In Montana, a Shared Vision for Sustainable Conservation

May in Montana may be one of the most scenic of all the months. Miles of wide open rolling rangeland and wheat fields greening up. The mountains appear even more majestic as the white of new spring snow pops against the blue of our “big skies” and the green carpet below. Lower down in the valleys, where people make their homes and cattle winter, spring snow in the mountains falls as rain to help bring “spring green up” to Montana.

I watch this unfold each year and am reminded of how tied we are to the land. Our National Parks bring visitors worldwide to view wildlife and scenery unique to the northern Rocky Mountains, which includes such charismatic species as bison, wolves, and grizzly bears. Our National Forests, state and other public lands, and the neighboring resort communities offer a wealth of outdoor recreational opportunities such as skiing, snowmobiling, mountain biking, hiking, and wildlife viewing. The private lands of our valley bottoms offer the wide-open spaces of working ranches and grain fields that support agriculture and local fauna alike. The rivers that wind through support a robust fly fishing and tourism industry. People spend their summers drifting on, and fishing in, our rivers; eating in our local restaurants; and shopping in our communities. Together, we provide a compelling range of experiences that inspire a diverse group of visitors and landowners to care about our native species and the Rocky Mountain landscape.

Surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, how we care about a given place unfolds differently depending on our experiences. As a biologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) who works with diverse stakeholders to enable people and wildlife sharing a landscape to coexist, I have seen potential for lasting outcomes by finding shared values and goals. Collaboration across diverse stakeholder groups is not a unique approach for WCS (we do this across the landscapes where we work around the world), as well as in the Rockies. This is also not a unique approach to conservation in the West. NGOs, local watershed groups, landowners, and state and federal agencies frequently work together to bring about lasting conservation solutions. It is, however, a mostly untold story.

On the ranch that borders my home, mother cows and their calves graze in the spring sun, having made it through the gusting winds and freezing temperatures that preoccupy concerned ranchers during the harsh winter months. Traditionally, ranchers have placed the carcasses of livestock that succumbed to the weather or the complications of calving in boneyard piles, letting Mother Nature take its course while the ground is frozen. With the successful recovery of wolves and now grizzly bears, this practice, left unchanged, could attract these predators to the cattle at the heart of their livelihoods.

In response, WCS working with a group of local leaders—including landowner groups, state agencies, and other NGOs—added a proven tool to areas where grizzly bears and wolves have returned to the landscape to reduce conflicts through the removal of livestock carcasses from ranches. Carcasses are picked up routinely during the calving season and brought to a central location, usually a compost site, created for the express purpose of quick and natural decomposition. WCS and partners have leveraged their time, perspective, and resources to develop these programs across southwest Montana. Together with ranchers, agencies, NGOs, and watershed groups, we have created a suite of tools including increased vigilance around livestock on remote grazing areas through range rider programs.  We also replaced costly miles of barbed wire fence with wildlife-friendly options that minimize fence damage and entanglement of wildlife as they move through the landscape to access our valley bottoms where the winter snow depth is lower. We thus have demonstrated strategies that benefit both agriculture and wildlife.

Over time, local stakeholders have developed a sense of mutual trust and shared values. As is true in so many communities, that bond is expressed and reinforced when we meet over good food. One of my favorite places is a small café and catering company just over the mountain pass in the Ruby Valley. The owner and chef of the Shovel and Spoon radiates ranch-raised and free spirit in equal measure. As Janet Marsh buzzes around her kitchen or meets us at events, you can find her in a flowing summer sundress and white chef’s apron. She embraces ranch style food she was raised on for its simplicity and hearty tradition, adding a creative flair inspired from her time working at the Bozeman Co-op. Most of the meat, potatoes, and seasonal vegetables are local and Janet prides herself on all of her food being made from scratch as she shares the local flavor of Montana with her patrons. One of my favorite meals was prepared to celebrate the Fifth Anniversary of the WCS Summer Wildlife Speaker Series. Two hundred of my neighbors in southwest Montana shared beef brisket and pork enchiladas, fresh slaw from local produce, and berry cobbler. The well attended speaker series aims to connect community members to science, engage them in conservation through informed discussions, and help them to be re-inspired by the wildlife we share the landscape with.

