Thirty people gathered in Alder, Montana to kick off the annual Ruby Valley Strategic Alliance (RVSA) Field Tour. Informal good mornings and conversation took place as folks arrived from across Montana. The objective of the tour was to educate participants about the relationship between private and public lands and the role ranchers play in conserving the landscape.
The Snowcrest Mountain Range is a rugged and beautiful landscape located at the southwest end of the Gravelly Mountains. Several years ago, this was the battle ground between ranchers and conservation groups when legislation was proposed to protect the range. In a twist of fate, rancher Rick Sandru got to know some of the folks advocating for wilderness and recognized they had goals and values in common. Now, there is agreement between local ranchers and conservation groups for a special management area and wilderness areas in the Snowcrest Range and the RVSA plans to continue the conservation effort for permanent protections.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is a member of the Ruby Valley Strategic Alliance, which formed in 2016 with the goals of keeping working ranchlands working, open space open, and long-term conservation for future generations. The members of the RVSA work together because we recognize stronger ideas come forth and more durable work is accomplished when people with different life experiences come together over shared values. We work hard to listen and learn from one another. We understand that with different perspectives at the table we are more likely to build lasting conservation solutions on the ground. We set out in a caravan of vehicles into the Upper Ruby Valley to talk about conservation efforts and demonstrate the work ranchers have been doing over the years to take care of the public lands and waterways they use.
This well-attended tour included folks from state agencies, Forest Service staff, conservation organizations, ranchers, the media, and local elected officials. Ranchers taught us about management of public allotments for grazing. They are required to own private lands in order to access and use Forest Service public allotments. Depending on the season, cattle and sheep are either on private lands or in the higher elevations on public lands. Ranchers monitor the condition of the pastures based on Forest Service guidelines and rotate their livestock to maintain healthy pastures. This is not just because the Forest Service tells them to, Ruby Valley ranchers do this because they want to be able to use those pastures long into the future. Their operations depend on taking care of these lands.
Further up the Ruby Valley we walked through a field to a stream that has been used as a monitoring site. Impacts to streams from cattle and wildlife are important factors to understand. Several segments of this stream were managed for 1) no wildlife or livestock access, 2) only wildlife access, 3) wildlife and livestock access to see if there were significant differences in streamside and bed quality. The first segment with no access from animals at all was the most vegetated segment. The other two segments were vegetated but there was no noticeable difference between the wildlife only and the livestock/wildlife segments. It was interesting for me to see this because I expected to see much more of an impact in the section with livestock access.
Most importantly, this field trip provided the opportunity to be on the ground together – land and resource managers, wildlife managers, watershed groups, county commissioners, a state legislator, ranchers, and conservation groups. Throughout the day we heard from the Forest Service, Montana Department of Natural Resources, conservation groups, and ranchers. We all bring something important to the table and value the various knowledge, and experiences.
Together we can build lasting and durable solutions for this landscape long into the future.
—Darcie Warden, Montana Conservation Coordinator