My Rocky Mountain Front High
This past September, I had the pleasure of visiting our sourcing partners in Montana. Both ranches run against the Rocky Mountain Front. It had been almost twenty years since I had been in that part of the country, and the images were starting to fade. I had heard the stories of how beautiful the ranches were from the harvest crew and was once again looking forward to being engulfed in that part of the country and all of its majesty. It didn’t disappoint.
Chris Bechtold, the ranch manager of the Diamond 4 D ranch had sent me a map with driving directions that were layered with landmarks. When I got to the schoolhouse (make a left at the schoolhouse), I had to stop and take in what I was headed for. My god - it was just breathtaking. With grizzly bears and wolves on my mind, I moved on with focus.
The mountains started to feel circular to me, but the vertical rock wall stood out in front and was smack-dab where I was headed. I continued on past the Deep Creek Ranch (our other Montana sourcing partner’s ranch, which I would visit the following day), until I came to a gynormous Montana log gate with the ranch brand attached to the top.
I wound my way over a gravel track, until I was literally at the end of the road with the Rocky Mountain Front staring down at me.
Chris greeted me and made me a cold elk roast sandwich. It was delicious, and I polished it off in record time. There would be so much to experience and see, that there was no time to dilly-dally. Chris showed me to my cabin to settle in and handed me a can of bear spray, just in case I wanted to go for a quick walk before he returned. As comforting as that “was not” being new to “bear country”, I decided to sit tight.
Minutes later, we were out for a tour of the ranch, and our conversation started to unravel. At first I inquired about his background. I learned that he was a packer/guide for elk hunts in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, had a degree in biology, and had worked for The Game and Fish Department tracking and trapping grizzly bears. After starting a family, he needed to be more stationary, so he took a ranch managing position for an organic rancher, before moving on to run the Diamond 4 D. My head was swirling in information and in beauty. Even the rocks (glacial erratic) were stunning.
Luckily modern technology allows one to record conversations. As the light was slipping, we returned from our tour and sat down for a Q&A chat.
Jill: So, in January 2011 you went to work for Gordon and Jill Dyal who had just purchased the Diamond 4 D ranch. How did you find it and where did you start?
Chris: Well - the ranch was summer grass, which the former owners leased to run yearlings. We initially thought we would like to run pairs (cow/calf operation), but someone would have done that already if it were doable. This isn’t good country to be calving cows in. That was apparent from the beginning. We also didn’t have a big enough hay base or facilities to care for them. So, we needed to do something different and started to look at alternatives. Andrew, the ranch manager at Deep Creek had been running bison for a couple of years and he thought they were pretty awesome, and they looked pretty cool too.
So, I started researching bison and what it would take. We have lots of grazing land - perfect. Bison can handle the winters - perfect. There’s no assistance needed with calving - another perfect. Plus, this area on the Rocky Mountain Front, from Birch Creek to the Teton River was one of the last places that held bison, which became the seed stock for the National Bison Range in the 1880’s. It was a natural fit. I approached the Dyal’s on this and we looked at the economics of it and thought it might work.
Jill: So - you didn’t start with cows?
Chris: Nope. We jumped right in with bison. When we started building fence, we put the first post in knowing it was for bison. I’ll never work with cows again.
Jill: When did the first group of bison arrive on the ranch?
Chris: It was early November in 2011 that our first 75-bred heifers arrived.
Jill: Did you have them genetically tested? And, is that important to you?
Chris: Not originally, but we do test occasionally now. It’s not important from a purity standpoint. In my opinion, that issue has already sorted itself out. The natural selection is that animals of purity will perform better on grass. So, I use genetic testing for my own “Chris’s Theory”, and look for the sire of those animals that have National Bison Range genetics, as that seed stock came from here. So, if my theory is right, they should preform better here, on this land. I look at weight, health, performance, of course there is a bias in that, but over time, those with the National Bison Range genetics should float to the top. But, I’m just going to let it be and give it ten years, then maybe I’ll have enough data to prove my theory. I’m not sure if there is any value in it - I just think it’s neat.
Jill: So, you do have a way to identify the genetic pool of where those animals came from?
Jill: And - just to clarify here, are you suggesting that you do, or that you do NOT do selective breeding?
Chris: I’m not, as we let everything run naturally here. What I am selecting for is a performance of the offspring. I am selecting for those that are performing the best on THIS grass. We have one cow that’s marked with cattle genes, but she is such a good cow. I’m not going to get rid of her, but we do cull her offspring. I’m very proud of the herd we have now and they are performing really good on our grass here. Allowing the animals to be as wild as possible, to fight it out during the rut, with the top dogs winning, and to be able to handle the tough, tough conditions up here, selection is happening naturally. After seven years of following this path, I’m feeling like we are starting to reap the rewards of these animals matching the eco-system, matching the landscape.
Jill: When you arrived what was the hardest thing that you had to deal with?
Chris: Well, to start, it was the eighty-five miles of fence we had to build. We took it on as our own project. It was just John and me, and we hired another guy for a while. To see those semi trucks with all of that lumber was just soul crushing. It was a daunting challenge. And, we needed to fence it in a way that was best for the landscape; we didn’t just want to chop it up.
We also needed to consider wildlife movement. After the first mile of fence, I got a call from Fish and Wildlife, as they had received calls that we were fencing in wildlife. I explained that I was a wildlife biologist, and that I did my thesis on wildlife movement with fencing. I also had photos of grizzly bears, moose, elk, deer, and big horn sheep moving through those fences. I invited them to come out and take a look. So, that was my primary challenge, to figure out how to allow the wildlife to move through - while keeping our bison at home.
Jill: Well - you built some pretty darn good lookin’ fence.
Chris: Well - we did, and we built a lot of it.
