Two Creek Monture Ranch honored with Environmental Stewardship Award

Ovando ranchers work to make ‘the best, better’ through collaborative conservation efforts

 

  The Two Creek Monture Ranch, from Ovando, Montana, has been recognized as the 2017 Montana Environmental Stewardship Award winners.

 Ranch managers Wayne and Karalee Slaght and family accepted the award Dec. 9 at the Montana Stockgrowers Association Annual Convention and trade show in Billings. The Two Creek Monture Ranch will now represent Montana at the Region IV Environmental Stewardship Award competition in Denver this spring.

Like the old 4-H motto, the ranch team is focused on “making the best better.”

“That, to me, is that it means to be a good steward,” Karalee said. “It’s keeping up with new ideas for improving all of these things.”

The Slaghts manage about 21,000 acres – half deeded and half leased – for owners Ralph and Toone Burchenal on the southern edge of the complex and greatly celebrated Crown of the Continent ecosystem in western Montana. It’s arguably one of the last “best” places in the lower 48, yet the Burchenal and Slaght continue to work to make it even better for future generations with decades of conservation and stewardship behind them and still ahead.

Greg Neudecker, with the Montana Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, has worked with the Slaght family for more than 25 years and recommended the ranch for the award.

“Right now, we have all the critters that were here 200 years ago when Merriweather Lewis came through here. So from a working lands perspective, we don’t have anything else like that in the lower 48 states and very few places in the world – so it’s a very, very special place,” Neudecker said. “It has old growth forests, incredible aspen stands, riparian areas, native bunch grass prairies, glaciated pothole wetlands – it’s got everything, and that’s due in large part to their stewardship.”

Of course, the ranch team’s main focus is the cattle. About 900 make their home on the commercial cow-calf ranch, and they not only co-exist, but play an important part in improving the landscape. Wayne was raised on the neighboring Monture Ranch, where his father worked and managed for most of his ranching career, too. Wayne had been managing the Monture Ranch for more than 15 years when the Burchenals purchased and added it to the Two Creek Ranch, where Wayne, son Ben and brother-in-law Ken Kovatch now manage and work together on private, state and federal land.

“It’s so important to prove – especially to the Fish & Wildlife guys – that cattle are a useful tool for the land,” Wayne said. “They do co-exist with wildlife, which is quite proven on this ranch.”

They’ve been able to grow the cattle herd over the years by not only making their deeded land more productive, but by fostering relationships that have led to new and continued leased grazing opportunities on neighboring state and federal lands. They work to improve owned and leased land alike with strategic rotational grazing, water development and riparian restoration projects.

“We realized we needed to work with all these federal and state agencies – we have to be on the same page,” Wayne said. “We’re here to partner with those folks to help manage the entire landscape. It we weren’t here and they were subdividing us and turning this into houses, we’ve all realized we’d all be in trouble.”

Managing a landscape full of endangered or threatened species – including grizzly bears, wolves and bull trout – plus abundant elk, deer, Sandhill cranes, turkeys and trumpeter swans, requires planning, innovation and a lot of collaboration in order to stay in business and balance a healthy ecosystem.

“Those species are all indicators – grizzly bears are large landscape indicators, bull trout are clean water indicators, trumpeter swans are healthy wetland indicators. So those are all indicators of how well a landscape has been managed,” Neudecker said. “One of the things that wildlife is completely compatible with is ranching. If we don’t have ranching and livestock and private landowners to maintain these open landscapes, we don’t have places for these wild critters to roam, either.”

The ranch played a key role in the rehabilitation of bull trout redds (spawning sites) on Monture Creek over the past 30 years, and continue to seek new ways to develop water that will enhance their grazing rotation and conserve riparian areas and in-stream flow for fisheries.

“Obviously, balancing the needs of fish and wildlife with the agricultural operation has its challenges in the modern world,” Ron Pierce, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologist wrote in his letter of recommendation. “With these challenges in mind, the Two Creek Ranch has been a progressive leader with the ranching/conservation community of the Blackfoot Valley.”

That leadership extends beyond the ranching community, too. Wayne’s been a 4-H leader for nearly 40 years, served on local school boards, the volunteer fire department, coached grade school basketball and more, while frequently hosting local, state, national and international tour groups on the ranch to share conservation efforts and ideas.

“They’re not only a voice of reason, they’re a practice of reason that’s really, really good for our industry,” neighboring rancher David Mannix said. “Wayne’s an early adapter. He has the courage to implement some of these things, and then he also has courage to share failures or challenges so the next neighbor can do it a little better and the third guy can do it a little bit better still.”

Like his father and ranching mentors before him, Wayne’s focus on making the ‘best, better,’ is geared toward leaving the land and leadership of the industry in better shape with the next generation. Ben came back to the ranch full-time in 2008 after earning a business degree from the University of Montana Western.

“I’d love to stay here and keep working to improve the ranch every day,” Ben said. “We’ve just got to keep doing our homework and looking around us to see what’s changing, what’s next. We’re always learning. We’re constantly learning more about trees, about grass, about water – learning to increase what we can do with those resources. You’re constantly learning, constantly changing and keeping an open mind to the fact that we don’t know everything – you can always learn more from somebody else.”

