SPLT’s Prairie Vision
The Southern Plains Land Trust (SPLT) was founded in 1998 with the goal of creating a network of prairie wildlife refuges. We’ve been at it ever since. In the last several years, SPLT has dramatically increased our pace of land acquisition because more refuge is needed to ensure the future of the native animals and plants that make the Southern Plains, and southeastern Colorado in particular, a biodiversity hotspot. We draw inspiration from best-selling historian Dan Flores’ vision of an American Serengeti. In his 2016 award-winning book, American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains, Flores recounts the tremendous wildlife diversity and abundance that once occurred in the Great Plains. The term American Serengeti brings home the idea that North America’s grasslands once hosted teeming and diverse wildlife, on the same level of excitement as what remains in national parks within the African Serengeti. In America, that included countless bison, pronghorn, elk, and wild horses. Chasing them around were scores of grizzly bears, wolves, and coyotes.
Flores explores in riveting detail how this fantastic world was lost during the settlement of the American West in the 1800s and 1900s, which was not so long ago. Flores writes, “What we did to the Great Plains was not some admirable conquest. It was a myopic, chaotic, unthinking destruction, and, I think, immoral.” There’s still time to recover America’s Serengeti and plenty of room for optimism. Flores draws from the region’s rich history to discuss the urgent need to preserve North America’s grasslands and restore native wildlife. His book notes exciting initiatives to create large expanses of preserved areas, including SPLT’s efforts in southeastern Colorado.
Just a few months after its founding in 1998, SPLT celebrated the purchase of its first preserve: a 1,280-acre property in Baca County, Colorado, located three miles north of the Comanche National Grassland. We named this property the Fresh Tracks Nature Preserve to acknowledge the welcomed sight of native animal tracks on the land and to signify a new path toward land management on the southern Great Plains, one where wildlife is respected for its intrinsic value. Under our careful protection, this property is now flourishing with native animals and plants. It hosts fertile riparian habitat, botanically rich limestone breaks, and one of the most robust populations of Colorado green gentian (a plant species found only in southeast Colorado) in existence. It is so distinct from neighboring properties that its borders can be detected on satellite photos. Fresh Tracks shows a glimpse of what the shortgrass prairie can be, once again, if we just give native biodiversity the room and time to bounce back. Over the past 20 years, we’ve added five more prairie preserves to our network, all of which provide the highest levels of protection to native wildlife and plants. Our largest is Heartland Ranch Nature Preserve. At nearly 25,000 acres, it is one of the largest wildlife refuges in the region, and it hosts a herd of bison that SPLT reintroduced. There are a total of more than 32,000 acres in our shortgrass prairie preserve network.