A sense of unity: Montana ranchers, conservationists, more, work together for the common good
In the wolf and bear country of Montana there is an alliance created by a community of working ranchers and dedicated conservationists with a common idea for the management of the land. While both theoretical and literal predators prowl the wild spaces, the purpose of the Ruby Valley Strategic Alliance is to maintain a lively and thriving relationship between the people, land, water and wildlife. Ruby Valley is a place where the perspectives are shared and the word ‘alliance’ means more than a formal agreement.
The diverse collection of ranchers and conservationists that make up the RVSA work in harmony for the common interest of the Greater Ruby Valley and employ ideas that benefit the community that calls it home.
Multiple surrounding mountain ranges and major rivers create a pristine landscape full of life unsurpassed for the multigenerational cattlemen and women with their livestock operations and those that are advocating for the wild and preservation of the Greater Ruby Valley. The RVSA has created a unity between these committed people, who now operate on common ground to accomplish their goals with the perspectives of many to fuel their ideas and solutions.
Rick Sandru is both a rancher and conservationist in the Ruby Valley, and a founder of the RVSA. It began with a bill that proposed half of his grazing allotment would be turned into a wilderness area. He became acquainted with the conservationists involved, and realized they had more in common than not. The bill failed, and the boundary line was moved so Sandru could still run his cattle in the mountains. He went to his conservation district and proposed maintaining the relationship to tackle larger issues they were facing. He wanted to keep working ranches productive and the wildlife habitat intact, and the best way to do that was to create the alliance.
The RVSA is made up of a handful of organizations including the Ruby Valley Stock Association, Warm Springs and Ledford Creek Grazing Associations, Ruby Valley Conservation District and Watershed Council, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Ruby Habitat Foundation, the Wildlife Conservation Society, The Nature Conservancy, the Montana Wilderness Association and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, along with many others.
“We all have to have a passion for conservation and working around the concept of conserving the watershed. That means management of the public lands and proper stewardship of private lands. A few short years ago these conservation groups didn’t know much about working ranches, and now they’re some of our strongest advocates for agriculture,” Sandru said.
An issue that the alliance has been facing is a downward trajectory of AUM permits on forest service and BLM land that has been decreasing since the 1960s. Maintaining and ultimately increasing the number of AUMs and getting cattle production back into the equation is one of Sandru’s goals. This issue has become a critical component in the future of livestock operations in the Ruby Valley, and was one of the focus points for the creation of the RVSA.
Another impending struggle in the Ruby Valley is predation of grizzly bears and wolves. The cattle are only grazing 40 to 50 miles away from Yellowstone National Park. The need for vigilance has increased with the population influx of bears, since they were once again placed on the endangered species list.
“Bears are getting thick and preying on a lot more cattle every year and we don’t have an effective way of dealing with that yet. It’s a safety issue. Our riders have to be very careful riding in on a carcass because there might be more bears in the brush waiting to claim it.”
While ranchers and conservationists face these problems with solidarity and an authentic partnership, the RVSA is also a medium for education between members for the daily operation of the ranches, the livestock, and how to protect the land.
Another working rancher involved with the RVSA representing the Warm Springs Grazing Association is Gary Giem. “We’re exchanging ideas with the conservation groups. We’ve had three or four tours where they come to the ranches and understand what goes on here. It’s a good education process for all of us,” Giem said.
The members of the alliance have proved just how effective the concept of listening to different perspectives can educate about the working knowledge of different livelihoods in the Ruby Valley.
Emily Cleveland is the Southwest field director at the Montana Wilderness Association. “In my time with the alliance I have learned that we can be so much more productive when we focus on what brings us together as opposed to what divides us.” She said some of the most important conversations are about issues that they don’t agree on. “But through respectful dialogue we can learn from one another and find solutions that can move us forward.”
Cleveland believes the most important element for success in a group like theirs is having a diversity of perspective and respect for one another. “RVSA members don’t always see eye to eye on every issue, but we make a concerted effort to understand and respect one another’s views. Integrity and trust are also really important concepts. I make an effort to communicate the values and the benefits of ranching to our conservation base in order to help break down any negative stereotypes about the ranching community. I know that I can count on our partners to stand up for conservationists and correct misunderstandings about wilderness and conservation within their networks as well. When we are advocates for one another, we can help break down the silos that keep us apart,” Cleveland said.
The story of the alliance is a rare one in our country’s political climate and offers a refreshing and spirited outlook on the future of agriculture and conservation.
“I’m really excited about this group because it’s a passion of mine. The relationship is special and unique. I attend many different group meetings, but the dynamics of this one is so respectful and honest.” Sandru said intense conversations can take place without anyone getting angry because it’s always done politely. “The things this group can tackle and solve are potentially off the charts. I really think it will go a long way.”