Conservation with Buffalo on the Rocky Mountain Front
By Jill O'Brien, Part II
The Deep Creek Ranch sits up against the Rocky Mountain Front in Northern Montana.
It overlooks vast stretches of prairie that go on as far as the eye can see and is nurtured by the fertile river bed of Deep Creek and mountain spring run off. It is beautiful. The ranch is owned by David Letterman and his wife Regina Lasko, but the boots on the ground running the now 800-head bison ranch are Annie and Andrew Bardwell.
Annie and Andrew met me at the gate, gave me the low down on the “can and can not’s” of photographing and then led me to the professional kitchen located in the headquarters’ office building. This kitchen would be a dream to most anyone. We sat around a high farm-table like island, over steaming mugs of hot coffee and we started to get to know one another.
I asked Annie straightaway if she is the cook/chef. She replied that she is in charge of guest services, does some of the cooking, but professional chefs are often brought in. I then inquired about how they landed at the Deep Creek Ranch? Andrew gave me a brief background on his prior position as an elk guide in Yellowstone before the wolves were re-introduced, he stated, “Prior to the wolf re-introduction, and I’m not going to lie, elk guiding in Yellowstone was a pretty good gig. After the wolves returned, the elk numbers fell drastically (and the guiding did too), but it was the right thing to do, the right thing to do for the landscape.” Andrew then went to work at a “Privately Held Ranch”, which is where he met Annie. Annie was in hospitality and Andrew was a wrangler/guide. They were also both working on their degree, Annie in psychology and Andrew in history (which he laughs when he states that it took him nine years to get). Neither of them loved their location. They wanted to be closer to the wilderness. When Andrew saw an ad in the paper that read: Wrangler Needed. Pay DOE. And listed a phone number, he took a chance and applied. His fifth interview was with David Letterman at the ranch.
Jill: So, when did you start at the Deep Creek Ranch?
Andrew: We started in 2006. There hadn’t been any grazing since the Letterman’s bought the place in 1999. We started raising horses and we put up some hay. But, the place didn’t really take hold until the buffalo arrived. We started with 50 head of bred heifers in September of 2008. We had four strands of barbwire and the split rail fence. I am very proud that we have been able to build a buffalo operation with fences that allow the wildlife to move through freely. It was really important to us to have all the species co-exist.
Jill: What kind of wildlife do you have on the ranch?
Annie & Andrew: Elk, Antelope, Mule Deer, Whitetails, Moose, Big Horn Sheep, Black Bears, Grizzly Bears, Lions, Bobcats. It really is a very special place. Lewis and Clark didn’t see anything different then what we see today.
Jill: That’s something to be pretty proud of.
Andrew: We feel fortunate that there are places like this left and we are proud that we are doing everything we can to foster that.
Jill: You mention predators in that line up. Do you have a predation management program or do you let nature take its course?
Annie: We let nature take its course. We have never had any problems. We’ve all seen wolves, we know they are here, but we have never had a problem. There are plenty of videos that show what a bison is capable of and we know that they are capable of holding their own.
Jill: Well that speaks loudly to co-evolution. They have their own understanding.
Andrew: But, I don’t want to be cavalier about it, as we do know producers that have had real predation issues and they are absorbing those losses. So, I don’t want any false perception that it couldn’t happen, it hasn’t happened to us and I don’t lose sleep over it. The biggest predator that we do deal with though, is old man winter and the wind.
Andrew goes on to talk about how the ranch is run on solar power. He explains that before they put in the solar panels, they started with the big turbine windmills, which made sense to them, until the high winds drove them right into the ground.
Bob Milewski, the herd manager walks in and introductions are made.
Andrew: Bob lives with “the girls”, day in and day out.
Bob: Someone has to do it. I speak the language and I’m the only one patient enough to do it.
Jill: No, you can’t be in a hurry when you are working with buffalo.
Bob: No, no you can’t. And I keep that knowingness in my back pocket when I’m moving them.
Jill: How often do you move them?
Andrew: We’ve put up more fences, increasing our pasture numbers up to around 40. Some are 200 acres and others are much larger. We do a holistic, rotational grazing and it’s working very well for us. Some pastures are grazed maybe for only three days, and other pastures longer, it just depends.
Jill: That’s great - because the buffalo are roamers and love to move.
Andrew: The girls know that when Bob shows up it’s time to move and they will follow Bob anywhere. This way of grazing also provides a lot of rest to our pastures.
Annie: Pasture rest might not mean a lot to many people, but when you see the results of what rest does (and we have binders and binders of photos), its pretty cool to see.
