Steamboat Springs Jim Stanko came into the ranch house Friday afternoon after introducing his cows to some permanent houseguests.
“I just bought five pairs (of cows and newborn calves) from a neighbor, and today was a good day to put them in with the others” so they could get their pecking order worked out, Stanko said.
It was just another spring day at the ranch, but this hasn’t been just another month for Stanko and his wife, Jo.
They recently learned that they would be the 2010 Colorado recipients of the Leopold Conservation Award given by the Wisconsin-based Sand County Foundation.
“Jim and Jo Stanko are exceptional stewards of their land, but it is to their credit that their efforts don’t stop there,” Sand County Foundation President Brent Haglund said. “They reach out to others through a great deal of community involvement and educational opportunities that promote the importance of sustainable agriculture.”
The award is named after the famous conservationist Aldo Leopold, who helped establish some of the first officially designated wilderness areas in the United States. His classic book, “Sand County Almanac,” set in central Wisconsin, is required reading for students in environmental studies.
The Stankos work the land on a 103-year-old ranch just outside Steamboat Springs on Twentymile Road. Their cow and calf operation practices stewardship of the land through rotational grazing and an aggressive weed control program. A five-year-old irrigation lake behind an earthen dam cuts down on erosion in a seasonal streambed. It captures snowmelt and keeps several small pastures green throughout the summer.
The Sand County Foundation was most impressed with the Stankos’ commitment to educating the public about land stewardship on a ranch. They were co-founders of the Southside 4-H Club in the late 1970s. Jo is a past president of the Colorado CattleWomen, and Jim was the 4-H extension agent in Routt County for 13 years. The Stankos welcome many visitors to their ranch each year, including third- and fourth-graders who arrive each spring to learn about agriculture.
Jim Stanko expressed obvious pride in a steeply pitched area that is being allowed to go back to sagebrush where he once grew grain.
“When we took it out of the CRP (federal Conservation Reserve Program) we could have put it back in production, but we’re letting the sagebrush come back. That’s providing grouse habitat,” he said. It’s also providing enough grass for periodic cattle grazing.
The 3-acre lake and a nearby alfalfa field have attracted elk in the middle of summer, and 15 or 20 pronghorn use it as a watering hole.
“We have geese using it now, and it’s brought in some nesting ducks,” Stanko said. “I saw eight or nine sandhill cranes on the hillside the other day — that’s the most I’ve ever seen.”
The Leopold Award comes with $10,000, and Stanko said he and his wife already have plans for it.
The irrigation ditches and head gates that pull water out of the Yampa River and into the Stankos’ lower hay meadow via the Woolery Ditch date to the 1960s and aren’t as efficient as they could be.
“My concrete head gates are crumbling, and we want to update our irrigation system,” Jim said. “By making them more efficient, we can grow more hay with less water. That way, when Jo and I decide to retire, a young couple with good jobs that wants to run a few cows could come in here and have a better operation.”
And that would keep a working ranch in place on the edge of a ski town.
If they can stretch the dollars far enough, the Stankos will consider fencing most of the riverbank through the ranch to keep the cattle from contributing to erosion.
The Leopold Award is presented in conjunction with the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust and EnCana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. The Leopold Conservation Award in Colorado is sponsored by the Bradley Fund for the Environment, Peabody Energy, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
Other ranches in Nebraska, Wyoming, Texas, Utah and California are receiving similar awards this year.
The Stankos will receive their award during a formal presentation during the Colorado Cattlemen’s annual convention in Pueblo on June 14. Representatives of the Sand County Foundation will recognize them during branding operations at the ranch later this month.