Jill: How many pastures do you have now?
Chris: Currently we are at 14.
Jill: Do you practice rotational grazing?
Chris: Well - we do, but I don’t have a set pattern or grazing schedule. There are just too many variables. Things are always in a state of flux with weather and other constraints. But, I do track when and how long the animals are in a pasture. And, when I can, I try to rest pastures as much as possible.
Jill: When we were out driving around, we ventured up into some of the higher country where there are more trees, and you mentioned that the bison don’t like it up there, that it’s difficult to move the bison, and that horseback is required. Can you explain that a bit more?
Chris: Well, bison didn’t evolve in the higher country, and if they did it was more along the shoulder. Our mother cows are prairie cows, and if we put the herd up there they walk the fence wanting to come down to the open areas. A few years back we tried separating off the two-year-old bulls as they often separate themselves from the herd anyway - but it put stress on them, and their performance went down. So grazing those higher meadow pastures for optimal health and to keep back the fir encroachment remains a challenge.
Jill: Keeping families together and removing stress from your herd is key then in their performance?
Chris: Yes. That’s another huge difference between bison and cattle, bison become stressed so easily. I see it - their flight or fight zone instincts are so much larger than any other animal. They're like elk. So - when you start pushing on them and moving them to places where they don’t want to go, it is an unnecessary added stress. That’s the great part about what you guys do, Wild Idea, with the field harvest, there is no stress.
Jill: Is there any advice that you would give someone going into the bison industry?
Chris: Bison are not cows. They are one hundred times smarter than cows. They are wild, independent and free. If you go into raising buffalo like raising cattle, you are going to run into heartache.
Jill: You have wolves, grizzly bears, and mountain lions - all the big predators. How do you deal with them?
Chris: I don’t. I don’t deal with them. That’s the beauty of bison - they evolved with these pressures and they have their own techniques and strategies to deal with predation. And, as far as I know, knock on wood - I’ve not had predation problems. We may have lost a calf or two - it’s highly possible.
Jill: And, that’s okay with you?
Chris: I think that’s fine. Again - if I go back to animals that evolved on this landscape, then those that would have been lost, would have been lost anyway. The bison just handle it. We don’t find wolf tracks going through the bison herd. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen - we just haven’t seen it. I think the wolves maybe have a little more respect for the bison than they do cattle. And, grizzly bears, this is such a rich landscape, grizzly bears don’t need to eat bison. It’s too much work. If you were a grizzly bear it’d be way easier to eat grass, berries and pick up the small stuff, or scavenge off something already dead than it would be to kill a bison.
Jill: You’re a biologist, specializing in grizzly bears. Can you talk about the grizzly bears being a prairie species and that it was humans and our invasion on their territory that pushed them into the mountains. Also, now that their numbers are increasing, they are venturing back out on to the plains - how are people responding to that?
Chris: Yes - that’s absolutely true - grizzly bears evolved on the prairie. Lewis and Clark started running into them along the Montana / South Dakota line. There’s a lot of prairie between here and there. That’s their native range. With the population growing over the past years - slowly, the niches are starting to fill - so the younger bears are pushing out onto the prairie and to the east. As you could see, our creek bottoms on the prairie are lush. It’s a great fit for bears. The problem is that as they move eastward it’s interspersed with people. There is a lot of fear that goes with bears. We live among them and co-exist with them. They aren’t a problem, they’re a neighbor. We know that they occupy certain areas of the ranch. We need to let the bears be bears and the buffalo be buffalo. We have to remember not to fight nature.
Jill: That’s wonderful and good advice. Thanks for the pepper spray by the way (said with laughter), but I think I’m still at the “need a guide state”! Seriously - you have four kids, they're running around the ranch - how concerned are you for their safety?
Chris: It’s a concern, but it’s about learning what’s acceptable and what’s not. I’ve always tried to teach the kids that this is bear habitat here and this over here is not. Don’t walk in the bear habitat, that’s a bad idea. When you go out - take your bear spray with you. Don’t live in fear of bears, but respect them. You have to respect everything out here. You have to respect the weather, the wind, the bears. Read the signs and be respectful.
Jill: So, what time should I be here in the morning to look for bears?
Jill: I’ll be here.
The next morning we ventured out in the early morning light. A lone bull was grazing in the hay meadow and I had switched camera lens to try to capture the serenity of the scene.
A mile further a grizzly bear barreled up the side of a hill - I fumbled with my lenses in excitement. Thankfully the big bear paused long enough for me to catch his silhouette on the horizon. I was over the moon! Later that morning we spotted a brown bear and another grizzly through binoculars happily shoveling chokecherries in his mouth with his big paw. My face hurt from smiling by the time the morning was over.
A week later, I had the chance to visit with Jill Dyal on the telephone, who expressed similar passions to Chris’s. Their love of nature and wildlife was instilled by Gordon’s father who owned a farm in Iowa and who was also an avid outdoors man. “He loved to fish, hunt, rock climb, and camp. When we started looking for a ranch, we were looking for a place that was the closest thing to primordial country, to honor his legacy’, Jill stated. “The addition of bison completed the pre Lewis & Clark picture.”
Gordon and Jill are active in The Wildlife Conservation Society and The Nature Conservancy. “Balancing conservation and ranching can be challenging, but I think there is a shift in how people ranch. We want to protect what we love,” Jill said.
We are so grateful to be working with ranchers that have such integrity for the land and for the wildlife. We are a small bunch that work together. But, as Chris mentioned (paraphrasing an Arlo Guthrie song), when you have one, you have an idea. When you have two, you have someone to share your idea. When you have three, you have an organization. But, when you have more - you have a movement.
I think we might be on to something! Thank you Chris. And, thank you Jill & Gordon.