“…the oldest task in human history [is] to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”

-Aldo Leopold, 1938

Master of Natural Resources Stewardship, Western Ranch Management and Ecosystem Stewardship Specialization

Ranches make up a significant portion of the lands in the Rocky Mountain west, host a large and unique component of regional biodiversity, and provide critical social, ecological, and economic benefits. Yet, academic training to work on these lands is limited, and there is a shortage of managers having the breadth of knowledge and skillsets needed to run the increasingly diverse operations that characterize ranches in the Rocky Mountain West. The need for the Master of Natural Resources Stewardship (MNRS) Western Ranch Management and Ecosystem Stewardship specialization emerged initially from conversations with working ranch managers in Colorado, with additional ideas and insights from land stewardship organizations. The design of the program was further guided by subsequent surveys of the ranching community.

This specialization prepares students to work on and manage ranches in the Rocky Mountain West. The topics that 21st century ranch owners and managers need to master and utilize are diverse, ranging from holistic livestock grazing to wildland fire mitigation, watershed protection, forest management, guest services, endangered species restoration, regenerative agriculture, carbon credits, and more. Hands-on training grounded in science, innovative ideas, and the experience of ranchers is needed to prepare students for this challenging and impactful profession. Anchored in experiential learning and engagement with the ranching community, the program offers extensive opportunities to interact with ranch managers and owners and natural resource managers as part of the program’s curricula.

From the start, students learn the fundamental principles of forest and rangeland ecosystems, the roles that plants and wildlife play in these systems, and the natural processes that support water and soil nutrient cycling in the Rocky Mountain West. Students also learn about the operational side of ranching, including business and accounting, employee management, equipment, and policies that influence day-to-day activities. Throughout the program, students are exposed to innovative and often novel management strategies that are increasingly being integrated into ranching. The specialization emphasizes understanding of the social and economic contexts surrounding ranching and the ecological interactions, feedbacks, and complexities. Through the courses offered, students visit and work with a variety of working ranches seeing first-hand how operations are tailored to support ecosystem processes, foster lasting protection of the land, and achieve economic profitability.


The MNRS degree is a coursework-intensive, professional masters degree for students with some prior natural resource or agriculture experience. The curriculum for the Western Ranch Management and Ecosystem Stewardship MNRS specialization can be found here . Students complete core courses and select electives that fit their interests and fill gaps in their background.

We have developed four courses specific to the Western Ranch Management and Ecosystem Stewardship specialization. These are:

  • NR 536: Ranch Management and Stewardship Field Course (Summer semester)
  • NR 537: Ranch Management and Stewardship Seminar (Fall semester)
  • NR 538: Skills in Ranch Management (Fall semester)
  • NR 539: Western Ranch Assessment and Planning

NR 536: Ranch Management and Stewardship Field Course

This summer field course will be offered from July 20 to August 12, 2022. The course consists of two 10-day field sessions hosted at eight ranches in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. The ranches represent a variety of ecosystems that characterize the Rocky Mountains, spanning arid to alpine ecosystems. The course draws on multiple disciplines, including agriculture, animal sciences, business, ecology, forestry, rangeland sciences, watershed sciences, and wildlife. Field visits to each ranch highlight the unique opportunities and challenges in modern ranch management and land stewardship.

In this field course, students are introduced to:

The course is designed to introduce students to the variety of ways in which ranches address similar challenges. Students may not become experts in all covered topics, but they are exposed to established practices and emerging ideas to build a toolbox of techniques and programs that will help them have successful careers working with Western ranches. By the end of the course, students understand the range of career paths available in ranch management.

  • Different grazing strategies developed for cattle and bison, and see how grazing plans are designed to help protect biodiversity, enhance soils and conserve water resources
  • Ecology of Western forests and see how they are managed for timber, wildlife habitat, fire risk and carbon sequestration
  • Collaborative partnerships with state and federal wildlife agencies to re-establish and protect threatened and endangered wildlife, such as bighorn sheep and the Rio Grande cutthroat trout
  • Riparian habitat restoration projects designed to protect critical headwaters and understand how water rights influence land use decisions
  • Long-term conservation planning through easements, carbon cap-and-trade, and other programs and incentives
  • Methods on vegetation sampling techniques used for monitoring response to management treatments and natural processes, such as grazing and fire
  • Basic elements of hunting programs and game management strategies, agricultural practices to conserve water, alternative energy development and mineral rights, ecotourism and guest services, ranch financial operations, and more

Contact Tony Vorster ( if you are interested in enrolling.

More information about enrolling as a non-degree seeking student can be found here.

Calculating available forage

NR 537: Ranch Management and Stewardship Seminar

This seminar series draws upon the experiences of practitioners and experts to expose students to various management approaches and perspectives. Ranch managers need an expansive toolkit and network to draw upon, and this course offers opportunities for students to learn new management approaches and to make connections with experienced practitioners. This course will be offered fall 2022.

NR 538: Skills in Ranch Management

This course gives students an opportunity to practice a variety of skills needed to be effective ranch managers including livestock production; natural resource assessment and monitoring; budgeting and strategic planning; equipment operation and maintenance; and technology (e.g., apps and geospatial technologies). These skills are best learned by doing, and this course gives students an opportunity to practice these skills. Experience with these skills will provide necessary qualifications when applying to jobs and confidence on the job.  This course will be offered again in fall 2022.

NR 539: Western Ranch Assessment and Planning

This course is an opportunity for students to apply their learning as they wrap up their degree. Students are paired with a partner ranch and visit the ranch to discuss and identify ranch priorities and goals through conversations with ranch owners, managers, and employees. Students conduct a targeted assessment of a resource or operation-of-interest. Students then research and consult stakeholders and experts about suggested management and corresponding monitoring approaches. Management and monitoring recommendations are written as a management plan, which is shared and presented with ranch owners and/or managers. This course requires students to apply knowledge from previous experiences and coursework, their network of practitioners, and research to real-world applications.

In this course, students learn to:

  • Identify issues that may impact rangeland and forest ecosystem processes and productivity.
  • Evaluate management priorities, opportunities, and challenges for ranch owners, and recommend management strategies that align with their long-term vision while demonstrating good stewardship of the land.
  • Identify best practice management for a given social and ecological context from course readings and independent research.
  • Apply foundational principles in range, forestry, water, wildlife, and conservation to justify recommended management strategies and planning.
  • Write and present a ranch management plan highlighting challenges, recommendations and desired long-term outcomes.