife number and again as an Avalon chick born this year.

“Take a look,” says Beau, holding the little woodpecker in cupped hands. The bird is curious to behold, but so is the man. Beau’s a boyish-looking adult, with a kid’s flop of hair betrayed only by a few gray strands. His smile is wide and friendly. He’s standing upright (and he’s a good six-foot-three), reminding me not of his father but of Teddy Roosevelt in one of those vintage pictures of him beside a dead bull elephant, chest out, his smile wild with a primal Darwinian pleasure. Beau is holding a new kind of trophy animal, appropriate to this age: a blind, rubbery, neonatal chick with pin feathers, about two inches long, alive.

MULTIPLY THAT CHICK THOUSANDS of times and you get an idea of the national scale involved here. From Ted Turner’s original southwestern Montana spreads—the 22,000-acre Bar None and the 114,000-acre Flying D—the Turner empire has mushroomed to include 20 properties that dip into nearly every North American ecosystem. A quarter-million acres of Nebraska sandhills. Another 138,000 in South Dakota. Forty thousand in the Oklahoma tallgrass prairie. The Vermejo Park Ranch in northern New Mexico, at nearly 600,000 acres, is the largest ponderosa-pine ecosystem in private hands. It joins Turner’s other New Mexico holdings—the 156,000-acre Ladder Ranch and 360,000-acre Armendaris Ranch, both near Truth or Consequences—to constitute 2 percent of the state’s land. At 63, Turner is now the single largest individual land-owner in the country; his personal chunk of America is 1.8 million acres and growing. Compare that to The Nature Conservancy, the nation’s largest land-conservation organization, which owns 1.6 million U.S. acres and manages 5.4 million more. The Turner empire is bigger than Delaware. It is enough mountain and valley and river and prairie that it could rank as the 48th-largest state.
This total does not include Ted’s international property, two estancias in Patagonia and one in Tierra del Fuego totaling another 128,000 acres. Recently, the Patagonian estates have served as fly-fishing retreats for Ted, who’s had sort of a bad year. In its January restructuring, AOL Time Warner put Turner out to pasture, and since then he’s been about as easy to interview as the banished ruler of an autocratic kingdom. When his nervous chamberlains finally made the arrangements, Turner and I conversed via speakerphone, as his scribes took down Ted’s pontifications to ensure accuracy on my part.

“I don’t want all the land, I just want the ranch next door,” Ted bellowed from his bunker at the CNN Center in Atlanta. “That’s a joke, of course,” he yelled, but of course he wasn’t joking. Turner buys land almost compulsively because, he boomed, “we’re heading for extinction at 90 miles per hour,” because “humanity is an endangered species.” As the brochures for Turner Enterprises proclaim, Ted’s dream is to manage these vast lands “in an economically sustainable and ecologically sensitive manner while conserving native species.”

Like all moguls, Ted is a notorious man of action, and he gets prickly with questions that seek reflection. When I tossed him a bunny about his land philosophy, he barked, “You’re the writer, I’m not getting paid to write this article!” When I tried flattering him about the wide range of carnivores now roaming the Flying D, he shouted: “We don’t have any grizzly bears. We don’t have any Indians!” That didn’t sound quite right, so he tried again. “We have Indians visit! And we’ve had some grizzlies walk through, but we don’t have any wolves, so we don’t have all the animals there.”

Ted Turner is one of our loudest citizens, which in this culture of cool television can be perceived as idiocy. He is also vulgar and reckless, qualities that obscure his more charming delphic gifts. Ted has pretty consistently put forward big, round concepts that later paid off: Whether it’s shrinking the world into a global village through cable television or forgiving Jane Fonda or fretting about our debt to the United Nations, he has a way of seizing on an idea with dramatic action (inventing CNN, marrying Jane Fonda, donating a billion to the UN). Now, by his estimation, he’s sunk at least $500 million into biodiversity and bison.

One could easily dismiss Turner’s purchasing escapades and eco-rhetoric as money-wasting billionaire hoohah. (His net worth, estimated at $4.8 billion in late September, puts Turner 25th on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans.) But when Turner, praised in the business media for hiring brilliant managers, handed the day-to-day implementation of his land ideas to Beau, the second-youngest of his five children, Ted’s paired instincts—make money, save planet—found fertile ground.

