Cover Story

New breed of ranchers shapes a sustainable West

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

By , Correspondent

  • COVER STORY: The green cowboys

Zachary Jones is a saddle-hardened fifth-generation rancher even though, on the surface, he may not look like one. As he threads his pickup truck through the back pasture of a quintessential Western expanse – one carpeted in flaxen-colored grass in the shadow of Montana's Crazy Mountains – he bears little resemblance to the stereotype of the Stetson-wearing cowboy. No pointed boots or spurs. No denim. No bandanna. Not even a rifle mounted in the vehicle's back window.

Instead, Mr. Jones is wearing cargo pants, a stylish shirt with a Patagonia logo on the front, and, most tellingly, Birkenstock sandals. You'd almost think he were heading to the monthly meeting of the men's book club in Bozeman.

What he's actually doing is checking on newborn Angus calves on his Twodot ranch following rumors that wolves might be prowling the area. In other words, real callous-forming wrangler work, which suggests another point: Out here, appearance sometimes has little to do with authenticity.

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"Being a smart rancher – one who's still going to be here in another 50 years – isn't based on how you dress," says Jones. "It comes down to how you treat the land and build resilience over time that matters. In particular, it's about how well you manage grass and water."

Normally, listening to a cattleman talk with reverence about managing grass and water, using terms like "holistic" and "sustainable," would be akin to hearing an environmentalist marvel about the horsepower in an all-terrain vehicle. It seldom happens.

But a new breed of cowboy, like Jones, is changing how ranching is being done in the American West and might – just might – alter the dynamic in the "range wars" that have engulfed the region for more than a half century. Make no mistake: These are not new arrivals carrying out green techniques for the feel-good sake of being green. They are ranchers managing the land in benevolent and environmentally sensitive ways because they think it will help them survive – and make money.

"As a matter of necessity, the old way of ranching is giving way to a new paradigm," says Bill Bryan, head of the Rural Landscape Institute in Bozeman, Mont. "For some, ranching was pursued in the past with an emphasis on raising beef at the expense of everything else. Raising animals for the dinner table isn't an activity that has to be at odds with the environment."

Nor is this some New Age boutique movement – a few quixotic ranchers trying to be good stewards of the land while overseeing a few hobby cattle. Some of the biggest land-owners in the West are embracing elements of the practices, such as media moguls Ted Turner and John Malone, who oversee a combined total of 4.3 million acres – the equivalent of a couple small New England states. The movement also includes people from diverse philosophical and business backgrounds, from Peggy Dulany, a member of the Rockefeller clan, to former Wall Street hedge fund managers to caretakers for the Mormon Church.

While old-guard ranchers dismiss the new methods as unproven and even some environmentalists chafe at the green cowboys, the sustainable ranching movement now has adherents in every Western state. As a younger generation prepares to take over livestock operations – the average age of a rancher in Montana and other nearby states is about 65 – it represents an alternative model to grazing that has been practiced in the region since the conquistadors.

But underneath it all looms a question: Is this just a fad or part of a fundamental reshaping of ranching in the modern West?

* * *

Jones's journey to becoming a New West rancher certainly hasn't been linear. He grew up a native son, riding horses, roping cows, and stringing fence posts with barbed wire across the landscape the way it's been done for generations.

He was a standout at school: senior class president at tiny Harlowton High and captain of the eight-man football team (eight because the school was too small to field a normal team of 11). After a stretch at Montana State University in Bozeman, where he majored in physical education and competed as a hammer thrower on the track team, he and his wife, Shannon (a literature major), returned to the ranch, taking over from his father, Bill.

Yet the Joneses aren't your typical Montana ranching family. Zachary's grandparents were graduates of Ivy League universities. He has books by Wallace Stegner and Joseph Campbell on a shelf beneath a mirror framed by cowhide. His family is friends with former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and retired US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, both of whom still come out and fly-fish on his ranch, the Twodot Land and Livestock Company, for trout big enough that you don't have to embellish stories about them.

"My dad told me when I went off to college, 'Son, you don't have to get a degree in ranch management to be successful. But you do need to come home with an open mind, be willing to try new things, challenge traditions that don't make sense, be humbled by your inevitable mistakes, and then learn from them.' My dad knew, based on experience, that many of the old ways no longer work."

What that means, among other things, is intensive management of a ranch's grasslands. Traditionally, cows are turned out to graze largely unattended on vast open expanses, where they eat the vegetation until it is virtually denuded. This, in turn, can lead to greater dependence on costly hay, as well as antibiotics and pesticides.

