Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Inspection Stations Open Across Montana, District and partner staff travelled to Washington DC for the 2023 National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) annual convention, and three days of soil health in Billings, Montana.
Ranching for Rivers: Site visits with ranches across Montana
The conversation turned to riparian grazing, the occasion of my visit. “It’s not one size fits all,” Stenberg said. “If I fenced off my section of the river, I’d grow a weed pasture.” The banks on his property are cobblestones, lined with enormous old cottonwoods where Eagles return to raise their young year after year. In his case, fencing off the riparian area simply didn’t make sense.
With the help of R4R, Stenberg built three heated stock tanks upland from the river. “Given the choice, the cows’ll choose the warm water every time.” For a pasture only grazed in Fall and Winter, abutting a rocky bank, this makes sense.
L.G. Miller and Steve Beverlin, of Dancing Moon Ranch, are dealing with a different situation entirely. Their land is bordered by the Hi-Line on one side and the Milk on the other. When I took out my tape to measure the banks, Beverlin chuckled. “You can measure if you want, but they’ll change tomorrow.” As if on cue, my clamoring caused a foot-shaped load of silt to slough into the water.
Ranching For Rivers is helping Dancing Moon build a fence to exclude cattle entirely from their section of the river. It’s also helping to fund the pump, pipeline, and stock tanks needed to water the newly partitioned pastures. For grazing along an unstable and highly erodible portion of the silty Milk, this makes sense.
From Dancing Moon I drove East, to visit Dick and Connie Iversen. The Iversen property sits directly against a few miles of the Missouri, so they are especially aware of, and vulnerable to, its fluctuations. The Iversens are heavily involved – in conservation districts, watershed councils, conferences and stakeholder working groups (“You can complain, or you can show up” Dick says). He’s a key member of the Missouri River Conservation District Council, always striving to protect the interests of working landowners.
The Ranching for Rivers cost-share program that assists landowners with protecting riparian areas by implementing improved ranching practices. Through the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Ranching for Rivers offers 50% cost-share for fencing material, off-site water infrastructure, and developing grazing management plans.
Barta took me, along with three of her interns from the Montana Working Lands Internship Program, to a streamside spot in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. Barta told us management is never one-size-fits-all, and we could see this idea painted in the hills above. This spot in the Crazies, like so many other places in the West, is visibly marked by its checkerboard ownership.
In areas neither grazed nor logged, held in stasis by lawsuits or neglect, the forest tumbled in on itself. “I thought about having you crawl in there on all fours, imagining you’re bears” joked Barta, as we peered into one especially overgrown section. Then she got serious. “Well, could you?” It would’ve been difficult. Snow-felled trunks piled on top of each other. Thousands of baby pines competed for sunlight. “What kind of habitat is that?” Barta asked.
From the Crazies I drove Southeast, to Basta Ranch. 20 miles as the crow flies from the North Dakota line. Trey Bloesser is the fourth Bloesser man to ranch this land – acres of native grass fields surrounded by eroded cliffs of striped sandstone. The badlands were in bloom. I picked a few mauve echinacea as we made our way down ravines and up tiny buttes to his R4R project.
The ranch used to be one big pasture, Bloesser explained. The cows would go to the same few spots for water. You can see them in satellite images of the property, little starbursts emanating from Burns Creek, a tributary of the Yellowstone. Their arms radiate in scarred lines across the landscape, deeply grooved cattle trails from the hay to the water and back. Bloesser, who graduated from MSU with a livestock management degree before coming back to help run the ranch, introduced the idea of rotational grazing to his Grandfather. “He’s very receptive,” Bloesser said. “I’m lucky to have him. I bring ideas and he brings experience.”
Bloesser used R4R money to split the ranch into three pastures. He moves the cows off the creek after a few weeks, so the banks have time to revegetate. Bloesser used the remaining funds to install stock tanks upland. “The cows are going places I’ve never seen them before,” Bloesser said. Their movement is helping the health of the Basta rangeland. “They’re grazing more evenly.” For this vast stretch of dry southeastern range, keeping the cows moving made sense.
The Crazy Mountains in South-Central Montana. Like so many other places in the West, the Crazy Mountains are visibly marked by its checkerboard ownership and various management patterns.