Together with his dad, Beau has developed these ideas into what one might call the Turner ethic, a mingling of the southern tradition of hunting-based conservation, a businessman’s eye for profit, and an environmentalist’s appreciation of beauty and biodiversity. In any five-minute period, Beau can coo about the red dot, complain bitterly about the commodity prices for buffalo bellies and pine timber, point his finger at a darting white-tailed deer and go “bang,” and improvise a symphonic paean to what the land looked like centuries ago.

When he talks about the past, the term “pre-Anglo” falls regularly from Beau’s lips. It’s a metaphor for discovery—for finding out what was lost in the East as we replaced millions of acres of forests with patchwork microenvironments, and in the West as we nearly eliminated bison, wolf, prairie dog, and other species from big-sky landscapes. If the work of colonial and industrial settling deflated once-thriving ecosystems in all these places, then the Turners seek nothing less than to reinstate the bustling climax landscapes that naturally thrived there. And in those redeemed ecosystems, to seize on what opportunities lurk for the entrepreneur. It’s a view of nature guaranteed to thrill and piss off everyone from Greenpeace to the beef industry.

To dream up these ideas is one thing. But with Beau in charge, Ted is nailing them to the ground, trying to find out what happens in messy, mucky practice—a fact that impresses even critics who aren’t always sure what the hubbub adds up to. “As I read what ecologists write, there’s always a hypothetical ‘what if’ tone, because they can’t do the experiment,” says Frank Popper, a Rutgers professor known for his Buffalo Commons theory, the idea that the Great Plains’ economic future lies in an ecological return to open prairie, and with it, bison. “Maybe what Turner is doing is a giant experiment—of how biodiversity would actually work, not in the lab or on a computer model, but on a scale that is appropriate for animals the size of buffalo and antelope.”

If so, the Turners’ vision “is of extraordinary importance,” says Dave Foreman, Earth First! founder and leader of the Wildlands Project, an initiative that works with Turner and others to link large swaths of wildlife habitat. “Aldo Leopold said that ‘one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.’ The job of an ecologist is to be a land doctor. And some of the things they are doing on Turner’s ranches are the cutting edge of healing the wounds.”

Which is another way of saying that Ted Turner puts his money where his mouth is—and he rather famously has plenty of both.

BEAU TURNER’S ZEAL for the outdoors is apparent the minute a housekeeper opens the front door at Avalon Plantation, with its columns and its stone dogs and a Civil War cannon out front. Piled in a great heap on the delicate furniture of the drawing room, anticipating Beau’s later arrival, is a cargo hold of equipment: seven fishing poles, several rifles, boxes of ammo, a longbow, a crossbow, three tackle boxes, seven pairs of boots for every imaginable terrain, and a machete.

Beau’s interest in the outdoors began on the family’s plantations in South Carolina. Outside Charleston are two Old South spreads, Hope Plantation and St. Phillips Island, that Ted bought in the late 1970s. “I grew up hunting and fishing there,” Beau says about Hope, “but it was Pop who encouraged us to really find out what was on the other side of the door.” Given the inclinations of Turner fils, it was not much of a decision for Turner père to tap his youngest son to oversee the properties when it came time to divvy up the next generation’s responsibilities. (All of Turner’s other children—Laura Turner Seydel, 40; Teddy Jr., 38; Rhett, 35; and Jennie Turner Garlington, 32—are involved in the family’s environmental work, but none to the same extent Beau is.)
“I remember the day I graduated from the Citadel,” Beau says, recalling that spring of 1991. “Pop was talking to me afterwards about what to do next. I had been accepted to Wharton Business School. And he said I should think about the environment.” Beau describes it as the turning point of his life, as if he can’t quite believe he almost went to a fancy eastern business school. Instead he went to Montana State and started on a master’s in wildlife biology.

By this time western ranches had become the bauble of choice for the billionaire crowd, but Ted wasn’t buying livestock just to complete the cowboy postcard outside some 18-bedroom log mansion. Rather, he set out to redeem the buffalo—an interest that dated back to Ted the kid collecting buffalo nickels, and one that got a little eccentric as Ted maintained a proto-herd on his South Carolina land in the 1970s.