Jill: Do you allow the herd to breed naturally or do you select?
Andrew: No, we run one herd. The bulls are with the herd the whole time. If we have a selection, it’s based on fertility and on the animals that flourish in our environment. Our other main goal is to improve the grassland health. So culling the herd is necessary for us.
Jill: You do an annual roundup, are you required to ear-tag them and what else are you looking for or testing?
Andrew: We ear tag for visual identification purposes. It’s really fun to get to know their individual personalities and this helps us do that. When we first started out we wanted to know everything; their weight, if they were pregnant, etc. so Annie set up a program that allows us to track the data electronically, so we also put a chip in their ear that holds that data. With the swipe of a wand over their ear we can see their history. It makes our roundup process run very smoothly.
Jill: So how has working with Wild Idea helped in managing your herd?
Andrew: We thought there should be a better way than transporting an animal to town, having it be held in a facility, only to be met by a bullet. So when we herd of how Wild Idea did a humane field harvest we were pretty interested.
Annie: After we spoke to Colton we were still pretty skeptical. We wondered how it was going to work? How was the heard going to respond? And then your crew came out and everyone did such an awesome job. It was a relief to see another way and how well it worked.
Jill: You have two small children, Lincoln who is five and Sterling who is now two. Is the food that you eat important to you and your family?
Annie: We know what’s in all of our food. What we feed our children is really important to us. We know where all of our meat comes from and what’s in it. What we are doing out here is important and producing healthy food is important. It makes me a little crazy that more people don’t get it.
Jill: I understand your frustration. It makes me crazy too. 90 percent of the buffalo meat in this country is finished in the cattle feedlot model and 70 percent of our crops grown are raised to feed animals in confinement. This information should jar everyone. Yet, when I go into beautiful groceries like Whole Foods and I see their rating system with their silver & gold stars and misleading information, for instance it may say grass-fed, but all of us around this table know that it is not grass-finished. It infuriates me. I guess you guys just found my hot button. Apologies for the raving!
Bob: Well, what do think is the most important factor to your customer?
Jill: I have no idea. Just kidding. I believe it is the humane field harvest, as overall animal welfare has become more important to the consumer. Also, the fact that we really are 100 percent grass-fed/grass-finished.
Bob: I also think that what we eat is genetically geared. For instance its getting dark and my primal instinct is that its time to find something to eat and build a fire. (All around the table agree with a little added laughter.)
Jill: We've talked a lot about the history of this ranch and your bison operation, but now it’s 2018, what are your current issues, or what is your greatest concern?
Andrew: Water Buffalo creeping into the Buffalo market.
Jill: It’s already started. It’s everywhere in the pet food industry.
Annie: We know - that’s how we learned about it.
Andrew: Its also being added to bison too and already being pedaled to consumers.
Jill: Well it’s the marketing angle there too that confuses the consumer. That’s why I’m here, to continue to tell the Wild Idea story, your story and to share it with our customers in an authentic way. We can’t do it in a sound bite, it’s way more than “just do it”, so thank you for welcoming me and sitting down with me and telling me your story.
Jill: Is there anything that I haven’t asked that you would like to say?
Andrew: At the end of the day no one can argue with the fact that this way of ranching is the only way that you can drive a monetary value from these grasslands and keep them wild. If you can’t put this grass into the form of buffalo flesh the land isn’t worth anything and then the plow sharers will show up or the sub-divider’s and this ecosystem will become something else.
Jill: That’s well said. I’m not sure if people realize the fragility of this landscape and the ever-pressing threats the prairie is constantly under. So thank you again and thank you for your wonderful stewardship.
My time with Annie, Andrew and Bob was informative and ebullient and full of so many more stories. I was also curious of Mr. Letterman’s views and asked if a call might be possible. Andrew was able to arrange it a few weeks later. Here are some highlights from my call with Mr. Letterman, who was effortlessly funny and sincere.
Jill: Hi Mr. Letterman. Thank you for taking some time with me. (We then exchanged some weather pleasantries and he made some pretty good jokes about the wind and then I continued.) First you should know that I’m not a journalist, I’m a cook. Our budget at Wild Idea is pretty tiny, so we do whatever needs to be done, so you are stuck with me.
David Letterman: Well I am very happy for your interest and this is going to be fun. So thank you for your time.
Jill: Well, I’ll get right to it. So, my questions are not going to be scientific, it’s more about you and your family and your relationship to the land. So, with that said, what made you buy a ranch in Montana?
