Berlinger notes that Phillips manages rangeland in a “brittle” environment. Average rainfall is about 11 in./year, and it often comes in the form of severe thunderstorms. During his career, Berlinger says he’s often seen ranchers treat symptoms of grazing problems rather than addressing the root cause, which is improper grazing management.

“The uplands in that area are slow to recover. It’s not a desert area, but it’s certainly arid,” Berlinger says. “Like everywhere, we’ve seen wet and dry cycles. Duke’s philosophy makes it possible for him to manage the land during those extreme climactic conditions.”

John Valentine, district manager for the Colorado State Land Board’s South Central District, says Phillips’ rapid rotation of cattle from one riparian area to another has resulted in better quality and quantity of desirable vegetation and reduction of weeds and undesirable woody vegetation. Return of native plant species is exactly what Valentine’s agency wants to see on their grazing lands.

“The Chico Basin ranch has sandy soils on the east side, more loam in the middle and sandy loam and clay on the west,” Valentine says. “Each soil type requires different management. Duke has installed livestock watering stations to help keep animals out of the ranch’s riparian areas. In the 20 years I’ve been in this office, those areas have been an ongoing problem. Under his management, we’ve seen tremendous positive change on Chico Basin Ranch.”

Phillips says improving large tracts of grazing land requires a lifetime of ecosystem management. Focusing on the four basic principles of nutrient cycling, water cycling, biotic integrity and energy flow will produce results on any rangeland.

“There are still issues, like exotic weeds the cattle don’t readily want to graze. And it’s frustrating to have to wait so long to see results,” Phillips says. “But the EKG process gives us ongoing, specific information about what’s happening on the land. That brings a comfort level we couldn’t obtain any other way.” 

Loretta Sorensen is a freelance writer based in Yankton, SD.