Rock Bottom Ranch honored for wildlife friendly eco-agriculture

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Smokey the burro grazes Tuesday with sheep and lambs at Rock Bottom Ranch. Smokey has battle scars from apparently fending off a mountain lion.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

Rock Bottom Ranch in the Emma area has hundreds of egg-laying hens scratching and pecking at the ground in a small pasture roped off by flexible electric fencing. Just a few feet away in an adjacent paddock were six lambs huddled together to battle the chill of a recent dreary April day.

The animals look like a smorgasbord for coyotes and mountain lions that prowl the nearby hillside known as the Crown. They would be easy pickings for hungry bears emerging from winter slumber, and it’s easy to imagine an owl swooping in at dusk and helping itself to a chicken dinner.

But Rock Bottom Ranch suffers a low loss from predators thanks to some precautions that ranch director Jason Smith and his staff have enacted over the past few years.

“The easy thing is to shoot a mountain lion or coyote and be done with it,” he said.

But that wouldn’t fly at a farm and ranch operated by a renowned environmental organization. People expect more from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, and ACES delivers.

“We take lots of steps to protect our animals,” Smith said.

Earlier this year, Rock Bottom became the first farm and ranch in Colorado and one of just 13 in the U.S. to earn a Certified Wildlife Friendly designation from the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network.

Smokey to the rescue

Smokey doesn’t look very intimidating. He’s a docile burro of the color suggested by his name. But he and a couple of other donkeys have been effective at chasing off predators, Smith said.

Earlier this winter, Smith noticed that something wasn’t quite right with Smokey. He called the burro’s owner, former ACES Executive Director Tom Cardamone, who came down from Aspen to take a look. While checking to see if Smokey was suffering from hoof issues, they noticed a scratch on one shoulder, then on the other, and still more on his flanks. The injuries weren’t deep or life-threatening, but it appeared that Smokey had tangled with a cat. The donkeys graze in the same cordoned off pasture as the sheep and lambs with no problem. But they are territorial and, of course, stubborn. Smith credits them with keeping predators at bay.

They ran 300 sheep on the ranch a couple of winters ago and only two or three were lost to coyotes, Smith said.

70 acres of ranch in wild state

Wildlife-friendly certification means more than not shooting predators. ACES’ philosophy at Rock Bottom Ranch has always been sustainable food production, said Executive Director Chris Lane.

“We want to grow food in a way that doesn’t destroy the planet,” he said.

He and Smith want to operate the 113-acre ranch in harmony with its wild surroundings, not in competition with it. Smith said promoting a healthy ecosystem and nurturing wildlife habitat is the best thing Rock Bottom can do to keep predators at bay. About 70 acres, or 60 percent, of the ranch land is in a natural state. The wetlands and riparian area at Rock Bottom is a critical link between 177,000 acres of public lands at the base of Mount Sopris to the south and the Roaring Fork River to the north.

Ponds attract a variety of waterfowl. Wetlands thick with cattails provide sanctuary for red-winged blackbirds and scores of birds. Cottonwood stands near the Roaring Fork River provide rookeries for great blue heron.

Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network Executive Director Julie Stein said wildlife is often the “invisible collateral damage” of farms and ranches. The focus is on the welfare of the livestock, but it often comes at the expense of wildlife. Not so with Rock Bottom Ranch, she said.

Motion-sensing cameras help Smith and company track wildlife movements and patterns on and around the ranch. They know without the benefit of a camera that they have to fence in their vegetable garden this summer because of raids by deer.

“A herd of deer can wipe you out in one night,” Lane said.

Smith and his staff practice a multi-species, rotational grazing system where a small amount of pasture is used at a time. The sheep and burros graze a small, enclosed portion of pasture for a short time, then the chickens are moved in via mobile coops, then that piece of land is allowed to rest as the animals are rotated to other paddocks. It helps refresh the pastures so Rock Bottom can use less land for grazing and leave more land in a wild state.

Curfew for the chickens

About half an acre of pasture is used at a time for rotational grazing. The paddocks are separated with portable netting that includes electrical fencing running between 7,000 and 10,000 volts — enough to give a coyote a good shock.

“That’s kind of our first line of defense,” Smith said.

The hen houses aren’t run-of-the-mill chicken coops. They are on wheels so they can easily be moved, but what really makes them unique are the timers set to automatically shut the metal doors shortly after dusk.

That’s reduced the loss from raccoons and martens raiding the hen houses, Smith said. Continually moving the houses — even a short distance — also pays off, he said. Before he took the helm in January 2013, the chickens were kept in the same spot. A bear got into a pattern of swinging by and grabbing a hen. Moving the houses broke the pattern, according to Smith.

Of course, all predation can’t be avoided in Rock Bottom’s wild setting at the end of Hook Spur Road. A visiting bear in the fall “didn’t care about the fence,” ripped a door off the hen house and helped himself to two birds, Smith said.

And owls are a mixed blessing. They still pick off an occasional chicken but they also control moles, voles and other animals that can wreak havoc with Rock Bottom’s extensive summer gardens.

“We have the philosophy that we’re going to lose a few,” Lane said.

Setting an example

Lane and Smith sought the wildlife-friendly certification as part of Rock Bottom Ranch’s education mission on sustainable agriculture.

Lane said he hopes that wildlife friendly certification for farms and ranches in the U.S. catches on just as LEED certification caught and promoted green building over the past two decades. Aspen Skiing Co. was a leader in green building with the Sundeck, he said. ACES will be “ahead of the curve” on wildlife-friendly certification for agriculture, Lane said.

ACES applied last year to become Certified Wildlife Friendly with Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network, which works around the globe. A third-party auditor visited the ranch and the certification was awarded in February.

“For us, they’re an ideal partner with their education mission,” Stein said.

The organization hopes ACES’ practices at Rock Bottom Ranch are used as a model for other farmers and ranchers in the small but growing eco-agriculture movement.

“They’re on the leading edge,” Stein said.