The Joneses herd cows into more confined areas cordoned off by portable electric fences. Once the grass is chewed down to a certain height, they shift the cattle to another area. The consumed acreage is allowed to rest and replenish, sometimes for a year or more. On a sun-kissed day, Jones pulls out a flowchart showing exactly where Twodot cattle will be grazing over the next seven months.

"I could string a mile of fencing in a couple of hours," he says of the portable barriers. "In the old days, with barbed wire, it might have taken days and required a team of ranch hands."

The idea of rotating cattle was started at the Twodot by Jones's father and is rooted in the techniques of Allan Savory, an immigrant from Zimbabwe whose theories have transformed livestock grazing in arid regions of the world. Mr. Savory's premise is that grassland health is tied closely to the grazing patterns of wildlife that evolved over many millenniums. Although the American West has lost its once prolific bison herds, Savory suggested that ranchers needed to mimic the way buffalo roamed across landscapes, intensively munching and then moving on, giving impacted areas time to recover.

Yet sustainable ranching involves more than just baby-sitting cattle and setting up movable fences. Ranchers like Jones try to understand the physiology of plants so they can determine how long to subject them to cattle grazing, which in turn affects the level of soil erosion. It can mean teaching cattle how to eat unwanted weeds instead of resorting to using herbicides.

As much as anything, ranchers say, it is about fathoming the nuances and rhythms of nature in the quest to cut the cost of raising cows and make grasslands more fecund. Instead of making huge investments in diverting water from streams to irrigate and grow hay for feed, for instance, these holistic agrarians try to manage their lands so they have natural grass available when the first snows arrive in the fall. Gregg Simonds, a pioneer in the holistic ranching movement, has done research indicating that growing hay alone can account for 70 percent of the cost of producing beef on some ranches.

The underlying theory is that nature and wildlife are necessary forces to be worked with, not villains to be subdued. In this world, beaver aren't eradicated, but tolerated in the hope that their damming skills will create marshlands that then will become sanctuaries for birds – and buffer the effects of drought.

"It's a different mentality," says Jones. "You're not fighting the elements. You're working with them to achieve better results."

The approach seems to be working here. A quarter century ago, the Twodot had reached the limit of the number of cows the land could support. That coincided with punishingly high interest rates and rising energy and other costs. The ranch plunged nearly $600,000 into debt.

Today, after employing Savory's and other land-management techniques, the Twodot has tripled the abundance of its grasses. The healthier brome has helped the ranch better cope with a chronic lack of rainfall. Plant diversity has flourished, wetlands have improved, and wildlife is thriving. As if on cue, an eagle settles into a nest on a nearby marsh, and two fawns bound through underbrush by a river once trammeled by cattle.

"In essence, it's like having three ranches available to us of comparable size to what we had raising our cows the old way," says Jones.

* * *

Jim Howell has seen the grasses on his ranch flourish using similar techniques. He is the cofounder of a small think tank, the Savory Institute, in Boulder, Colo., but he also runs a ranch with his wife, Daniela Ibarra-Howell, on the western spine of the Rockies.

In the 1990s, he says, most of the vegetation on his land consisted of dandelions, cheatgrass, and Kentucky bluegrass. Today the ranch supports 17 different varieties of native perennial grasses, which act like a gourmet smorgasbord for his cattle.

"We're running 50 percent more cattle than we once did," says Mr. Howell. "The key takeaway is that livestock aren't the problem. They are just the tool. It's how we manage them that is key. They can destroy lands or heal them."

When the cows are eating well, chances are consumers will, too. A major thrust of the sustainability movement is producing cows that are raised naturally on grass and trying to avoid sending them to industrial feedlots to fatten up. The beef is usually more expensive. But ranchers are banking that livestock rich in natural vitamins and less exposed to antibiotics will attract consumers in a world increasingly clamoring for health-conscious foods. And they are.

Consider the experience of the J Bar L Ranch in Montana's resplendent Centennial Valley, northwest of Yellowstone National Park. The ranch is owned by Ms. Dulany, daughter of David Rockefeller. But she has hired Bryan Ulring, a gritty native of South Dakota, to run the 30,000-acre spread. And he does look every bit the traditional cowboy.

On a summer day, he sits comfortably in the saddle decked in chaps, cowboy boots, a western shirt, and neckerchief. He and hired hand Andrew Anderson are gently moving a herd of cows and calves from one pasture to another – their version of avoiding overgrazing and managing the land's grasses.

