Holding fecal deposits in each hand, Sam Smallidge explains how he can tell that they come from two different elk: One is glossier than the other.
"You see how this is all compressed together?" Smallidge asks, referring to the dropping in his right hand. "That means they're probably eating a more succulent diet, more water content, so it sticks together."
Smallidge hypothesizes that the less glossy dropping has been lying on the ground longer. An associate professor and extension wildlife specialist at New Mexico State University, he's teaching a group of teenagers how to keep track of wildlife by counting the droppings at the Valles Caldera National Preserve. "This is just one method," he says.
The teenagers behind him are part of the first-ever New Mexico Youth Ranch Management Camp, held from June 6-10 at the preserve, where they're attempting to count wild elk. Wildlife distribution figures can help ranchers balance resources for both wild animals and livestock—a balancing act that is one of the camp's themes.
Of the 29 enrollees, many come from ranching families from around the Southwest. The camp is meant to prepare young ranchers for the challenges of a changing industry.
The week began with what the young ranchers will presumably produce: beef. Meat scientists from NMSU helped the students break a carcass down into different cuts of meat. Lessons on wildlife, livestock and marketing culminated with student-prepared ranch management plans for Valles Caldera.
Much of the industry's perceived changes lie in adapting to new technology practices—"things like embryo transfers, artificial insemination and grazing management," attendee Matthew Denetclaw, 17, tells SFR.
Denetclaw, who comes from a family ranch in Shiprock, says artificial insemination allows cattle ranchers to select almost any bull across the country through semen distribution. This allows ranchers to raise meatier cattle that grow more efficiently, rather than limiting their options to only those bulls sold nearby.
Another expected change is the expansion of rancher-grown beef sales to the world market. As the world's standard of living goes up, so too will beef sales, Dina Chacón Reitzel, executive director of the New Mexico Beef Council, says.
Another student attending the camp, Ramos Aragon, imagines shipping his beef out to China in the future. "They were one of America's biggest consumers of beef, and they closed us out of their market once mad cow [disease] hit," Aragon, 15, says. "So I'd like to see if I could get into the Chinese market."