When Beau took over the species work in 1993, the operation snowballed. In 1992 Ted had added a New Mexico property, the Ladder Ranch, to the two Montana ranches, and in 1993 bought the 12,000-acre Snowcrest Ranch, southwest of Bozeman, Montana. The slow accretion of property continued, one or two ranches a year, with high marks like the 1996 purchase of the 580,000-acre Vermejo Park Ranch west of Raton, New Mexico. All the while the Turners were hiring scientists, adding bison, and developing restoration programs.

“Ted has said he would not have been so aggressive in the acquisition of land if not for the interest and abilities of Beau,” says Mike Phillips, the star wildlife biologist hired away from Yellowstone National Park in 1997 to run the endangered-species programs. “Beau’s biggest strength is his passion—unending passion and unending enthusiasm for proper land stewardship. This guy is caught hook, line, and sinker. He eats it, he breathes it, he sleeps it.”

Today, if Ted is the visionary CEO of Planet Turner, Beau is the practical-minded CFO. From its headquarters in Bozeman, not far from the Flying D, the operation is broken down by mission: Turner Enterprises is a for-profit group trying to earn money from the properties by cutting timber, running big-game hunts ($13,000 per elk hunt at the high end), and ranching bison, whose lean meat is sold to upscale groceries and restaurants. The Atlanta-based Turner Foundation is the charitable arm, its trustees Ted and the kids, giving away $44 million in 574 grants last year to every environmental and population-control group imaginable, from $15,000 for Wild Alabama to $500,000 for the National Wildlife Federation. The Bozeman-based Turner Endangered Species Fund is the field operation for the properties, spending $1 million of Turner Foundation money last year on species-restoration programs for listed critters and greenery like the Mexican wolf and the blowout penstemon. As one employee told me, “Turner Enterprises makes the money, the Foundation gives away the money, and the Fund spends the money.”

On the ground, each western ranch manager reports to a single chieftain, Russ Miller, who has managed the ranching business since 1992. His bio-diversity counterpart is Mike Phillips, a renowned bigfoot in wolf restoration. Another sign of the scale the Turners operate on is the arrival of Mike Finley, the new president of the Turner Foundation, and former superintendent of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Everglades National Parks. When the ranch managers get together twice a year, as they did this August in Bozeman, the agenda runs from bison herd projections to fire management to community outreach.

The main business is still bison. Ted now owns 8 percent of the country’s population—27,000 head. With wholesale prices for live bison dropping, though, he recently decided to try to stimulate the demand side. He intends to open five restaurants next year called Ted’s Montana Grill. Run by his eldest son, Teddy Jr., and supplied by Beau, the Grills will sell bison burgers but also regular hamburgers and even chicken. “We’ve got a motto,” Beau says slyly. “‘Nobody beats our meat!’” It’s not clear he’s kidding.

WHEN BEAU AND I sit down to dinner in the formal Avalon dining room that night, the cook serves osso buco—but of course the shanks are bison, not veal. Heavy with meat and bones, the fine porcelain plates are delivered by servants. “Do y’all eat the marrow with the meat like ya supposed to?” Beau asks, all chummy, as if he’s not so sure about this fancy-ass osso buco stuff. He makes you feel like you either could eat the marrow and sip the exquisite cabernet at the table of a billionaire, or just put your elbows on the table and chew damn good meat with Beau. Whichever.

It’s a southern thing, too. Any relationship, no matter how strained, weird, or antagonistic, has to be grounded in the habits of friendship—the back slap, a private detail, booze. After dinner, Beau asks me to put down the pad and just have a drink. We polish off another bottle of wine and talk about friends, wives—Beau married Texas interior designer Gannon Hunt in 1999—and family. I learn about his sister’s heartbreak, a gravely ill child.
His ease can be disarming. At one point, I motion to a portrait of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. The thing is nearly life-size, I say, just like the one in the movie.

