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November 2010 cover image Kiss Me!

Partnership With the Prairie

Land steward award winner restores Panhandle ranchland to support wildlife, cattle, hunters and birders.

By Mike Cox

Dick Wilberforce first met Jim Bill Anderson while attending a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-sponsored mule deer seminar on Anderson’s 5,000-plus-acre Hemphill County ranch.

“I noticed an old beer can, picked it up and stuck it in my pocket,” the Canadian retiree and lesser prairie-chicken advocate recalls. “Right after I did that, this guy comes up and says, ‘What are you doing?’ I said I had picked up an old can. He asked me what I intended to do with it, and I said I’d be throwing it in the back of my pickup and eventually putting it in the trash.”

At that point, the man asked Wilberforce if he did that very often. “I explained that I had been doing it all my life,” Wilberforce says. “Then he said, ‘Do you know who I am?’”

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Worried that he had somehow offended the man, Wilberforce said no, he did not know who he was.

“Well, I’m Jim Bill Anderson, and you’re welcome on my ranch anytime.”

And so is anyone who supports taking care of the land.

“I love the land,” Anderson declares. “The health of the land, including plant and wildlife diversity, comes into my thought processes all the time.”

Dick Wilberforce first met Jim Bill Anderson while attending a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-sponsored mule deer seminar on Anderson’s 5,000-plus-acre Hemphill County ranch.

“I noticed an old beer can, picked it up and stuck it in my pocket,” the Canadian retiree and lesser prairie-chicken advocate recalls. “Right after I did that, this guy comes up and says, ‘What are you doing?’ I said I had picked up an old can. He asked me what I intended to do with it, and I said I’d be throwing it in the back of my pickup and eventually putting it in the trash.”

At that point, the man asked Wilberforce if he did that very often. “I explained that I had been doing it all my life,” Wilberforce says. “Then he said, ‘Do you know who I am?’”

Photo by

Worried that he had somehow offended the man, Wilberforce said no, he did not know who he was.

“Well, I’m Jim Bill Anderson, and you’re welcome on my ranch anytime.”

And so is anyone who supports taking care of the land.

“I love the land,” Anderson declares. “The health of the land, including plant and wildlife diversity, comes into my thought processes all the time.”

In recognition of what he has done for his piece of Texas and the positive influence he has had on the conservation consciousness of fellow Panhandle ranchers, the 59-year-old Anderson earlier this year received the 2010 Leopold Conservation Award for Texas, the state’s top honor for private land stewardship. The prestigious recognition is bestowed by the Sand County Foundation and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as part of the Lone Star Land Steward Awards program.

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Located on the Canadian River in the northeastern corner of the Panhandle a few miles west of the Hemphill County seat of Canadian, the Anderson Ranch has been in its current owner’s family since 1946. That’s when Anderson’s grandfather J.O. Wells bought it. Though Anderson’s forebears also had a high regard for their holdings, since Anderson assumed full control of the ranch in 1981, he has restored its native grasses, eradicated water-sucking invasive plant species and managed its quail, Rio Grande turkey, white-tailed deer and rare lesser prairie-chicken populations, all while operating a successful working cattle ranch.

“As Mr. Anderson puts it, he believes in ‘partnering with the prairie,’” says Carter Smith, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department executive director. “To visit his ranch is to travel back in time for a glimpse of the Canadian River country pretty much the way it was when Spanish explorers first trekked across the Panhandle. It is hard to imagine a more deserving recipient of this award than Jim Bill Anderson.”

Anderson received a $10,000 check along with a crystal trophy at the annual Lone Star Land Steward Awards banquet in Austin on May 26. He said he plans to use the money toward developing an interpretive center on his ranch so everyone from schoolchildren to fellow ranchers can learn about conservation techniques and the ecosystem of his part of Texas.

The TPWD land steward program is partners with the Sand County Foundation, an international nonprofit organization devoted to private land conservation. The Leopold Conservation Award in Texas is sponsored by the Bradley Fund for the Environment and Silver Eagle Distributors.

The Leopold Conservation Award honors the legacy of Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), considered the father of wildlife ecology. His collection of essays, A Sand County Almanac, remains one of the world’s best-selling natural history books. Leopold’s godson, Reed Coleman, formed the Sand County Foundation in 1965 to protect the Leopold farm from encroaching development along the Wisconsin River.

As a teenager growing up on the ranch, Anderson cut cedar and piled the brush in draws to reverse erosion long before that soil-saving technique became a more common conservation practice. Today, while he sometimes sits behind a desk in his office like the businessman he is, he continues to be a hands-on landowner, still working cattle on horseback, still uprooting invasives like the Russian olive trees initially (and as it turned out, wrongly) brought to the Canadian River as a food source for wild turkeys and still handling miscellaneous chores like any hired hand.

