Dusk has come prematurely with the arrival of the season’s first snow storm. The mountains have been erased by swirling clouds of mist, the torches of the yellowing cottonwoods have dimmed. Ranch manager James Stuart ’07 lays down the law. No one goes outside after dark without a dog. Persistent drought has shorted the supply of risk-free forage, and a black bear yearling has staked out the riverside acreage as alternative territory. Two weeks ago a grizzly killed a heifer. The black bear was anesthetized and relocated. The grizzly’s whereabouts remain unknown.
James wants them to thrive not only for his boss’ sake but for the sake of his children. “The average age in this business is 63. Too many ol’ ranchers are tired and wore out, and they discourage their kids from following them. But there are great opportunities if you look at things differently than grandpa did.”more
“What’s a heifer?” asks five-year-old Emma, her hair as curly and sunshine blond as Goldilocks.
“A young girl cow,” says James’ wife Kendra, at 31 “the old lady of the ranch” who helps run the office.
The children are camped out in front of the TV, immersed in another replay of their favorite video, Barnyard. Ben, the cartoon bull, is preaching at his reckless son, Otis, about the responsibilities of manhood. Two-year-old Christian alternates between video gawking and bathing his toy cow herd in the dog dish.
James will rise early tomorrow, before the sunrise paints the snowed-in Madison Range to the east, where the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area is. As soon as the planning meeting is over, James and his full-time staff of two will reconvene at the barn. The cattle foreman’s horse has been missing for two days. “Maybe she got ate, or more lame,” Justin Dixon ’05 says. If he’s worried about losing the only horse he and wife Kayla ’06 actually own, he doesn’t show it. Adapting to circumstance and change, “that’s what ranching is,” he says in the leisurely drawl of a fifth-generation Utah cowboy.
Sun Ranch straddles both sides of the highway paralleling Montana’s Madison River, penetrating the foothills of the mountainous wilderness area to the east and butting up against the limestone cliffs of the river’s west bank, which form the basement to the Gravely Range. Twenty-six thousand acres is a lot of ground to cover with a search party of three on horseback.
Tomorrow morning, if the mud is manageable in the snow, James, Justin and Kody Menghini ’07 will saddle up and hunt for the absentee horse. They’ve lost horses and cows before in the hidden bogs and tangled forests of Sun Ranch. Most of the missing critters are usually found in the nick of time; some aren’t until the buzzards start circling.
Owner Roger Lang purchased Sun Ranch from actor Steven Seagal in 1998. The original spread was homesteaded in the 1880s with other ranches in Madison Valley that sustained themselves on livestock and hungry miners. Lang, a Stanford graduate, had a different agenda in mind. “I came here with the Sierra Club ethos, thinking ‘Cows are bad,’” he told a Stanford Magazine reporter. “I was a classic, detached-from-the-land suburbanite. But if you manage for wildlife, it’s a win-win. For the next 20 to 30 years, cows are what will preserve open space.”
Lang believes not only in wildlife conservation, from the mighty grizzly to the increasingly rare Westslope cutthroat trout, but big game hunting and free-range, grass-fed beef for high-end restaurants. At Papoose Creek Lodge, guests enjoy organic, locally grown gourmet food, and guided horseback riding and fly fishing – but no four wheeling, snowmobiling or potshots at jackrabbits allowed.
Lang, a California entrepreneur who made his money in software development, is the first to admit he’s a greenhorn when it comes to agriculture. That’s why he hired three recent USU graduates who are progeny of multi-generational farm families and protégés of USU wildlife resources professor Fred Provenza. They run the ranching operation.
James is the boss, who recently promoted Kody, his successor in predator patrol, to wildlife biologist. Instead of staying up all night with the Angus, spooking wolves with dummy and firecracker-like rifle shots, Kody will focus on habitat improvement for the ranch’s photogenic antelope, deer and elk. The fourth bullet in the chamber is for real. The Montana Division of Wildlife issues shoot-on-sight permits for repeat offenders after a verified kill.
How do some oldtimers in the valley cope with a predatory wolf? asks James. “Shoot, shovel and shut up.”
At Sun Ranch, the motto differs from the norm. “We’re neither wolf lovers nor wolf haters. Our goal is to reduce loss of life on both sides,” says James, who grew up in southern Idaho, “working on everybody else’s farms. I was their hands and legs.”
Now at age 28, he is managing a ranch that seeks to lead the way in sustainable agriculture. Not only that but the job came with free lodging and benefits, a rarity in this day and age, and Lang’s philosophy mirrors the teachings of Provenza and his international human and animal behavior consortium, BEHAVE, and other professors in USU’s colleges of natural resources and agriculture. “Roger respects life, but also realizes we can’t sit back and do nothing,” James says. “We’re big fish in a finite pond.”
The setting may resemble Bonanza’s 19th-century Ponderosa Ranch, but James, Justin and Kody live and work in something of a fishbowl. Sun Ranch has been the subject of documentaries for German television and PBS, and James was interviewed for both.
“Wolves and cattle: You don’t hear those words together much,” says Kody, a big man of few words.
That concept hooks the media; locally the publicity runs afoul of strongly held beliefs. “When you think outside the box, the traditionalists think you’re nuts,” says James.
“And the enviros fly off the handle when we have to kill a wolf that has been killing cattle,” says Justin.
The team’s relationship with predators isn’t the only noticeable change on the ranch in recent years that startles. Sixty miles of barbed wire fence have been removed, and replaced with an electrified blend of polyester and wire that doesn’t trap and mangle legs in a futile bid to break free. The poly-wire can be raised and lowered during peak elk migrations.
Their holistic range management was pioneered by Allan Savory in Africa, and adopted and refined by Provenza and others who incorporate humans into the monitoring and decision-making. Range management, as taught at USU, is an applied science that pays attention to the complex interactions between humans, wildlife, livestock and plants, and that mimics natural processes. At Sun Ranch “we’re mimicking the bison,” says James. “Better to graze 365 cows a day in one spot than one cow for 365 days. A cow you can buy and sell in a day. If you overgraze, it takes 10 to 50 years to fix the damage. Continuous grazing is not good; high intensity, low frequency is.”
Lang doesn’t own any of the herds. For a third the price it would cost to fatten a cow at a feedlot, his ranch management team will tend a herd over the summer with no antibiotics or hormones. They lose less than one percent a year to predation, disease and mishap.
The research of Provenza’s BEHAVE consortium has proven the importance of low-stress handling, among other things. “No chasing or hollering, Hollywood-style,” James says. “Stampeding cattle don’t put on weight. If you handle them correctly, give them good food and water, they’ll thrive.”