“It is the one in the movie,” Beau says, as if he’d just learned it himself. Then he jumps up to show me the purple stain where a drunken Rhett Butler shattered his wineglass just before he took Scarlett upstairs for what we might now call date rape. Beau says that his father “picked it up,” as if Ted had found it at a yard sale.

When the weather comes up, I talk about the strange winter we had in Connecticut, and Beau cites the rainfall totals for northern Florida before dilating on the inaccuracies of the precipitation forecasts for the Dakotas. Rain was pretty good in the Northwest, he says, but he’s concerned about the Southwest, particularly Arizona and New Mexico. There have been rain shortages in those states, which means the possibility of catastrophic fire.

There’s a way to talk about the weather that marks you as a local—a knowledge of the immediate past, of the way it’s supposed to be right now. Beau talks that way about half the country. He looks at tracts of land, entire states, the way I look at my backyard vegetable patch. As a garden.

RATTLING AROUND AVALON in his old Toyota truck, Beau’s intimacy with the landscape shows. At one dried-up peat bog, he talks at length about what will replace it: a 360-acre lake he’s restoring. At another lake he hops out into a biblical gathering of insects.

“Oh, hell, don’t worry about those,” he laughs as the swarms blacken us. “They’re just hatchlings. They won’t do anything.” Unperturbed, he pulls out a fly rod. “How about a sportsman’s shot?” he informs the photographer with me. “Let me catch a bass. Right here.” He walks to the water’s edge and starts examining the surface and the shadows. He casts, and two minutes later a fish is dangling on the line. Then he does it again, like a Saturday morning Bassmaster. The day wears on like this, Beau driving around the lumpy roads of his 25,000 acres, yakking endlessly. “Black bears like to cross through here,” he says at one point, and sure enough, one appears, sees us, and rambles off.
We pull up to some thick woods. The stretch is dense with oak and magnolia; the underbrush is as tall as a basketball player—impenetrable without a machete.

“You’ll never get a better view of past, present, and future than right here,” he says. He asks me to look at this forest, and it just looks like “forest” to me, but then it becomes clear that these woods are supposed to be repellent. If I leave this land knowing anything, he wants me to know that this is wrong.

“Pre-Anglo, this land burned every year,” he says. “Those hardwoods would never make it to this height. This should be longleaf pine.” We continue on, bouncing up and down past different styles of forest, and then come to a clearing where bulldozers are shoveling ripped-up trees into piles to be burned.

“This is tung-nut tree,” Beau says. “It’s not a native species. It was planted in the forties to produce tung-nut oil. But it chokes out the longleaf pine.” So, on about 3,000 acres, he’s tearing out the tung trees and reseeding pine. We drive to a patch of newly reclaimed longleaf forest, where the tung trees have been removed, the hardwoods logged, and the floor cover burned to make it easier for the longleaf to come back.

“Look at that,” Beau says. “It’s amazing. What you’re seeing is a work of art.”

The man who taught Beau to see the land this way is just up the road at Beau’s latest acquisition, an old 8,500-acre pine plantation. We hook up with Leon Neel, Beau’s mentor, an originator of the Turner ethic, and a driving force in its implementation. Neel is an old-timer in this area, a 74-year-old environmentalist who’s worked with loggers all his life. More important, he is a practitioner of fire ecology, the growing school of thought that fire was not just a part of the land “pre-Anglo,” but—whether set by migrating American Indians, by lightning, or by Beau’s employees today—a necessary part of wildlife management.

“You’ve got to understand how this works,” Neel says in his smooth inland drawl. He grabs a small clump of longleaf in the grass stage. He explains how it closes up during a fire, protecting the tree’s heart, and then shoots straight up above the usual fire line, beginning its ascent to the top of the forest canopy.

Longleaf pine produces beautiful, languid, 12-inch needles precisely to create the kind of fuel that will combust into fire every fall, destroying its competitors. The “hand of man,” as Beau and Neel like to say, stopped the fires and deprived the longleaf of its main Darwinian advantage. It started to disappear as the unburned forests easily pushed it aside, and as mill companies clear-cut these woods to make room for fast-growing pulp trees like slash and loblolly pine.