Anderson won his first conservation-related recognition in 1965, when as a Boy Scout he earned a merit badge in soil conservation and nature. The next year he got a badge in wildlife conservation, having spent a lot of time sitting on the porch of Canadian-based conservation legend Alfred S. Jackson, a longtime TPWD wildlife biologist and quail expert. But it was an experience two years later that really proved transformative.

“When I was a sophomore at Canadian High School, I got hired for the summer by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Southern Plains Research Station in Woodward, Oklahoma,” Anderson recalls. “I loaded up two young horses thinking I would be spending the summer working as a cowboy, but I spent most of my time crawling on my hands and knees collecting native grass clippings for analysis. That probably woke me up as much as anything to the importance of land stewardship, a term I like better than conservation.”

After graduating from high school, Anderson left the high plains for the piney woods of East Texas, studying business at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches. But after the death of his father in 1974, he returned to Canadian and began managing the family ranch.

In 1981, he built a house on the ranch and devoted his full attention to running the ranch and 38,000 leased acres. Slowly, he began buying out the various family members who owned parts of the ranch, finally completing its reunification two years ago.

“Jim Bill Anderson has transformed an average Texas Panhandle ranch into a world-class ranch that earns his family a living while allowing wildlife and native grasses to flourish. Anderson’s tireless efforts to sustain and improve his part of Texas make him more than worthy of being honored with an award named for Aldo Leopold,” said Brent Haglund, Sand County Foundation president.

In nominating Anderson for the award, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist John Hughes (formerly based in Canadian but now assigned to the Denver area) cited several factors in demonstrating the rancher’s achievements as a steward of the land:

  •   Anderson uses adaptive management principles, including wildlife-survey-based decisions in livestock rotation. He also uses hunting and prescribed burning to assure the health of his land.

  •   Through his stewardship, he provides healthy habitat for the endangered least tern, the threatened Arkansas River shiner and the lesser prairie-chicken. Populations of these species have either increased or been stabilized on Anderson’s ranch as a result of his management.

  •   He has shown a willingness to be innovative, one example being grazing criollo cattle along his ranch’s river bottomland during the dormant season. That helped rejuvenate stagnated grasslands and encouraged new growth of cottonwood trees, a native species along the Canadian River.

  •   In addition to his land management work, he has reached out to neighbors and various conservation groups, government agencies and economic development organizations to promote land stewardship and ecotourism.

  •   Finally, Anderson worked with the Texas Agricultural Land Trust to place a perpetual conservation easement on his ranch property.

“I nominated Jim Bill because he’s one of the few landowners who gets the total picture,” Hughes says. “He understands that the foundation of both a successful livestock operation and plentiful wildlife is just good range management. He understands the land, he manages it well, and he’s a true steward of the land.”

Indeed, Anderson has earned a living off his land by raising good cattle, by leasing it for quail, turkey and deer hunting and by operating fee-based nature tourism.

“There shouldn’t be a wall between running livestock and promoting wildlife,” Anderson says. “Good land management benefits both.”

Anderson likes to joke that he’s more of a grass farmer than a cattleman.

“The cows harvest the grass, and we encourage different grasses that peak at different times of the year,” he says. “We believe in taking half and leaving half and planning for the long term. We never overgraze.”

By moving his cattle around so that they eat the right grass at the right time, native grasses like little bluestem and big bluestem flourish on his ranch. That’s good for Anderson’s red Angus herd and the threatened lesser prairie-chicken, which is doing well on his ranch.

“Actually, we stock heavier than we’ve ever stocked, and it has produced more beef than we’ve ever produced,” Anderson continues. “But we also maintain good cover for ground-nesting birds and wildlife.”

A Christmas bird count on the Anderson Ranch three years ago found 122 species, from songbirds to quail and prairie-chickens. Anderson allows guided tours for people interested in viewing prairie-chickens and also sells access to his ranch for hunters.

“Nature tourism and hunting and ranching — they’re all compatible,” he says. “It’s not an either-or thing for me. It all goes together.”

Though he freely admits his primary motivation in improving his ranch was making land payments, what’s been good for his ranch has been good for the economy of his corner of Texas.

“Birders, most of them, tend to stay three nights and two days,” he says. “Canadian is the only town in the county. If you have a couple of hundred people come over the season, that’s a big deal.”

Two years ago, Anderson took a huge step to make sure that people will be enjoying the wildlife diversity of his ranch long after he’s gone.

“We put the land in a conservation easement with Texas Agriculture Land Trust,” he says. “The easement is a great tool for anybody who wants to do that. It’s not restrictive; it’s great for a working ranch, which we are. And the easement is going to help preserve the places for your heirs to come and enjoy in the future.”

Under the easement, the ranch can never be broken up and sold.

The ultimate fate of the lesser prairie-chicken elsewhere in the Panhandle is not as easy a fix, however. In fact, Wilberforce believes the problems facing the diminishing number of lesser prairie-chickens in this part of the state may be too great to be overcome.

“But when the last prairie-chicken on earth is found,” he says, “it’ll be on Jim Bill Anderson’s place.”

 

 

 

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