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SIDEBAR:

Two Creek Monture Ranch // CONSERVATION BY THE NUMBERS

  • Improved management on more than 15 riparian miles on four different creeks on the ranch, each which support valuable fisheries and water sources for livestock and wildlife.
  • Entered more than 5,000 acres of valuable grasslands, wetlands, riparian and timberland in to conservation easements to permanently steward those lands through the generations.
  • Restored previously degraded instream habitat on more than 2 miles of streams on the ranch, while maintaining ranch water use and increasing production and irrigation efficiencies.
  • Restored six drained wetlands totaling more than 100 surface acres on the ranch.
  • Played a critical role in returning the final missing species Merriweather Lewis noted in the Blackfoot Valley 200 years ago. Ranch owners Ralph and Toone Burchenal made the initial financial donation to the Trumpeter Swan Restoration Project, and the ranch ushered the first breeding pair onto a restored wetland. Today, more than 10 pairs of Trumpeter Swans are established in the Blackfoot Valley.
  • Developed riparian grazing plans and cooperative agreements to bring Federally Threatened bull trout spawning sites on Monture Creek from a low of eight redds in 1989 to a high of 92 redds, averaging 50 redds annually over the course of the past 30 years.
  • Site of the first grizzly bear depredation on a calf documents in the Blackfoot Valley in more than 50 years. Installed the valley’s first grizzly bear resistant fencing, leading other ranchers to do the same.
  • Five years after their first calf was killed in 1998, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks documented 77 agriculturally-related grizzly bear/human conflicts in the valley. Over the past ten years, thanks to management efforts and best practices by ranches like the Two Creek Monture Ranch and collaboration with cooperating agencies, conflicts have averaged around 12 per year, while the grizzly population has been increasing by 3 percent each year.
  • Improved the forage capacity of one pasture by four times in one year with an aggressive noxious weed control program.

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The Montana Stockgrowers Association, a non-profit organization representing nearly 2,500 members, strives to serve, protect and advance the economic, political, environmental and cultural interests of cattle producers, the largest sector of Montana’s number one industry – agriculture.

Montana’s Cherry Creek Ranch Receives Regional Environmental Stewardship Award

Montana Stockgrowers Association members win Regional Environmental Stewardship Award

DENVER (July 15, 2016) – Cherry Creek Ranch, Terry, Mont., was honored this week as one of six regional Environmental Stewardship Award Program winners. The award, which is sponsored by Dow AgroSciences, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the National Cattlemen’s Foundation, is presented to farmers and ranchers who are working hard to protect America’s natural resources.

The commercial cow-calf operation, located in eastern Montana, is one of the few remaining original homesteads, a fact that instills pride in Lon and Vicki Reukauf, the third generation to operate the ranch. That legacy also drives the management philosophy for the Reukauf’s, who place a strong emphasis on rotational grazing as a way to manage pastures and maintain soil health.

“For three generations we wake up every morning with the intention to get out of bed and have great intentions to improving the land and the landscape for our cattle and always putting their needs ahead of our own,” said Vicki Reukauf, who explained that the region’s silt soils mean the family needs to pay special attention to building root mass to help improve the soil and improve the water-holding capacity of the ground.

With an annual average rainfall of about 12.5 inches, keeping water on the land is a priority. One way they do that is by employing a rotational grazing system to help improve water infiltration into the soil. In 1983, Lon instituted a rotational grazing system and today rotates herds through multiple pastures to ensure grazing pressure is optimally distributed while also allowing a stockpile of forage for dry years.

“We felt that by having cattle on land for less time and giving it longer rest periods, we accomplished an increase in both species diversity and grass production and especially root depth on the plants that existed,” said Lon Reukaf. “I think by increasing the organic root depth of the plants you increase the organic matter in the soil. And I think it increases your water holding capacity in your soil and also having significant litter and good root mass in the ground makes the plants more efficiently utilize the moisture that you’ve got and lose less of that moisture to evaporation.”

Water distribution across the ranch also contributes to the successful implementation of stewardship practices of the Reukaufs. In fact, the family has installed 15 wells in strategic locations to provide the cattle with clean, fresh, consistent water, and they are slowly converting the wells to run off solar energy. So far, they have four done and plan to complete two more each year until they are all solar-powered. These tanks also help to pull animals away from lower riparian areas,” Lon said. “Putting this water in less sensitive areas is one of the single best factors in having a lot of species biodiversity in our plant community.”

Regional award recipients will now compete for the national Environmental Stewardship Award. The winner of the national award will be announced during the 2017 Cattle Industry Convention in Nashville, Tenn., in February, 2017.

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The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) has represented America’s cattle producers since 1898, preserving the heritage and strength of the industry through education and public policy.  As the largest association of cattle producers, NCBA works to create new markets and increase demand for beef.  Efforts are made possible through membership contributions. To join, contact NCBA at 1-866-BEEF-USA or membership@beef.org.