I recently spent two days with 20 Montana ranchers and two journalists. Everyone except the journalists wore boots and pants. Everyone except the journalists was up early. At times I felt totally out of place, yet right at home.
I know I come from a different breed, a more urban outlook. That is why I was nervous to attend the Undaunted Stewardship tour with the Montana Stockgrowers Association, knowing I would be on a tour bus, eating three meals a day with folks that I didn't think I would have much in common with, nor really know what to discuss. As a journalist, of course I'm going to undertake the challenge, and I sure didn't expect to be so enthralled, tutored and standing on the same ground as my weathered neighbor.
I got introduced to a way of life that is not too far off from my own. I appreciate and care for this land of Montana and the Rocky Mountains. I want it to be healthy and have the best management practices to keep it viable and teeming with diverse flora and fauna. And the ranchers share that perspective, but they are the ones with dirt under their nails from managing the land that I appreciate.
The ranchers of Montana have a depth of knowledge that is indispensable, as they have walked every inch, with decades and generations of wisdom of how to manage their property so water flows, noxious weeds diminish, and our land is productive while providing the vast, and seemingly wild, open space.
I admit I haven't been the best about hearing their side, as many "environmentalists" may not either. A few of the ranchers did claim that they are terrible about talking to and communicating with the other side, but they are trying to change that as our lands are becoming increasingly polarized with different interest groups.
We face a standstill with little to no progress on the future of our ranching community and what that means to some of the amenities that us urbanites appreciate and find essential to this land: open space, healthy wildlife habitat, and local foods and agriculture.
I'm actually nervous for our ranching community and the lands that they manage, graze, care for, and care about. We are facing a time when urbanites value open space and great vistas where wildlife roam free, but we do not understand what takes place on the other side of the fence.
Over the course of the two days, I heard a list of threats to the viability of the ranching community that was astounding. It was more than I had imagined: brucellosis, wolves, wind energy, mining, judicature of water, sage grouse, and the endangered species protection restrictions, subdivision fragmentation of the land, water quality, and finding good helping hands.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in particular is in a challenging scenario. The 21 million acres in the GYE is losing the connected grazing resources as the land becomes subdivided. Public lands management plans change, altering grazing practices that no longer make operations viable, and species protection is putting restrictions on land management that also limit ranchers' activities. All of these factors are constricting the profitability of the land and force losses beyond a breakeven.
It was a wake-up call when one rancher stated that due to the increase cost of brucellosis testing, as well as the change in management requirements in Park County, we may see ranches drop deep into the red, forcing sale and subdivision because the land value is so high, and in turn, the inevitable loss of open space in the Paradise Valley.
Our landscape is on the verge of becoming more fragmented than it already is, particularly if we lose the ranching community.
I encourage anyone who lives in the West to spend a day walking and chatting with a rancher on his land. You will walk away more enriched, more knowledgeable about land management, and understand how crucial this threatened way of life is on our Western landscape.