The theme throughout my visits has been the personalized and variable nature of conservation projects. Ranchers know their land. They know how far a fence needs to be from the river, how often it tends to flood, how easily the banks erode and where. They notice when the cottonwoods are dying, they notice how well the weeds grow, and where. They know what kind of project makes sense for their area. It’s not one-size-fits-all, because no river or ranch is the same, much less the same as the property across the way. If we want effective conservation, it must remain hyper-personal, and collaborative.
Oklahoma, the land of industrial feedlots and meatpacking plants, did not leave me with flowery feelings about the beef industry. But in Montana I’ve encountered something else entirely: a set of people genuinely interested in improving the economic and environmental resiliency of their family lands. I feel so lucky to have spent the summer at MACD, with folks so dedicated to bridging the interests of people, the creatures animating these beautiful Northern Plains, and the forces that humble us all. I’ve learned the first law of conservation: “it depends,” and the last law of Montana: don’t drive up to the ranch with California plates (it’s a rental!). Thanks to all the ranchers who’ve opened their gates to me, and to MACD for the space to meander and grow.
2023 Montana Range Tour
Participants travelled the Paradise Valley with the 2022 Leopold Conservation Award winner to see how they manage their dynamic ranching operation.
The Montana Rage Tour was held this July in the stunning Paradise Valley. Attendees toured the operation of 2022’s Leopold Conservation Award winners, Pete and Meagan Lannan of Barney Creek Livestock, before gathering at Chico Hot Springs for a celebratory banquet.
The Lannans are fourth generation ranchers, but they do not own any of the land they graze. They began by leasing Jordan Ranch, owned by Pete’s parents Larry and Cathy Jordan.
“We wanted our children to be able to ranch this land.” Pete said.
They knew, to realize that dream, they’d have to increase the health and productivity of their existing range. And find a way to access more land in the increasingly inaccessible Park County. They’ve solved both problems with their “story of four leases.”
“We came at this from a standpoint of wanting to make a living. We didn’t come at it as ‘we want to sequester carbon, we want to save the world…’ no. It’s economics.” Lannan said.
The Lannans began leasing underutilized parcels from neighboring landowners. Most of them are newcomers, folks without ranching backgrounds who purchased what turned out to be depleted, over-grazed, or generally degraded properties. With their method of intensive rotational grazing, the Lannans have been able to help build the health of these pastures for the mutual benefit of all.
And landowners are noticing. At one property we visited, huddled into a barn to escape a sudden downpour, the landowner (a vegetarian) explained how the Lannans convinced her to lease out her grass. She described the influx of birds she’s noticed, the native grasses sprouting, no longer choked out by layers of thick thatch.
Nicole Masters of Integrity Soils spoke to those gathered about resiliency. Masters is a globally recognized regenerative ag coach, and author of the book For the Love of Soil. “These systems,” Masters said, “they’re all connected. Environmental and economic sustainability are inextricable.” Depleted soils mean more input. More input means less family time, less profit, more stress. Stress for ranchers and stress for cohabitating flora and fauna.
The Lannans internalized that point years ago.
“Our philosophy is maximum sustainable profit per acre. We are trying to maximize the carrying capacity of the land.” Pete Lannan said. As they improved the health of their soil through rotational, intensive grazing, he explained, the quality of their pastures improved significantly. The more grass they were able to grow, the less they had to feed. No longer haying meant more hours to spend on other projects, like their worm composting pile and seeding their mineral with native grass seeds: a project Meagan is piloting with researchers with MSU.
The Leopold Conservation Award is presented in Montana by the Sand County Foundation and American Farmland Trust in partnership with DEQ. Stacy Barta, Rangeland Resource Program Coordinator at DNRC, presented the award to this year’s winners, Kurt and PJ Myllymaki of Stanford, at the final dinner. The Myllymakis use cover crops to stabilize and build the soil at their blustery and arid Eastern Montana ranch. Look forward to learning more about it at next year’s range tour!
2023 Montana Leopold Conservation Award - Kurt & PJ Myllymaki
Watch the Myllymaki's conservation success story.
Wind has been called an “untamed beast.”
It’s something farmers Kurt and PJ Myllymaki know all too well. The Myllymakis raise crops and cattle on central Montana’s brittle, drought-prone landscape. An uptick in high and sustained winds convinced them to change their farming and grazing practices to save their soil from erosion.
Winds still blow, but soil erosion has been eliminated by keeping a continuously-growing cover on their grazing and cropland. Cover crops are just one of the conservation practices the Myllymakis have adopted…
The award is presented by the Sand County Foundation in partnership with Governor Greg Gianforte’s Office and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Rangeland Resources Committee.