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Ranching in Montana

Cattle grazing in Garfield County

Ranching in Montana: A Brief History

The Early Days

Ranching has long been a staple of Montana's culture and economy. As one of the first industries in Montana, cattlemen appeared in the valleys of Western Montana in the 1860s to answer the demand of beef in mining towns. These early Montana ranchers relied on the practice of what is known as "open range" where they grazed large plots of unsettled lands, continually moving their herds to fresher pastures. The open range management of livestock has been popularized by Western literature and modern cinema; however, their popularity at the time would wane with the introduction of the Homestead Act of 1862, and the expanded 1909 iteration. These two acts promised large parcels of land (160 and 320 acres, respectively) to applicants who could improve the land through agriculture. Many of the young couples moving west participated in the open range ranching, but the increase in fenced-in, privatized land coupled with the sheer difficulty of managing livestock during bitter winters would lead to more intensive management of herds in the 20th century and would signal the curtain call of open range operations.

The "Dirty Thirties"

During the 1930s the evolving intensive agricultural practices combined with years of drought to form what is referred to as the Dust Bowl (or Dirty Thirties). From coast-to-coast this phenomenon demanded the attention of politicians, as well as the general public. Suddenly there was intense scrutiny of current range practices and a demand to ensure proper stewardship of the nation's public lands. The issue of sustainable range practices became a hot topic atop Capitol Hill since such large portions of public land were used for the purposes of livestock grazing. The U.S. government proposed their answer for enforcing orderly use of public lands in 1933 with their adoption of the Taylor Grazing Act. This act made way for the U.S. Grazing Service to act as the regulatory force to prevent over-grazing and to resolve disputes related to public land usage.

The Effects of the Taylor Grazing Act in Montana

As changes to public land ranching swept across the American West, the state of Montana took their range management one step further. Since the public lands in Montana account for roughly one-third of the states total acreage -- roughly 30 million acres, much of which is considered viable for foraging -- there were many different grazing associations in the state, and very little communication amongst each other. These marked the early days of governmentally organized grazing and were tumultuous to say the least. The state of Montana had over 100 grazing associations, some of these operating in similar regions, but not always cooperatively, as each group of ranchers that made up their association looked out for each other and no one else. Seeking to unify the newly dependent ranching communities in Montana the state legislature addressed the issue by passing legislation in 1935 that created the Montana Grass Conservation Commission, and was followed by the Montana Grass Conservation Act in 1939. In passing these two bills, Montana became the only state to allow the unique structure of "state cooperative grazing districts." Prior to this the grazing districts were recognized federally, but not formally in any state's legislature and did not answer to a state authority. Montana's progressive management would see those near-100 grazing associations consolidated into what are now 27 state grazing districts, and would further facilitate their intra- and interstate state communication. The MGCC with authority under state and federal law and has overseen a more orderly use of valuable forage lands thus leading to a great deal of stability to Montana's leading industry.

The 21st Century

Many of the historic ranching communities are still operated by the descendents of the original families who settled those plots. They pay tribute to their classic ways of life, but their methods are cutting edge and their family ranches are run much in the same way as a business. Of course, many things have changed such as the U.S. Grazing Service combining with the General Land Office to form the Bureau of Land Management, and a state restructuring of the Montana Grass Commission in the late 1990s but after 70 years public land ranchers still work with many different agencies--both public and federal--to implement sustainable range management practices.