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Environment & Science

Ranchers to Ranchers: Learning Environmental and Economic Sustainability

Jackie Yamanaka

For the first time since the Montana Environmental Stewardship award was first handed out in 1992, ranchers and others got a chance to tour a winning ranch to learn more about strategies be economically viable while conserving the land, water, and wildlife.

Jed Evjene co-manages the American Fork Ranch in Two Dot, Montana with his wife Annie.

We’re a grass factory. That’s the plain and simple of it, says Jed Evjene.

When the Evjenes joined the ranch in 1998, they talked with the Stevens Family, the owners, about refocusing their operations to be better stewards of the land.

“It started at the base level. It started with grass. It started with water. Taking care of everything,” Evjene says.

It took a multifaceted approach to restore the health of the native prairie on the ranch. One strategy was to manage an overpopulation of deer.  “They weren’t healthy,” he says. “So what we did was implement a wildlife management program with some help from local game wardens. So we allotted (public) hunting and we harvested a lot of deer.”

Evjene says he and the Stevens family loves the wildlife, “We wanted to see ‘em. We didn’t want to eradicate ‘em but we needed to bring it down to a balance.” As a result, he says, the grass has returned and there’s now a small elk herd on to the ranch.

Evjene says it’s about balance, “There’s always room for the wildlife and cattle to be together and it’s proven that it is.”

Cattle are also managed.  The Evjenes installed interior cross fencing to create efficient grazing pastures. Those pastures are named after members of the Stevens family, many of whom remain active in the ranch management and provide labor on the American Fork.

Credit Jackie Yamanaka
The American Fork Ranch, at the base of the Crazy Mountains, dates back to 1882. It was founded by Charles McDonnell and Edward Veasey. They sold the ranch to Col. Wallis Huidekoper who sold the ranch to Col. Robert Stevens in 1945. Many members of the fifth generation of the Stevens family actively work the ranch.

“I’m not a big intensive grazing guy,” he says. “I like to see the grass. I’ve been accused of leaving more grass than most people get to go into that makes me feel good. When these cows get moved every 7 days they’re going into fresh stuff. That’s a good reason why our herd health is so good. Our cows are eating good, drinking good and are happy cows.”

Evjene says the ranch is currently experiencing drought conditions. Standing on top of Corbin Butte he points to just over ankle high grass, saying it should be closer to knee high. Still he says active management will allow them to survive with minimal impacts.

Evjene led a group of about 40 people, mainly ranchers, on a tour of the American Fork ranch. Evjene stops the 3 vans next to a Basin Creek, a clear, burbling stream.

Credit Jackie Yamanaka
Cattle grazing near Basin Creek on the American Fork Ranch. There are beaver dams upstream, "Believe me I used to be an anti-beaver person but I'm learning," says Jed Evjene. He says upstream there are 4 enormous beaver dams, "But we've left them alone. We're seeing part of this health restoration in the riparian area is from them huge 4 beaver dams." He says they prevent sediment from clouding the creek.

 “This creek runs like this year round. It’s a spring fed creek,” he says. “Most of the time if you look over the edge, especially right here you’ll see Eastern brook trout swimming in it.”

Jed Evjene says the cattle only graze in this pasture for 7 days and then it will rest for up to 50 days.

“Look at this riparian area, Jed,” says Bob Lee of the Robert E. Lee Ranch near Judith Gap. His ranch was a 1996 winner of the Montana Environmental Stewardship Award, the Region V winner, and the National winner. “By moving those cattle into other pastures your creek remains narrow and deep. That’s why it supports a fishery.”

“Bob, you’re stealing my thunder,” laughs Brian Ohs of Montana Trout Unlimited. He says the Evjenes show how through management, cattle and trout are compatible.

“This is a great example of stream restoration without a fencing project,” Ohs says. Montana TU has helped other ranchers restore their riparian areas, but was not involved on the American Fork.

Evjene says restoration took years, passing around pictures dating back from 1999. “This area was decimated,” Evjene says because the cows lingered around this stream, reluctant to move to nearby grass on the  hillsides.

To deal with that, Evjene cross-fenced and put in 2, 2,000 gallon tanks along the fence line in an adjoining pasture. A propane powered pump dropped into nearby Crooked Creek fills the tanks when the float drops below the set level.

Credit Jackie Yamanaka
One of the water tanks on the American Fork Ranch. In the upper Right corner of the tank is a metal ramp that will allow any wildlife that fall into the tank to climb out. The wire mesh allows a perch for birds to safely drink.

“We’ve found that the wildlife absolutely love these stock tanks, as well as the cattle,” he says. Evjene points out to the group the metal ramps that extend from the lip to the bottom of the tank. “Those are our wildlife ramps and if a gopher, rabbit gets in there and starts swimming around he is able to get out. A lot of the birds will perch on these metal wire deals and drink and stuff so we’re wildlife friendly in our tank designs here.”

It’s these and many other management strategies that led this commercial cow-calf operation to be named the 2015 Montana and Region 5 winner of the Environmental Stewardship Award program.

The state program is sponsored by the Montana Stockgrowers Association, the Montana Beef Council and beef producers and the World Wildlife Fund, the environmental group with the distinctive panda logo.

“What is the panda doing here trying to partner with the Montana Stockgrowers?” Jesse Tufte is the program office for WWF’s Sustainable Ranching Initiative in Bozeman.

She says the organization is working to retain the world’s intact grasslands. Across the Northern Great Plains, one of only 4 remaining intact grasslands in the world, the 180 million acres across 5 states and 2 Canadian provinces are largely privately managed.

Credit Jackie Yamanaka
Jesse Tufte, program officer for the World Wildlife Fund's Sustainable Ranching Initiative, says helping family ranchers stay on the land is part of WWF's conservation strategy to preserve temperate grasslands across the Northern Great Plains.

  “So when WWF was designing a strategy for this region we needed ranchers,” Tufte says. She says the organization needs to learn from, listen to, “and understand how we can keep ranchers ranching as a conservation strategy.”

Tufte says rangeland management has created a diverse ecosystem that benefits birds and other wildlife species.

“So ranchers are not the problem in this eco-region, ranchers are the reason we have intact grasslands in north America,” Tufte says.

Although she says WWF and ranchers they won’t agree on everything, the organization won’t tell ranchers how to manage their rangeland. She leave that up to ranchers talking to ranchers.

That’s what was took place during this inaugural “Raising the Steaks: a Farm-to-Fork Culinary Journey to Going Green While Raising Cattle Under the Big Sky.” Besides the tour at the American Fork Ranch, there was a beef cutting demonstration, and a panel discussion on cattle, conservation and environmental stewardship.