On some level, there’s a tree-hugging sensibility at work here: Neel and Beau look at these woods and can see the difference between overgrown hardwood and the cathedral spaces of a climax pine forest. But this is where Beau also earns the Turner in his name. “Longleaf is a really nice timbering wood for furniture,” he says. “Slash and loblolly aren’t.” Beau believes he can profitably log these woods while maintaining the parklike cathedral conducive to quail and, at the tip of the pyramid, the red-cockaded woodpecker.

“Clear-cutting wrecks your soil, and that’s just going to hurt you in the long run,” says Beau, shouting now. “Economics and environmental sustainability go hand in hand, that’s what we’ve learned.” His mind now fixed on wrongheaded ideas, he recalls the story of a huge $50 million grant proposal that came to him. Some guy had created a hybridized Sahara-type grass that, in an arid environment, produces a wheat grain, a corn grain, and then another grain so that livestock could forage all year long. The perfect plant. He was surprised when Beau asked where the nutrients for this miracle specimen would come from.

“He wasn’t thinking it through,” Beau says, actually pissed off. Then he lets loose with an almost comical “and um” that only Tom Wolfe could spell—“aaaaannnd aaaahhhhhhmmmmm”—before adding, “We can’t go on like this. It’s crazy.” The accent, the tone, along with the disgust, frustration, and impatience, come together into quintessential Turneritude—and there’s no mistaking who this boy’s father is. error waiting for process to exit: child process lost (is SIGCHLD ignored or trapped?)

RAISING WOODPECKERS in the East is one thing; restoring wolves and their chilling howl in the West is another. Out West, the sheer scale of land and humans’ long, troubled history with large carnivores means that wildlife restoration is not a garden-club nicety, but a political act that jeopardizes a “way of life.” The Turners have decided to champion the cow’s shaggy rival as well as bears, wolves, prairie dogs, and other animals perceived as pests. When Ted Turner—an Easterner and a billionaire and a guy with woolly eco-theories—showed up next door, the Welcome Wagon didn’t exactly wheel up to the ranch gates.

“In New Mexico, at least, he’s thumbed his nose at local custom and culture,” says Caren Cowan, the executive director of the Albuquerque-based New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association. “He’s made statements that livestock or cattle should never have been raised in an arid climate like this. Given that we have three different ethnic cultures in New Mexico, some of which have raised livestock for up to 400 years, we feel that this is very insensitive to the local peoples.”
Cowan, a frequent Turner critic, is not as worried about bison on Ted’s property as she is about his reintroduction of undesirables to the neighborhood. “We have a lot more concerns with the endangered species he’s propagating. This organization has taken strong opposition to the whole reintroduction of the Mexican wolf.”

So far, Turner has never released a wolf on his property. He has only assisted—under provisions of the Endangered Species Act—the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, welcoming reintroduced wolves onto his land if they stray from public acreage, which they have done in New Mexico; maintaining captive holding or breeding programs for Fish & Wildlife on the Ladder Ranch and the Flying D; and monitoring Mexican wolves released into the Apache and Gila National Forests. But by hiring Yellowstone’s Mike Phillips as the architect of his wolf program, Turner has invited the wrath of most, but not all, of his fellow ranchers.

One cattleman who finds Turner’s notions worth studying is fourth-generation New Mexican Jim Winder, whose 125,000-acre Heritage Ranch sits ten miles south of Turner’s Ladder Ranch. Winder heads the Quivira Coalition, a group of ranchers and environmentalists trying to create ecologically healthy rangeland. Like Turner, he welcomes reintroduced wolves onto his property; he spotted a large radio-collared male there just last summer. But he also understands ranchers’ hostility. “The wolf presents itself as a cost to these ranchers,” he says, “and the economics of ranching are basically slow starvation. Talking about wolf recovery is like taking a drowning man and pouring a cup of water on his head.”

Winder isn’t worried about bison replacing cattle. “That’s still a specialty market,” he says. “Most ranchers think it’s a joke.” But he has joined an increasing number of western ranchers who are trying the same sustainable practices—pasture rotation and natural grazing patterns—that the Turners use. “I don’t believe their current business is economically wise,” Winder says. “But what Turner does that’s different is he puts a value on conservation. As I like to tell people, Ted Turner’s got the money of a small government, but not the bureaucracy. He’s able to accomplish a lot of things that an individual like me cannot.”

