History / Culture

Rancher's Stewardship Alliance History

Photo © Sheila Walsh

Montana’s prairies are widely heralded for their unique wildlife and robust health. For decades this landscape has been wisely tended by ranchers and state and federal agencies, with the advice of university extension experts. Managed livestock grazing is the economic foundation that supports our heritage as well as sustains bountiful wildlife and native plants.

The 1970s saw the birth of a publicly-embraced environmental ethic that continues to grow today. At first this made good sense to us, because we believe like Ranchers Stewardship Alliance (RSA) member Kevin Koss that, “Of course we take care of the land, because the land takes care of us.”

But then came troubling media stories of ranchers across the west losing their homes and livelihoods to animals like sucker fish and willow flycatchers protected by the Endangered Species Act. Ranchers persisted and prospered here by hunkering down to weather hard times, and by resisting temptation for all things extravagant or new. So when we heard of others forced out of agriculture by environmental regulations, we ducked our heads in fear of what might be coming.

And come it did. The little-changed prairie landscape of northern Montana all of a sudden was recognized for the ecological gem that it is. Conservation biologists concerned with range-wide declines in black-tailed prairie dogs, mountain plovers, burrowing owls and sage grouse identified strong populations of these species here. The local abundance of prairie dogs led the US Fish and Wildlife Service and others in 1994 to begin reintroductions of America’s rarest mammal, the black-footed ferret. Today, biologists increasingly worry over long-term persistence of some of our most abundant prairie wildlife, including pronghorns and grassland birds such as ferruginous hawks, Sprague’s pipits and Baird’s sparrows. Restoration of genetically-pure bison in free-roaming herds across millions of acres of the northern plains is the dream of a new environmental group, the American Prairie Foundation.

So it’s not hard to imagine our reaction when after decades as a quiet backwater, Phillips County recently jumped forward as a “last best place” for prairie conservation. RSA member Dale Veseth summed up the situation saying, “Local ranchers were very frustrated and threatened by events dating back as far as 25 years ago. Two of the main problems were the lack of prairie dog control by agencies to keep populations down to agreed-upon levels, and past litigation by environmental groups which would have impacted ranch viability. This led to a low level of trust between the local ranching community and the agency/conservation community. Ranchers need concrete evidence that people are going to do what they say.”

As a result of tensions over endangered species, in 2003, about 30 ranching families in northern Montana came together as the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance to resolve problems we faced. Since then, RSA leaders have worked alongside professional consensus builders, technical experts, business people, and staff of agencies and conservation groups to develop strategies to meet the needs of wildlife while also protecting ranching traditions. We have had the satisfaction of our input being requested and respected on wildlife issues. There are no spare hours in a rancher’s day and while RSA meetings are frequent and long, we find the benefits far outweigh the costs of participation. More than anything else, the RSA brings us hope for the future, and a step-wise plan to build good outcomes for all involved.

At this stage in our evolution as a group, we recognize that economic instability and the continued out-migration of young people threaten the long-term viability of agriculture on the northern prairies. Because both our rural communities and the abundant wildlife here are sustained in large part by ranching, our challenge is to create a vibrant, profitable, sustainable future for this region.

While the natural community is robust, the human community has been in decline for decades. In the past, children graduated high school and quickly migrated to cities with good jobs and easier lives than ranching. Recently that decline has stopped.  People, young and old, are staying and moving to our community.  School enrollment numbers are increasing.  Young families are moving back to the area.  They are re-opening and/or establishing businesses that they remember from their youth.  Our vibrant community is not only growing but thriving!

“We love this land, we want to stay, and we will,” says rancher Janet Veseth. “But we need to find ways to bring back our young people, and to pass our hard-earned lessons on to the next generation so they can carry into the future our culture and traditions, and this land that we have given our lives to care for.”

Prairie ranchers have something unique to offer the conservation world: a proven workforce of low-cost, high-return, site-savvy land stewards who love and understand this demanding landscape. Groups such as The Nature Conservancy have learned that lasting, large-scale conservation is really only feasible with the participation and leadership of people who own or manage land.

