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Cover Story

New breed of ranchers shapes a sustainable West

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

(Page 6 of 7)

This included shepherding herds away from important rivers and streams, allowing waterways once marred by cattle to recover, too. They also carried out the largest private restoration of cutthroat trout in North America, on Cherry Creek, and let predators like wolves and grizzlies recolonize the land.

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  • Montana

    Graphic Montana
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

Turner, who is the second-largest landowner in the United States, now has a bison herd of 55,000 spread across ranches in five states. His flagship property, the Flying D ranch near Bozeman, has become a sort of American Serengeti: It harbors every major mammal that was present at the end of the Pleistocene Era, from the wolves and grizzlies to moose, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and whitetail and mule deer.

"Ted regards the premise of economy versus ecology to be a false dichotomy," says Russ Miller, Turner's general manager. "He is intent on showing through our bison operation that you can be profitable and have healthy landscapes, including offering a home to native wildlife that others have claimed are incompatible."

Turner enjoyed a huge advantage over most ranchers. He paid cash for his properties, thus avoiding having to carry expensive mortgages – a major impediment to the survival of many ranches. Yet he has helped make bison meat part of the American diet through his restaurant chain and by putting it in grocery stores, and his ranches have become models of sustainability for other private landowners.

One of them, Mr. Malone, chairman of Liberty Media Corp., credits Turner with showing him the importance of good stewardship of the land in cattle production. Malone recently surpassed Turner as the largest landowner in America. Turner is behind an initiative to encourage other property owners to embrace sustainable practices and help restore imperiled plant and animal species, more than a dozen of which have been recovered on his lands.

"If enough landowners enrolled, unprecedented progress toward conserving biological diversity could be achieved," says Mike Phillips, head of the Turner Endangered Species Fund.

* * *

Not everyone is so enamored with sustainable ranching. Many old-guard cattlemen believe that worrying about things like wildlife preservation and reviving grasslands detracts from the main objective – to raise cattle in a way that turns a profit.

They see the movement as too touchy-feely in philosophy and too dogmatic in practice. They'll take their risks with controlling predators, raising hay, and using antibiotics and feedlots. Many of them also remain dubious that in the end holistic management can work – that consistent money can be made raising cattle while playing groundskeeper to rangeland. Much of the skepticism may be cultural – a deep-seated resistance to throwing off the way things have been done, and often successfully done, for generations.

Some environmentalists balk at sustainable ranching, too, even though, in theory, it would seem to dovetail with their interests. Part of it is an almost visceral rejection of anything practiced by cattle ranchers. They have spent decades trying to remove cows from public lands because of the harm they believe that private livestock do to the environment. They don't see a few holistic management techniques reversing years of deleterious practices.


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