Winder believes that, for landowners of modest means, ecology has to pay for itself. And groups like The Nature Conservancy are sympathetic. “There is sometimes a sense of all or nothing in the environmental community,” says TNC president Steve McCormick from the organization’s Arlington, Virginia, headquarters. “In some cases, 100-percent conservation is not possible. So if you can get 90 percent because the landowner is getting some economic return and is motivated to keep the environmental quality, then that’s good. If the landowner thinks he has to either sell to conservationists or build condos, then the possibility of selling a few trees, for example, in a sustainable operation is much better.” In other words, a third way. “If ranchers weren’t so damn pigheaded,” Winder says,”they would be studying what Turner is doing and figuring out how to make money from it. Ted Turner is offering a life preserver for ranchers; if you want to ranch, you better be studying what heÕs doing. We are.”

“THE WOLVES ARE coming,” says Mike Phillips, pointing to the mountains. On the outskirts of Bozeman, Phillips is cruising down the highway toward the Flying D in a pickup. “This is ground zero of the large-carnivore restoration movement.”

Phillips, a sandy-haired 43-year-old, is pointing not at the mountains, but at the scattered homes, farms, and shops on the outskirts of town. “The wolves are right over that ridge,” he says. “They’re gonna be on the Flying D someday, with its bison, moose, and elk. But still, they’ll leave and walk north into settled lands and into this valley and get stuck among human habitat. They’re gonna eat people’s boots and knock over trash cans and kill the cat. They will cause problems, but they won’t cause as many problems as they’re credited for.”
Openly challenging the ranchers’ perspective, Phillips wants to reintroduce the wolf—as in big bad—to the public. “Do you know how many sheep are killed every year by wolves?” he asks as we pass under the arch marking the property line of the Flying D. Before us unfurls a hilly range that eventually erupts into the 10,000-foot Spanish Peaks. “About six. And cows? About the same. Do you think that’s low? OK, fine, double it. Now, do you know how many cows just die every year in the normal course of the livestock industry? About 30,000.”

To listen to Phillips is to get the sense that all the difficulties of cattle ranching in the West, which are considerable, get blamed on the fanged mug of the wolf.

But the Turners’ efforts to redefine the wolf haven’t always won over environmentalists, either. Last year, their work with some Yellowstone wolves penned up on the Flying D drew fierce criticism from humane groups. Turner biologists, working with Fish & Wildlife, were testing Skinnerian ideas to create a generation of wolves with no appetite for livestock, trying the same methods used to rid Malcolm McDowell of sexual cravings in A Clockwork Orange. The wolves were fitted with electric collars, permitted to approach livestock, and then given a strong shock.

Andrea Lococo, Rocky Mountain coordinator of the national animal-protection group Fund for Animals, excoriated the practice. “We think it’s absolutely ridiculous that we should try to alter the natural behavior of wild animals, particularly to benefit a private industry that uses public lands,” she said. Reaction from the right was no better. “Wolves are killers by instinct,” says Steve Pilcher, executive vice-president of the Helena-based Montana Stockgrowers Association, “and I doubt you can really take that out of them.” Others were merely bemused: “I have to respect Ted’s imagination,” says The Nature Conservancy’s McCormick, “but we haven’t tried to do that. Our scientists would suggest it wouldn’t work.”

To the Turner camp, the experiment embodies a question that’s at least worth asking: If adaptation in nature occurs all the time in the normal hustle of the ecosystem, then why can’t we help adapt the wolf to provide some wildness but not too much? It sounds ridiculous, and typically Turnerian in its hubris, except that we’ve fully domesticated all kinds of animals and partially domesticated scores of others.

But a wolf? Phillips expected flack, and he got it. “No other private organization has ever gone shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. government and helped deal with the daily grind,” he says. “Wolves are tough. They wear you down fiscally, they wear you down emotionally. Nobody likes you.”

This morning, there are eight wolves being cared for on the Flying D—six pups, a mother, and a yearling—not free, but penned. They were killing sheep 60 miles away, so Fish & Wildlife removed them and accepted the Flying D’s invitation to take them in. Phillips believes in a form of “soft release”—keeping them penned up for a while so they lose their homing urge. In the past, wolves that were “hard released” have wandered great distances to get home.

