Ranch Conservation Partnership Thrives In Eastern Montana

August 7, 2017

The following guest opinion by Leo Barthelmess appeared Aug. 5 in the Billings Gazette. Leo Barthelmess is president of Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, past director of the Montana Stockgrowers Association and has received multiple awards for his good stewardship.

It has been a challenging summer in the prairies of Montana

My family ranches south of Malta and drought conditions have reduced our grass and hay supplies, and fire has had a devastating impact on our neighbors south of the Missouri River. Despite the drought and all its consequences, I’m optimistic about the future of ranching, largely because we have more partners willing to work with us to address challenges than in the past.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen these conditions. In the early 2000s, widespread drought gripped Eastern Montana. At that most challenging time, ranchers and The Nature Conservancy in the Malta area sought each other out to see if there was a way forward that could benefit ranching and wildlife.

Matador Grassbank

We found a solution with the Matador Grassbank, which leases grass at a discounted rate in exchange for ranchers voluntarily implementing conservation practices on their own ranches. Today, the grassbank supports grazing practices that benefit wildlife and families on 14 ranches spanning 340,000 acres altogether. While that sounds impressive, it was just the beginning.

Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, a local, landowner-driven collaborative grew out of this cooperation initiated through the grassbank. Today RSA is bringing together conservation efforts of ranchers and diverse partners, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, World Wildlife Fund, and others to build a sustainable community and vibrant wildlife populations. Partner supported research, combined with long-term local expertise, are being used to deliver on-the-ground stewardship.

The Sage Grouse Initiative has also been an important part of that effort in our neighborhood and other parts of Montana. More than half of all greater sage-grouse in Montana are dependent on private land. Ranchers working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and others are helping sustain and improve habitat in a way that also improves ranch operations.

Model stewardship

There are conservation agencies and groups that value and respect our ranching heritage and the clean water and wildlife habitat it provides. When they work together with landowners, it’s a recipe for success. Policy changes that undermine cooperation or reduce funding for programs that deliver real benefits for people and wildlife will ultimately have a negative impact far longer than the drought we are dealing with today.

The diverse partnership of ranch owners, federal and state agencies, and conservation organizations working together in north central Montana may serve as a model of cooperation — one that, I believe, can be expanded and replicated to benefit ranchers, towns and wildlife.

Read more stories from Western ranchers

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.