The Meadowlark Ranch Players:
Cooperation and collaboration for the sake of elk and cattle
When people from varied backgrounds work together toward the common goal of enhancing habitat, they can make some beautiful music.
(This article is a reprint from the September-October 2005 issue of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Bugle Magazine - Written by PJ DelHomme
A good bluegrass band is easy to recognize. As the fiddle player steps to the microphone under the spotlight, the banjo player eases back into the shadows without missing a beat. With a simple nod of the head or even a look, the entire band can shift tempo or suddenly quit playing and sing a few bars together a capella. It’s as though they can read each other’s minds. The end result is an intricate, well-oiled instrument that creates an auditory delight.
Nearly smack dab in the middle of Montana, near Lewistown, a band of sorts is making some beautiful music of its own. But it’s not of the bluegrass variety, instead it’s green grass—and elk, other wildlife and cattle are the band’s biggest fans.
The band, made up of a forestry consulting firm, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a family logging outfit and family-owned lumber company, has gathered on a 5,000-acre stage known as the Meadowlark Ranch. The ranch stretches across the foothills of the Little Snowy Mountains, just one of the numerous island mountain ranges dotting the plains of central Montana. National forest and private lands border the working cattle ranch, 619 acres of BLM land lie within its boundaries. Only 12,000 people live in Fergus County—a 4,253-square-mile area nearly twice the size of Delaware—leaving plenty of room for cattle to roam alongside elk, mule and white-tailed deer, black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, grouse and other wildlife on the Meadowlark and surrounding public and private lands.
The band of forestry professionals was founded by Meadowlark Ranch owner Theodore Roosevelt IV. Roosevelt donated a conservation easement on the property to the Montana Land Reliance, a land trust based in Helena, Montana. Similar to those held by the Elk Foundation, the easement allows Roosevelt to continue grazing cattle on the property but precludes development and other uses that could diminish its wildlife, agricultural and scenic values.
“In many cases, cattle grazing, if done the right way is going to improve habitat,” Roosevelt says. “There are a lot of good cattlemen who understand what they’re doing, and there is enough evidence that shows cattle [grazing] done the right way on public lands is also good for the elk population.”
Roosevelt, an Elk Foundation life member, spent more than a decade learning how to manage his property with four goals in mind: improving forest health, enhancing and maintaining wildlife habitat, reducing fire danger, and improving forage for livestock. These goals may sound difficult to reach, but thanks to cooperation from all of the players, the Meadowlark Ranch is meeting them.
When Roosevelt first purchased the property in the early 1990s, he discovered the ranch’s ponderosa stands had become overgrown, like many forests in the West, due to decades of fire suppression and past timber harvesting practices that removed only the biggest trees. These “dog-hair” thickets had created an impenetrable forest for both man and beast. Because little or no sunlight could reach the forest floor, shrubs, grasses and forbs were unable to grow in the understory. Choked forests become vulnerable to high-intensity wildfires because smaller, younger trees create “ladder fuels” that carry fire into the crowns of older trees. Dense stands are also at a higher risk for insect infestations. Stiff competition for light and nutrients coupled with ongoing drought conditions (Montana is in its seventh year of drought) stress and weaken trees, making them candidates for pine beetle invasion. Pine beetles chew their way through bark, creating tunnels where they lay their eggs. When the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the cambium layer, often girdling and killing the tree.
Roosevelt, who shares livestock pasture on his ranch with a neighbor, wanted to enhance forage for wildlife and cattle, but he and his wife Connie didn’t know where to begin. “What we didn’t know far exceeded what we did know,” Roosevelt says. “It took me almost 15 years before I thought I had enough knowledge to do this properly.”
He says part of the reason it took so long was because he wanted to find a forestry consultant he could trust. In the end, he chose Northwest Management, Inc. (NMI), based in Moscow, Idaho, which offers free initial consultations for forest landowners in the inland Northwest. The firm specializes in forest management, planning, stewardship, timber sales and prescribed burns—everything Roosevelt needed to achieve his goals.
Vinnie Corrao, NMI president and an Elk Foundation legacy partner, has spent his career cruising timber and helping manage public and private forests. He says it helps him do his job when landowners do their homework and come to the table with ideas about what they want to accomplish on their property. Corrao and his team match the desires of landowners with what the forest needs to become healthy and productive.
Roosevelt’s vision for the ranch included creating park-like ponderosa stands and protecting the riparian areas along the streams running through the property. NMI agreed. Their plan, which begins with logging, calls for cutting timber in a mosaic pattern to mimic natural fire. Mosaic cuts leave patches of trees that provide cover for wildlife. In some areas, loggers remove all the trees, creating meadows lush with grasses, forbs and shrubs for elk and cattle. In other areas they cut selectively, marking every tree with paint—orange paint spares it, blue gets it the blade. This method leaves many of the ranch’s healthy, mature trees (some in excess of 200 years old) and large diameter dead or dying trees intact, while removing smaller trees and ladder fuels and allowing more sunlight to reach the forest floor. Roosevelt requested they build no new roads for the logging operation.
Due to the complexity of the timber harvest, Corrao sought help from Gordy Sanders, resource manager for Pyramid Mountain Lumber Inc. in Seeley, Montana, to find a logging company that would be careful to follow Roosevelt’s objectives. Enter the Wanglers, a father and son logging outfit. Sanders recommended the Wanglers for the Meadowlark Ranch project, because they are innovative loggers and are willing to work with detailed prescriptions. They cut trees so low to the ground a stump is barely visible after one year, and they base all their decisions on what is best for the land.