We pick up Beau at his ranch house and head over to a cluster of outbuildings. Phillips pops the door on a freezer truck parked to the side and, stiff as a board, a 300-pound buffalo calf falls out the back, stands miraculously like a ballerina en pointe, and then falls over and thuds into the dirt. Then out come a giant bison drumstick and a rib cage as preposterously large as the one that tipped over Fred Flintstone’s car. The first chore of the morning, apparently, is to feed the wolves.

The truck jackhammers a few miles up and down hills until a fenced-off slope dramatically comes into view. The wolf pen has a perimeter fence to keep out the bison. Inside that is a 15-foot-high chainlink enclosure bent at the top to prevent climbing, and inside that is an electric fence. The gate is locked with a chain, latched with a bolt, and secured with a bungee cord. Phillips undoes them all. Quietly we drag carcasses and parts just inside the pen.

“Step over that,” Phillips says, indicating the threshold at the gate. “It’s hot.” As he closes the gate behind us, the wolves react to our presence. They maintain their distance but take turns sprinting up and down the far length of the fence, really, really fast. We set out the gargantuan lunches and fill the water troughs. Then Phillips says, “Let’s go have a look at them. Stay close.”

As we walk toward the racing wolves, we have to be careful not to stumble on any of the dozens of gnawed hooves that litter the grass. Toward the other side, where the wolves apparently drag their food, the place is a crowded boneyard of ungulate feet. Above us, a half-dozen ravens watch from the trees, making a noise that sounds like a demented laugh track. I look across to see eight highly aroused wolves galloping back and forth, and I am thinking: That’s an agitated mother wolf with six pups; they are hungry and penned in; we are moving toward them as an aggressive pack.

I don’t have my Boy Scout manual on me, but if memory serves, none of this is particularly safe. Yet as we get closer to the pack against the fence, the wolves squeeze out to one side and race to the far fence by the gate, obviously terrified.

“They’ve gained a little weight,” Beau says hopefully, as if he’s talking about frail octuplets in the neonatal ward. Phillips examines the holes they’ve dug to sleep in. Some pups are in one of the wooden shelters. Phillips pops the top and we all stare in at a pup curled and sleeping. They are handsome animals. You want to pet them.

I definitely remember what the manual says about that.

ON THE FLYING D, as at Avalon, Beau can look out the window at any view of the land and strike up a natural-history yarn. Throughout the morning, wildlife passes by as if we were on safari. An elk bugles, a coyote runs through, then a fox. The outsize shield of a bison’s head slowly turns and regards us as we enter every slope or vale.

Given all this, I ask, what is the point of allowing wolves to thrive in a near-paradise of bison grazing lightly on the land?
“First off, deer and elk wouldn’t be dying of chronic wasting disease,” Beau says, mentioning the illness borne of overpopulation and lack of predation. “So there’d be less disease in the landscape.” Then Beau and Phillips start riffing about the land out the window, citing some of the advantages they’ve seen and others that have been theorized around wolf introduction elsewhere.

With deer and elk populations in check, there’d be fewer coyotes and thus more mice and rodents and voles. Meaning more raptors and foxes. Hence a greater variety of carrion, so scavengers would benefit. Wolverine distribution, for example, is directly related to winter carrion supply.

“If ungulates behave differently because of the presence of wolves, then the plants experience a different fate,” Phillips says. “There might be more aspen saplings that make it to adulthood. So then there’d be more beavers, and that might alter your water regime. We don’t know how it will play out after that, but we want to discover, or rediscover, that effect.”

How long will it all take? And who might it piss off along the way? We are all sitting on a little wooden bridge over Cherry Creek, far off from the wolf pen. Here the Turner ethic has already run afoul of many different interests. The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks agency, working with the Turners, would like to stock the river with westslope cutthroat trout. Sounds simple enough, but all hell has broken loose. The westslope cutthroat trout is an imperiled, though not listed as endangered, fish. It’s native to Montana, but not to Cherry Creek. Actually, no fish is native to the creek, at least not the 70- to 80-mile portion in question, which stretches between a fountainhead lake and a waterfall. Because it’s perfectly isolated and impossible to breach without the hand of man, it would be a great place for this delicate trout to dwell. The problem is that, years ago, rainbow and brook and Yellowstone trout were all stocked in this creek, and they now dominate the isolated section. To ensure that these tough trout won’t drive off any reintroduction of westslope cutthroat, the state agency wants to chemically kill the invasive trout.