Mr. Ulring, together with Jones, has launched a brand of beef called "Yellowstone Grassfed," which features steaks and gourmet hamburger produced from cows raised on native brome. When they first started the enterprise, skeptics said people would never pay premium prices for the meat.

But today restaurants and backyard barbecuers across the northern Rockies seek out their brand, and the University of Montana is feeding it to thousands of college students in cafeteria dorms. Last year, consumers ate some 230,000 servings of Yellowstone Grassfed beef.

"No, we're not doing things the way they have always been done," says Dulany, who has worked internationally to promote ecosensitive crop and livestock production. "But as a result of taking risks, we are figuring out a new path that's good for the land, and we're doing it in a way that pays for itself. Lots of different people talk about ways that agriculture needs to be sustainable, but we are living it."

She's well aware of critics who say it's easy for her to experiment with a different approach to ranching. She's a Rockefeller. She can afford to. But she dismisses such notions with a kind of range-hardened pragmatism that seems to be a characteristic of many of the sustainable ranchers.

"It's true – I can afford to take risks," she says. "But I'm not doing this to throw money away."

Ulring and his staff try to treat their cows more humanely. For the J Bar L, this has meant delaying the season when mother cows give birth to calves from late winter to early summer in order to keep the family groups together longer. Initially, doubters said it would make the calves more susceptible to attack by wolves and coyotes. But the great slaughter hasn't happened.

In fact, that is another tenet from the J Bar L's management book: allowing predators to roam instead of automatically reaching for a rifle to eliminate them. Livestock are husbanded in a way that doesn't necessitate the shooting of wolves and grizzlies, whose populations are recovering in the West.

Predators serve a vital role in helping to cull game herds like deer. Some sustainable ranches have replaced barbed wire with perimeter fences that enable elk, deer, and pronghorn to traverse freely.

"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."

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.

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.

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.

"There's an ecological tragedy going on with 99 percent of ranching, whether it's on private land or hundreds of millions of acres of public land," says Brian Ertz of the Western Watersheds Project, a conservation group in Hailey, Idaho. "Holistic management isn't a solution if it's working only in places where some landowners can afford to subsidize it. The results have to be replicable, and I've seen no evidence that's happening."

That's one reason some adherents of sustainable ranching are now trying to catalog the results of using the techniques. Mr. Simonds, who once managed ranch operations owned by the Mormon Church, recently worked with 16 researchers to retrieve satellite imagery going back decades to assess the effects of holistic management practices on the church's properties. The photographs showed that ground cover had radically improved over time, even with the addition of more cattle on the lands. The properties also have more wildlife, healthier wetlands, and have returned greater profits.

Yet advocates trumpet more than just the impact on brome and bottom lines. Savory wrote a paper a few years ago showing how more effective grass management could help address global warming. He suggested that increasing the ground cover on just 0.5 percent of the world's grasslands could store 720 gigatons of carbon dioxide – more than the annual emissions sent into the atmosphere from humans burning fossil fuels.

What kinds of results sustainable ranching ultimately yields will have more than an academic impact. Simonds, for one, would like to see federal agencies adopt holistic techniques to guide private landowners who graze cattle on public lands. That would put the concept right in the middle of the range wars that have raged for decades, with the potential to either ratchet them up or help resolve them.

Perhaps even more important, as a new generation of ranchers begins to take over cattle operations in the West, some believe they will be more receptive to trying new techniques.

"In my travels around the West in recent years, I've noticed a growing phenomenon of the second generation of New West managers taking hold," says Todd Graham, a ranching consultant. "They are young people, folks in their 20s and 30s. They don't have the attachment to old paradigms."

Those using the techniques now don't need convincing. As he surveys the Twodot with his wife and two young daughters, Jones points to springs and marshlands that were once scarred by cattle hooves but now are home to sandhill cranes and nesting eagles.

At the J Bar L ranch, Ulring and the other wranglers are giving their guests a glimpse of 21st-century ranching one steak and cattle drive at a time. The tourists who come to play cowboy usually get caught up in the green way they manage the land and raise the cows, which is part of the point – to educate.

"Our clients are drawn initially to our ranch because of the setting and the opportunity to ride horses," says Ulring. "But there's so much more to it. I would say 90 percent of the people cry when they leave. The men who come here on vacation try to be stoic, but they get choked up the same as their wives or girlfriends. There's a yearning to touch something real I can't fully explain."

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