We have demonstrated the strength of working together and the impact of engaging people in actions that reduces the threat of livestock and property loss, ensures human safety, and builds acceptance for coexisting with wildlife. This takes both time and resources. We all want to identify ways to fund this important work in perpetuity. Some seek long-term funding streams from private foundations and government grants. Others—including some of my WCS colleagues in South America who work with Andean bears, jaguars, pumas, and other cats—look to another model: the development of markets for agricultural products meeting sufficient sustainability benchmarks to qualify as “wildlife friendly.” This is happening to some extent locally, but could this model scale up to work at the level needed to support wildlife safe movements and conservation here in Montana?

I am the first to admit that this model is daunting. We have seen success of wildlife-friendly products at a local scale and they represent a growing movement in Montana. Small micro farms have cropped up to supply local vegetables to our restaurants and farmers markets. Unique catering enterprises like Seasonal Montana—based both in my small rural town of 1,000 people and the nearby growing city of Bozeman—share local foods at the farms where they are grown and raised for events like weddings and celebrations. In turn, the agricultural producers who share the tables at these events see their hard work transformed into succulent delicacies that are enjoyed by the guests beside them. I have yet to partake in this experience but find a real appeal for this vision of connecting people with both agricultural producers and the land as they sit around the table with family and friends, making the Farm to Table concept come to life in the realest sense. This Memorial Day weekend, Seasonal Montana prepared an Argentine-inspired feast for the beef producers they work with. They sampled a variety of steaks and roasts, seasoned lightly with herbs and grilled to perfection. The preparation allowed the flavor of locally raised beef to shine through, accented by a fragrant chimichurri dressing. Seasonal spring onions, purple asparagus, morel mushrooms, arugula, and baby Yukon potatoes accompanied the beef they had raised.

All of which begs the question: how can we scale up this model of supporting large expanses of agricultural lands that provide habitat needed to support both wildlife and people through the food market? Janet, at the Shovel and Spoon, is the first to say that when she opened her business her goal was to have locally raised meat and produce, but the demand hasn’t met her goal. Which leads to yet another question—namely, what would motivate you to pay more for sustainable beef at your favorite restaurant or store? Is it knowing that in doing so you are supporting ranches that are making a concerted effort to reduce conflicts with wildlife—keeping grizzly bears, wolves, safer? Or that you will get a higher quality product that costs more because it requires that cattle stay on the range longer, thus producing meat that is aged like a good wine or cheese? Are you willing to accept corn-finished beef where cattle end their days in a feedlot to have the taste we come to expect? Or would you adjust your taste buds to grass-finished beef that has a stronger taste and requires ranchers to reduce the number of cattle brought to market because they need to stay on the range longer? Or does it need to be a combination of all of these things and more?

To know which way to go we have to look to the consumers and ask, are you more likely to share this cost in an obligatory or voluntarily way? Or will it take both? These are questions we and local stakeholders need to explore. We will also look to those that have come before us in developing conservation markets. We hope this approach will help us to better understand potential obstacles, identify opportunities, and spark a larger demand for market systems that distribute the cost of minimizing negative interactions between people and wildlife.

Through my experience living and working in the Rockies over the last 20 years, I see the legacy ranchers have given us through private lands and what we as society have achieved through recovery of some our most iconic and controversial wildlife—the grizzly bear and wolf. Now as we move forward, what we need most to conserve this remarkable landscape and its unique fauna is a suite of approaches to keep human-wildlife conflict to a minimum. This requires a society commitment, at both the financial and policy level, to make these practices a daily part of how we do work in Montana.

In doing so, we will ensure that the ranching way of life remains sustainable at a time when escalating land prices make conversion of wide open lands to subdivisions an easier choice. This is especially true as the next generation confronts the potential loss of crops and livestock due to the unpredictability of weather, continued competition with carnivores and herbivores, and declining societal understanding and support for ranching. As a society, we must commit to maintaining our working private lands as an integral part of a functioning system of protected public lands. If we do, thousands of elk, mule deer, and pronghorn will maintain some of the longest migrations ever recorded and allow wolves and grizzly bears to continue to roam the landscape. Our vibrant communities that benefit from sharing the landscape with wildlife will be a voice for conservation.

In this new era of fresh foods, the time seems right to ask what will motivate you to purchase conservation beef and be an active participant in sharing the costs of having wide open landscapes and a fully intact assemblage of native wildlife for future generations.