Naturally, there are plenty of environmentalists who see this as self-defeating madness. Since part of the creek flows through public lands, the public has standing to sue to halt the plan. A federal suit was withdrawn earlier this year due to overlap with other cases. But a state suit against Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is still pending, charging violations of the state constitution and Water Quality Act. “The poison they want to use will also kill off the insect population and the amphibians,” says Bill Fairhurst, spokes-man for the Public Lands Access Association and the petitioner in both lawsuits. “They are not killing fish, they are killing an entire ecosystem.”

“They have a point,” says Beau. “They say, ÔIf you guys are all about historical conditions and the wisdom of nature, then the place was fishless in the first place.’ True, but it’s a dandy site for trout. And we’re not willing to take a sense of environmental history to an absurd level if it means we’ll lose a native fish.”

ON CHERRY CREEK, as on most of these lands, the difference between Turnerism and environmentalism could not be starker. Those suing don’t trust the hand of man to fix our mistakes. The Turners believe that when the environment is busted, benign neglect is also a choice, and often a bad one. So they take action, cause trouble, get people talking. Maybe that’s the point. “Our logic,” says Phillips, “is if you can provide a stunning example of something, it sometimes prompts people to do things they would not have done otherwise. We’re trying to excite and motivate others to be good stewards.” According to The Nature Conservancy’s McCormick, mini-Teds are already popping up. Telecommunications magnate John Malone is buying up his own empire and preserving it through conservation easements, legal riders in which, by relinquishing development rights, landowners can ensure their land’s preservation in perpetuity. Several of Turner’s properties, including the Flying D, the Bar None, and Avalon Plantation, carry easements through The Nature Conservancy; after Ted’s death, the properties will go into a trust, which his children will manage until the last one passes away. Then the trust will revert to the Turner Foundation.

But the ambition stretches beyond the family’s own growing acreage. The Turners are at the forefront of a movement to reinvent land management with an eye toward big-picture ecology—to blur the boundaries between public and private land and let vast migration corridors open up, allowing keystone species like wolves, grizzlies, elk, and mountain lions to take back the North American range. “The truth is that there is no way to build a large-carnivore conservation program without public lands,” Phillips says, swinging his legs over the bridge. “No private landscape is big enough to support it. You must have both.” In the end, he says, the Turners intend to continue linking up with efforts on public lands (which abut many of the family properties) to force a reconsideration of what we think when we think about wildness. On the Flying D, that might involve a pretty picture of bison grazing on a montane range, part of a robust system of flora and fauna that includes the natural stress of large carnivores and their natural predators, Homo sapiens, as well.
“I see a day when we’ll add wolves to the hunt here,” Beau says, “when the bison population supports it, maybe even needs it.” Of course, on the Flying D, the wolf will never be the main force thinning the herd. Ted’s Montana Grill will. And the hunting and fishing business will help maintain a balance in the aquaculture and among the game animals like elk, deer, and even wolf. That’s the business side. The aesthetic side, even the spiritual side, is to have a landscape teeming with as much biodiversity as the nutrient content in the soil and the dynamics of plant, bird, and mammal will permit. It is a neo-romantic view, one that sees a kind of beauty in the red dot of the RCW flitting among trees, made beautiful not by its mystery, but by our understanding of why it’s there. After aeons of forcing the land to conform to our demands and economies, by backing off some of the ecosystems we do use, we might begin to see the dynamic of nature differently.

“The wolf is just another critter in the woods, if we understand what he’s doing and why he’s doing it,” Beau says.

“No more right or wrong than a rabbit,” Phillips adds. Just another animal on the land, trying to get along, like us.

From Outside Magazine, Dec 2001
Filed to:
Lead Photo: Kurt Markus

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