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New breed of ranchers shapes a sustainable West

These green cowboys try to marry good stewardship of the land with making money. 

(Page 5 of 7)

"We are tolerant – to a point," says Ulring. "We want a relationship of mutual respect with wolves. We'll not bother them as long as they are not overly bothering us."

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  • Montana

    Graphic Montana
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

The presence of such iconic predators actually enhances the ranch's operations in some ways. The J Bar L acts as a working dude ranch in addition to raising livestock. Tourists pay handsomely to experience what it's like to drive cattle and rope steers. Seeing a wolf or grizzly in the wild only adds to the cowboy experience and mystique.

The J Bar L's clients this summer include a senior marketing executive from the Swedish car company Volvo and her friends, who are back for a third year. They also include Jerome Congress, a lawyer from New York, and his teenage son, Adam, who are on horseback next to Ulring, helping him move the herd.

"It's amazing what you can learn from riding a horse," says Adam, noting that ranching isn't about subduing nature or riding herd over it. "You see so many things that you never knew were there. It's the real West."

Finding ways to make money other than through simply selling cows is a recurring theme on many of the sustainable ranches. The Twodot, for instance, offers guided hunting and fishing trips. Jones has also teamed up with Howell and the Savory Institute to recruit outside investors.

Their consortium has set up an enterprise called Grassland LLC, which allows people to become stakeholders in a company that tries to practice progressive stewardship of the land. In effect, they have turned grass into a commodity. The company, which owns four properties in the West totaling more than 106,000 acres, generates revenue by renting quality grass. Other ranchers have 3,500 cows and calves feeding on their chemical-free pastures.

Among the group's investors are John Fullerton, founder and president of the Capital Institute in Greenwich, Conn., and green hedge fund manager Larry Lunt. They see gold in grass.

"We have a case study here of true wealth creation in Grassland," says Mr. Fullerton. "We are building biodiversity [and] soil fertility, sequestering carbon, and generating financial returns. And if my belief of what will happen if ecosystem services plays out, we will make a lot more money with these assets than with most financial assets."

* * *

While most of the sustainable ranches revolve around cattle, Mr. Turner is practicing many of the same land-management techniques with one of the original inhabitants of the West – bison. He wouldn't consider himself part of the holistic movement. But he may be sitting on one of the purest examples of how to raise commercial animals and manage the land in a green way.

When the billionaire founder of CNN first arrived in Montana nearly a quarter century ago, he didn't set out to make any kind of ecological statement. He moved cattle off the land and brought in bison largely for aesthetic reasons. "I liked the look of them being out there, and then I realized how much sense it makes to bring them back," he says.

As he acquired properties, eventually totaling 2 million acres, he and his ranch managers began using bison as tools for healing grasslands suffering from decades of overgrazing by cattle. At first, they let the animals roam freely inside a huge perimeter. Then, after seeing how bison, too, could concentrate in harmful ways, they began to control their movements.

IN PICTURES: Green Ranching


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