Matador Ranch Grass Bank

Posted: Apr 1, 2005
Written by: 
Michelle Nijhuis

The Nature Conservancy's (TNC's) Matador Ranch, a 60,000 acre preserve in the mixed-grass prairie of eastern Montana. The ranch covers 31,000 acres of private land and 29,000 acres of federal and state grazing leases, and is adjacent to the Fort Belknap Reservation. About 1,600 acres are irrigated pasture.

Objective: In exchange for the opportunity to graze cattle at discounted rates on the Matador Ranch, ranchers participating in the Matador grassbank program agree to take certain conservation actions on their home grazing lands. TNC hopes these measures will help strengthen local prairie dog colonies and, ultimately, help recover the black-footed ferret population.

Participants: The Nature Conservancy, the Bureau of Land Management, Montana Division of State Lands and Division of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Montana State University, area ranchers (ranchers with grassbank leases are organized as the Matador Grazing Group).

History: TNC purchased the Matador Ranch in 2000 with the intent of conserving native prairie wildlife in the Glaciated Plains of north-central Montana. The plains, which include both mixed-grass prairie and sage steppe, are home to the highest concentrations of black-tailed prairie dogs remaining in Montana. Prairie dogs, which have experienced massive declines throughout their range in recent decades, support an array of rare species such as black-footed ferrets, burrowing owls, swift fox, ferruginous hawks, and mountain plovers.

 Matador Ranch Grassbank
Courtsey of The Nature Conservancy

The economy of Phillips County, where the Matador Ranch is located, is dependent on grain farming and livestock grazing, both marginal enterprises in the drought-prone and unpredictable climate. Many farms and ranches in the county are family operations, handed down over many generations, but these traditions are fading. The county population has dropped from more than 30,000 in the 1930s to about 4,500 today, and the remaining population is aging.

TNC originally planned to reintroduce black-tailed prairie dogs on about 5,000 acres of the Matador Ranch, with the goal of supporting ongoing black-footed ferret reintroduction efforts on the Fort Belknap reservation, the nearby Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, and the Matador Ranch itself. TNC staffers soon discovered that prairie-dog reintroduction would be extremely expensive and time-consuming, so they began looking for ways to protect existing prairie dog populations on nearby private ranches.

TNC convened a local advisory committee of ranchers, and talked to agencies, environmental groups, and others about strategies for the conservation of wildlife and wildlife habitat in the region. Most ranchers were extremely suspicious of conservation easements, so TNC considered other tools. "The community had been through two years of drought, and stock numbers had already been reduced," says local rancher Dale Veseth. "So I approached Linda and told her that there'd be a lot of goodwill from the community if The Nature Conservancy could help the local folks get through the drought."

Veseth and TNC Glaciated Plains Program Director Linda Poole developed a plan for a grassbank on the Matador Ranch, with grazing discounts offered to participants who carried out conservation projects on their private land. Though other grassbanks had offered forage to ranchers in exchange for conservation and restoration actions elsewhere, the Matador was the first to offer a "menu" of conservation options, with forage discounts tied directly to specific measures.

Accomplishments: In the summer of 2003, TNC leased forage on the Matador Ranch to a group of 13 local ranchers. Eleven ranchers participated in the grassbank the following year, and 13 will participate in 2005; the grassbank now has more applicants than it can accept. Ranchers are charged fair market value - $18 per cow-and-calf pair - for the forage, but receive discounts tied to various conservation efforts on their home ground.

 A lot of biodiversity hides within the northern mixed grass prairie of the Matador Ranch. Forty species of mammals, 179 species of birds, and 293 species of plants have been documented on the ranch.
Photo by Linda Poole/TNC
Optional conservation measures include adoption of sustainable range management methods as certified by Montana State University's (MSU's) Undaunted Stewardship Program, and the restoration and maintenance of private-land habitat for prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, and sage grouse. All participating ranchers are required to control noxious weeds, such as spotted knapweed and leafy spurge, on their land. Because Phillips County is unusually free of noxious weeds, ranchers are also required to monitor for new weed invasions and take preventive measures such as the use of weed-free hay. Finally, participating ranchers are required to refrain from sodbusting, which converts native prairie to cropland. Ranchers are compensated, in the form of forage discounts, for both optional and mandatory actions.

Over the 2003 and 2004 seasons, the Matador Ranch Grassbank led to MSU Undaunted Stewardship Certification of 10 ranches, weed control and prevention on 346,000 acres, the protection of 6,600 acres of prairie dog habitat, the protection of three active sage grouse leks, and prevention of sodbusting on 15 ranches. The Matador Ranch itself has protected another 3,000 acres of prairie dog habitat and a dozen sage grouse leks.

During its first two seasons, the grassbank offered only one-year leases to participants, but this year, at the request of ranchers, it began to sign some three-year leases. The longer leases, it is hoped, will provide more certainty for both TNC and grassbank participants, and will lead to longer-term, more effective conservation work on private ranchlands.

The grassbank grazes between 5,000 and 7,000 cow-and-calf pairs, or AUMs, on its 60,000 acres of public and private land each year, which Poole describes as relatively light stocking. Cattle are grazed in large herds, and rotated frequently to give the forage a chance to rest. "The primary thing we need to do is walk our talk," says Poole. "We're concerned about biodiversity, so we want to do the absolute best we can for biodiversity on the Matador Ranch. After that, we look at how many AUMs are left over, and we build the grassbank from there."

The grassbank has also softened local resistance to conservation initiatives; in fact, it has helped foster a major community conservation effort. Grassbank participants and other local ranchers recently formed the Rancher Stewardship Alliance, which, with the help of a facilitator, has written a conservation plan for over 1.5 million acres of land in south Phillips County. If approved by stakeholders, the plan will be considered by the state of Montana as it develops prairie dog management recommendations for the region.

"We've made a lot of tangible accomplishments at the grassbank, but I think the intangibles might have greater benefits for conservation," says Veseth. "The relationship and trust built between folks helped create the Rancher Stewardship Alliance, which in turn allowed us to work more cohesively as a community. It's allowed us to become more organized, and more goal-oriented, and that has made it easier for other people to work with us."

Challenges/Constraints: The Matador Ranch has found it difficult to settle on equitable "conservation discounts" for various measures taken on private land, as it has few models to look to. Managers have also had some problems managing the cattle in large herds, since most of the cows are accustomed to smaller herds.

The grassbank now has annual revenue losses of about $75,000, and the shortfall is covered by private foundation grants and TNC funds. The project may never be financially self-sustaining, says Poole, but it will likely reduce its losses as staffers and participants become more experienced and efficient: "We're still at the very steep part of the learning curve."

For more information see:

The Nature Conservancy Matador Ranch

National Grassbank Network

Montana State University "Undaunted Stewardship Program"

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