Logging began in June 2004 under a timber harvest plan calling for removing about half of the trees large enough to be sawlogs—or around 1 million board feet—on 750 acres. They ship the sawlogs 300 miles northwest to the town of Seeley Lake, where they are milled by Pyramid Mountain Lumber Inc., a 56-year-old family-owned company and the longest surviving independent sawmill in Montana. The company focuses on responsible forest stewardship. Sanders says that Pyramid works with organizations like The Nature Conservancy, Montana Land Reliance and Elk Foundation to ensure logging projects benefit the land and wildlife.
At well over a dollar per mile per truckload, transporting the sawlogs from the Meadowlark Ranch to Seeley Lake isn’t cheap. But according to Bob Oldenburg with Pyramid’s Lewistown office, the processing facilities are all in western Montana, so there’s really no choice. In addition to sawlogs, the plan requires harvesting nearly an equal amount of small diameter pulpwood (biomass). The little stuff is shipped 350 miles to the Smurfit-Stone pulp mill near Missoula, where it is turned into cardboard.
Because the ratio of sawlog volume to pulpwood volume is around 50/50, hauling the pulpwood an additional 50 miles steals precious funding from the project. As more and more landowners and public agencies are looking to reduce biomass, getting rid of it in a cost-effective manner is one of the biggest challenges. Besides turning pulpwood into cardboard, people have recently come up with more ingenious uses for biomass. The Central Montana Medical Center in Lewistown plans to use biomass to fuel its heating system, beginning in November 2005. The U.S. Forest Service’s “Fuels for Schools” program is outfitting many Montana schools with biomass boilers to turn small diameter trees into heat.
In spite of the costs of logging and transporting sawlogs and pulpwood from the Meadowlark Ranch, Corrao says the project is basically paying for itself, and all profits go right back into improving wildlife habitat on the ranch. The philosophy is a bit like having a stock that pays a dividend every quarter. Instead of cashing out the dividend, you re-invest it, buying more stock for a bigger return in the future.
This is also a good match for Roosevelt’s personal conservation philosophy. “Conservation is having a great deal of respect for the land and protecting it in such a way that it can be passed down in as good shape as it was received, or even enhanced for the next generation,” he says.
But logging is only one facet of the habitat work on the Meadowlark. Research indicates ponderosa pine forests are accustomed to ground fires every five to 20 years. These low-intensity fires serve as nature’s own trash compacter-recycler. Because the bark of mature ponderosas is thick enough to withstand the flames, the fires slowly creep their way through the stands, consuming snags and slash lying on the forest floor as well many of the young trees. The result is a parklike, wildlife-friendly stand of mature trees with plenty of understory forage to go around.
As part of the ranch’s 30-year management plan, NMI and its fire crews will burn between 700 and 1,200 acres of forest and meadows, mimicking low-intensity ground fires, helping create abundant and healthy forage for elk, other wildlife and cattle.
NMI is also fencing off and repairing riparian areas and springs where cattle tend to congregate and camp out, to help protect the water supply downstream for fish, wildlife and humans. They also plan to abandon an old road that runs near a spring and a fragile riparian area.
And what about the 619 acres of BLM land within the ranch’s borders? BLM fire mitigation specialist Shannon Downey says even small, isolated parcels of timber have the potential to blow up during a big fire season. That’s why the BLM has followed Roosevelt’s lead and is planning to thin timber in these secluded pockets to improve habitat. The agency is using timber proceeds to offset the costs of restoring meadows and reducing the buildup of hazardous fuels. Downey says the work being done on the Meadowlark is a model for responsible land stewardship.
Crossing boundaries, both physically and mentally, is a key aspect of this project. Elk and other wildlife recognize linear boundaries only when they get tangled in a barbed-wire fence, which is why Scott Westphal, RMEF eastern Montana volunteer coordinator, hopes to get volunteers out on the BLM land to remove old, rundown fences by the end of the summer.
When conservation groups, government agencies, landowners and private companies come together to help the land and wildlife, everyone, not just hunters, reaps benefits from the collaboration. Even though some private lands may have “No Trespassing” signs posted, responsible private-land stewardship provides healthy forage not only for cows of the bovine variety, but of the wapiti variety as well. Good grass means healthy elk calves and bigger herds. For bulls, good forage means faster growth and bigger antlers. And, of course, the elk that roam the Meadowlark don’t stay there year-round. They migrate onto adjacent public lands, which are open to general hunting.
But private land stewardship means more than just good hunting. Pyramid Lumber’s Sanders points out that only 12 years ago, Pyramid received 80 percent of its materials from public lands. Now, 80 percent comes from private lands, which means better habitat for wildlife and jobs for loggers and mill workers.
In the end, responsible land stewardship, be it on public or private land, is essential to conserving what’s left of our wild country and resources. When people from various backgrounds work together toward the common goals of protecting and improving habitat, they can make some beautiful music. So the next time you hear an elk bugle on a crisp September morning, remember the players at the Meadowlark Ranch. A bull’s bugle is their greatest hit.
Writer PJ DelHomme would like to thank Ted and Connie Roosevelt for opening their home to him on this assignment, and special thanks to Betty for leaving the light on for him.