DL: Well I find it interesting and because I like to talk about myself, a friend of mine who owned ranches in Montana for the longest time said, you should go to Montana, you should go to Montana, you should go to Montana. I said to the real estate agent - I know there are parts of the state that are very popular with show business people and high profile people, but I don’t think we would be very comfortable with that. If we wanted that we would stay in New York. So, oh my, that’s how we ended up on the Front.
Jill: It’s just an absolutely stunning property.
DL: Yeah, it’s nice. In the beginning and this is one of the great parts of the experience, we new zero about the land and now some twenty-years later we’re still learning about the land. I’ll tell you the great thing about the bison. At first the ranch was pretty much a lot of barbed wire and nap weed. I spent a lot of time picking up barbed wire and we dealt with the nap weed. The ranch never really had an identity until Andrew started the bison program. It changed the culture of the ranch, it’s changed how we view the ranch and it’s been such a wonderful thing in our lives. Our family loves it and the big draw now on the ranch is to meander through the herd on a beautiful summer day. It’s made all the difference in the world to us in this venture, because without the bison, it’s just another place to sleep.
Jill: Wow, you are doing an awesome job at answering questions, because you’re answering them before I even have to ask them. (Laughter.)
DL: My problem is I talk too much - I’ll still be talking with you after we hang up the phone.
Jill: So, you had said that you just keep learning and learning. What are some of your key takeaways in the past twenty years? What has it taught you?
DL: The first big lesson when we got to the Front was that we had no idea what it was. We had no idea that the two ecosystems of the Great Plains and the mountains collided right there. I think it’s a 400-mile stretch from Canada down to Wolf Creek. We had no idea of the proximity to the Bob Marshall Wilderness. We had no idea of the truly rugged nature of this countryside. And, you think it can be so brutal that it can take care of itself and the first lesson we learned was even though it is brutal and raw, it still needed to be protected. So that was the first thing we concentrated on, was to make sure that we were doing the best to protect the land for as long as we can. I had a talk with my son Harry this weekend, he is a freshman in high school, I asked him, after college and you’re married and have a job would you be interested in keeping the ranch? Harry is at the age were he would rather do anything than talk to me. I know it’s hard for young kids to have that vision, but he responded with oh yeah, absolutely. So that is very gratifying. But, to protect an environment where you get grizzly bears - we are so very lucky to witness them and to have them on our ranch. You might expect to see them in one of the national parks, but to have them on our ranch, even though I recognize some peril may come with having them on our land, using our little Deep Creek as a corridor between the parks. It’s that kind of experience that you learn from and are thrilled by.
Jill: I read in an article that when you first arrived on the Rocky Mountain Front you had to get out of your car and walk around to calm down. Can you share a little about that experience?
DL: Yeah, my friend who had suggested that we go to Montana had said that you will know when you stand on the land that that’s where you want to be. And we had looked at places, and looked at places and looked at places, and I never had that feeling and was wondering if it was some kind of hyperbolic romantic theory of finding property, but when we dropped over the divide and came up to the Front - I had to stop the car. I got out and I stood on the shoulder of the highway and looked at it, and it was palpable. I know I might sound nuts and there are those that say I might be, but you could feel it. Vibration might be too strong of a word, but my god it’s like being dropped in the ocean. It’s the enormity of what you are absorbing and the idea that we might be privileged to live there was overwhelming. So once we got up there, it was finding a place that was available.
Jill: For me the landscape always humbles me and it puts me in my place with the greater world. Did you feel that as well?
DL: Sure. I feel that and it doesn’t go away as you know. It’s not like, “that was good, now lets go have lunch”. It’s with you all the time. In NYC your field of vision is, can I see across the street? Where we are and I assume where you are, you don’t stop seeing. Its endless, it’s infinite and I think that’s good for the soul. The other thing, going back to the wildlife, my favorite is the Pronghorn. I’m fascinated by them and to be able to live where you see wildlife also resets a persons’ perspective on humanity.
Jill: It’s going to take a lot of voices to bring more awareness to the broader audience on our food supply and it’s relationship to the land, so thank you for sharing yours. And, on behalf of Wild Idea, thank you for taking such good care of the land and all of the creatures that live there and for being our sourcing partner. We appreciate that very much.
DL: We are thrilled by the association. The esthetics of the bison on our property alone is beyond thrilling. It makes us happy and proud to be apart of. Thank you Jill so much for your interest in talking with me.
Jill: Thank you. Goodbye Mr. Letterman (she said with a smile on her face).