Last Wednesday and Thursday, close to 150 people battled Montana’s unpredictable weather with raincoats and sturdy boots for the 2014 Montana Range Tour.
“Welcome to Ennis – thank you for bringing the rain,” said Janet Endecott, co-chair of the Madison Conservation District, to kick off the event. The two-day tour is a yearly event put on by the Rangeland Resources Executive Committee – this year, the Madison Valley hosted the tour.
“We’re interested in anything going on with the range in Montana,” said Les Gilman, an Alder resident who is also the chairman of the Rangeland Resource Executive Committee.
Gilman explained the executive committee was established in the 1970s with the intent of working with county range committees, conservation districts and producer groups to foster sound rangeland management, in addition to putting on educational events like the range tour. The six members of the committee – all of which were in the Madison Valley for the tour – were appointed by the governor.
On Wednesday, the attendees started the day at the Ennis Rodeo Grounds, but soon piled into buses and headed to Norwegian Creek outside of Harrison for the first stop on the tour. By Thursday afternoon, the tour made stops at the Endecott Cattle Company, Granger Ranches, Wall Creek Wildlife Management Area and the Cameron bench, in addition to Norwegian Creek.
Outside of Harrison, seven landowners banded together with Natural Resources and Conservation Service, the county weed board, the Madison Conservation District and the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group Weed Committee to manage noxious weeds on 25,000 acres of private land.
“NRCS was able to offer a seven year commitment to the landowners for a cost share for noxious weed management,” said Melissa Griffiths, project coordinator with the MVRG Weed Committee. “Most funding opportunities are year to year. Really, to make headway on noxious weeds, we need multiyear commitment and management.”
As part of the project, the ranchlands group hired someone to facilitate conversations and information amidst the agencies and landowners.
The project ended in 2013, and Griffiths said there were “absolutely” benefits.
“The number of weeds we treated annually decreased, which makes sense,” she said. “At the beginning we were treating large tracts of land, but we got those knocked down.”
Endecott Cattle Company
In 2010, Janet and Bob Endecott replaced an aging irrigation structure, allowing for more efficient use of water and fisheries improvement.
“In order to more comprehensively address the resources of the ranch, an additional phase was included in the project,” according to the range tour booklet. “Installation of riparian fencing and a hardened crossing along South Meadow Creek directly addresses riparian health and in-stream conditions, while improving the operation of the ranch through a new grazing program.”
According to Sunni Heikes-Knapton, Madison Watershed Coordinator, the Endecott project is one that small acreage landowners can relate to.
“A little bit of work went a long way, and they’re really happy with the outcome,” Heikes-Knapton said. “Sometimes, people think the only way they will see big outcomes is with big projects on big ground.”
In the 1950s, the headwaters of O’Dell Creek and surrounding wetlands were drained and ditched for grazing and haying. Now, a project to restore those wetlands is 10 years in the making on the Granger Ranch.
In the 10 years since the project began, the former irrigation ditches have been filled in, the small spring creeks that create O’Dell Creek have been re-engineered and the water table has been reestablished.
All of that has improved the trout fisheries in the creek, provided habitat for upland birds and waterfowl and that wetland species of plants are thriving.
“The scale of the project is impressive,” Heikes-Knapton said. “So many people are invested in seeing this project through.”
Wall Creek Wildlife Management Area
On Wall Creek Wildlife Management Area, a combination of federal and state agencies have found a way for livestock grazing to benefit wildlife habitat.
“Whether or not you like cows on this game range, I don’t know. I don’t care,” said Fred King, a former Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks employee who retired six years ago. “Western rangelands are renewable resources. They have evolved through grazing.”
King pointed out that centuries ago, buffalo herds moved through the Madison Valley.
“I guarantee you buffalo grazed the land and riparian areas harder than our livestock does now,” King said. “But they would graze and then move on – rest, rotation, which is essentially what we do now.”
FWP purchased the Wall Creek WMA, which is located on the eastern edge of the Gravelly Mountain Range, around 30 miles south of Ennis, in 1960, primarily to provide winter range for elk.
“There were around 300 elk using (the WMA) when we first purchased it,” said Julie Cunningham, FWP wildlife biologist. “Around 2,000 use it now.”
One of the reasons elk use the land for winter range is because of spring and summer cattle grazing.
King explained that the WMA is on a rest-rotation grazing schedule, meaning the cattle are moved from pasture to pasture periodically to maximize healthy vegetation growth.
The relationship benefits the wildlife, but also benefits the Madison County producers who have permits to graze cattle on the land.
“Without the spring and summer grazing here, our private pasture would be hit too hard,” said Gary Gustafson, who is a permittee on the Wall Creek WMA. “It’s vital to our ranch operation.”
“The Cameron bench is an iconic range, similar to that of a lot of Montana,” said Heikes-Knapton. “The challenges of making a living on the land are pretty severe there.”
Some of those challenges include drought soils, low precipitation and high winds. Despite those issues, the area provides abundant forage for livestock and large herds of wildlife, without degrading range health.
According to Dan Durham, district conservationist with the NRCS, landowners have gotten creative in their implementation of projects to improve the land.
“There are a lot of challenges,” Durham said. “There are a lot of mouths to feed between the elk and cattle, and in some places, forage production is less than desirable.”
Durham said one landowner, Kevin Boltz, has focused on irrigation efficiency projects and uses stock water to be able to rotate his cattle between pastures frequently.
Another difficulty of the area is the number of elk and certain points in the year – elk are hard on fences. Durham said Boltz has also put in suspension fences, which have some give, so the elk can navigate the land without damaging as many fences.