“Successful conservation of grasslands worldwide hinges on innovative partnerships based on principles of fairness, mutual benefit, and resource effectiveness. Conservation needs to become a strong economic engine for rural people. As soon as we get the relationships right, we’ll have healthy wildlands and thriving human communities,” said Linda Poole of The Nature Conservancy.

Photo © Sheila Walsh

Regional History

The complexities of modern prairie life are best understood within a historical context.

Since glaciers retreated after the last ice age, the ecology of the Glaciated Plains has been constantly changing. Great herds of bison relied on grasslands. In turn those grasslands depended upon occasional grazing and the impact of bison hooves and droppings. Bison migrations were caused by available forage and water, weather, fire, and interactions with predators. Bison shared the range with elk, deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and many predators including the gray wolf and the grizzly bear.

These species persist while other early mammals died out, possibly due to the arrival of man. Changes in climate might also have played a role. Whatever the cause, the changing wildlife community verifies the crucial interaction of fire, weather, competition among species, and the impact of man on the prairie

Into the late 19th century the dominant humans in the landscape were Native Americans. They lived a short golden age on the plains. Small villages and a roaming lifestyle allowed the tribes to succeed. The plains ecosystem required these disturbances to maintain diversity and vigor.

Huge change came to the plains. Buffalo hunters slaughtered the great herds. This caused a sea of grass, free for the taking. So began Texas cattle drives. Originally considered “a cattleman’s paradise,” the winter of 1886 nearly wiped out Montana’s open range cattle industry. This was stark proof that weather trumps all. Soon the trail drives resumed and cattle herds were rebuilt. However, winter blizzards slammed the region again in 1906, causing most ranches to shrink in size.

With the early 1900’s came the next wave of immigrants. Lured by railroad ads portraying a bountiful landscape of inexpensive land, homesteaders came by the thousands. Not understanding the plains landscape, most homesteaders failed. By 1920, nearly all were gone. Their land bought by neighbors or the government for a dollar an acre.

The toll of the homestead era on wildlife was severe. The Dust Bowl years left much of the land barren. Horses, released by failed homesteaders, multiplied to thousands and further overgrazed the range. Hunting pressure was intense. Bighorn sheep, wolves and grizzly bears were hunted from the plains. By the 1920’s elk were gone, and deer and antelope were extremely rare. Upland birds and waterfowl were also reduced.

To halt the rapid degradation of the prairies, people took action in the 1930’s. Feral horses were rounded up and removed. In 1934 the Taylor Grazing Act led to formation of grazing districts and assignment of individual grazing allotments. Livestock carrying capacities were set in recognition that the land can only feed so many mouths.

Good stewardship was based on improving the condition of the land. This in turn improved agricultural production. This leads to the economic stability of families and communities. The number of ranches here that have been passed to the third, fourth, and fifth generation is testimony to wise stewardship.

Over the last sixty years, conditions have steadily recovered. As knowledge advanced, it became evident that what helps the livestock rancher is often good for wildlife. A stockwater reservoir also serves wildlife. Improved grass for livestock similarly provides excellent protein and energy sources for wildlife. In this grazing-dependent ecosystem, many species of both plants and animals rely on the presence of large grazing animals.

Today pronghorn antelope and deer are once more abundant. The ranching community helped reintroduce elk in the 1950’s, and many are again venturing out onto the plains. Sage grouse populations here are strong.

For many years the evolution of stewardship on Montana’s prairies took place in relative obscurity. Government agencies and landowners set agendas based on local priorities, and few outside cared. But in the late 1990’s, conservation biologists identified the global significance of Montana’s prairies. Why? Nowhere else in North America does a treasure trove of northern grassland wildlife and plants exist. In the last few years, major environmental groups have taken keen interest in northcentral Montana, and they’re backing that interest by purchasing land. National media have claimed the situation is ranchers versus environmentalist. Which is more important and who decides?

One of the goals of The Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is to build partnerships with ranchers and environmentalists that continue the legacy of wise stewardship developed over several generations of successful family ranches.