Montana’s Hahn family honored with Environmental Stewardship Award for enduring efforts to care for water, wildlife, soil and ranching business
“I hope they slow down every once in a while,” Chuck Hahn said, nodding at the steady line of boaters, anglers and campers streaming north to Canyon Ferry Lake.
He’s not talking about their speedometers, either.
“I just see people so rushed,” he said. “If they’d just take the time to slow down, look, observe, take what they see here into consideration, they’d see this all interacts together, and we’re all here to try and make things better.”
While a 360-degree view of their Townsend, Mont., ranch could probably flash through his mind in a millisecond of memories, the scope wouldn’t fit in a passenger window at 65 mph.
To the south, Deep Creek meanders west to its end in the Missouri River. It cuts its path from the east through the Big Belt Mountains, providing water for Blue-Ribbon fisheries, essential crop irrigation, recreation and stock water along the way. The gently sloping Elkhorn Mountain rises up to the west, where, thanks to conservation efforts in recent decades, the mountain island lives up to its name as a wildlife destination. There, the Hahn family’s cattle graze on the rangeland that holds its ground as open space buffering the public land from the subdivisions sprawled through the valley.
“The thing this family really understands is the kind of give and take that goes in to the bigger picture,” Denise Thompson said. “They understand there are going to be sacrifices, but the overall benefit and reward of these efforts outweigh the sacrifices.”
The Broadwater County Conservation District administrator helped recommend the Hahn Ranch as the 2018 Montana Environmental Stewardship Award winners. This summer, the family was recognized as the Region 5 Environmental Stewardship Award winners at the National Cattle Industry summer conference in Denver. Region 5 includes state winners from Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho and Washington. The award recognizes cattle ranchers who are exemplary stewards of the land, livestock, wildlife and natural resources.
In addition to cattle, the diverse family ranch supports hay, small grains and forage crop farming, a trucking company, and a pheasant hunting enterprise. The team included Chuck, his sons Dusty and Buck, his brother John Hahn, sister Bev Bird, her son Cory and his wife Jennilee and matriarch Dorothy Hahn.
The ranch also was nominated by collaborators with the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for their partnership on projects that have benefited fisheries and water quality on the ranch and for downstream users. But their conservation practices stretch far beyond the creek beds of the southwestern Montana ranch.
DEEP VALUES ON DEEP CREEK
“This really is the life blood to our main farming and ranching operation here, along with the Missouri River itself,” Dusty said, standing in nearly waist-high grass on the banks of Deep Creek. Between 1,000 and 3,000 brown trout annually migrate out of Deep Creek into the Missouri River. The waterway also provides irrigation and some stock water on the Hahn Ranch.
They’ve been working in partnership with the FWP, Natural Resources and Conservation Services, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, their local conservation district and other water users in the valley for nearly 30 years to improve the creek and re-establish it as a free-flowing tributary to the Missouri River.
In 1991, they were a part of the first of many efforts to get Deep Creek off the state Department of Environmental Quality’s list of impaired waters. The installation of the Montana Ditch siphon was one major step to restoring Deep Creek’s function as a nursery to and cold water refuge on this blue ribbon fishery.
“As we become more conservation minded all the time, we’re working harder and harder to improve water quality and water flow rates,” Dusty said. “That means we’re able to leave a little something more for downstream, and it’s of a higher quality. That’s just the right thing to do.”
Back when they started in 1991, there was an average of less than 10 brown trout spawning redds at many locations along the creek. In 2016, one location on the Hahn Ranch noted as many as 75 redds. More recent projects to relocate irrigation diversions and pumping has now tripled streamflow in a commonly dewatered reach of Deep Creek. All streams naturally increase in water temperature as water travels downstream, Spoon said. Deep Creek used to warm up by 8 degrees Fahrenheit in the lower 13 miles of stream, but now warms by 2.5 degrees as a result of changes with irrigation practices.
“Water is probably one of the most precious resources, especially in the West,” Dusty says. “So anything that we can do to conserve and enhance that resource, we’re interested in. It helps everybody along the watershed of the Missouri and ultimately that drains into the Mississippi, and that’s important for us as agriculturalists.”
Clean, cold, connected waters with healthy fisheries indicate a healthy watershed, which is a nod to those who manage the land and livestock around it, Spoon said: “Chuck and his family provide a valuable example of how a long-term ranching operation can simultaneously create agricultural products and foster clean water.”
The Hahns are quick to point out it’s a nod to the entire community.
He points back to the conservation district and FWP leaders they worked with, and the other landowners who came forward with the same patience to work through 25 years of negotiations and hard work to see an entire watershed blossom. It was recently the first of its kind to be removed from the DEQ’s “Total Maximum Daily Load” listing thanks to its plan to reduce nonpoint source sediment pollution.
OVERTAKEN BUT NOT OVERWHELMED
That’s one way to describe the events caused by the wave of floodwater in the valley in the 1950s. Canyon Ferry Lake was formed with the completion of the Canyon Ferry Dam in 1954. It flooded the small town of Canton and 37 ranches along the Missouri River, including the 1,100 acres Chuck’s grandfather, Stephen Arnold Douglas Hahn, had established in 1908.
Today, the recreation destination is the third largest body of water in Montana, and the source of much of the traffic that passes by on the busy Highway 287. Chuck’s parents, Paul and Dorothy, purchased a fresh 347 acres after the original ranch was condemned, and they started over.
“To say that was a devastating time for many ranchers in the valley would be an understatement,” Thompson says. “But somehow, they made it a positive and came out stronger.”
Half a century later, the family saw another man-made surge threatening the area.
“This valley has grown so fast because we’re so close to population areas and it’s an attractive area for recreation,” Chuck said.
Subdivision and development were sprawling out from the lake and surrounding areas, threatening grazing lands and cherished open landscapes.
In 1998, the ranch enrolled in Broadwater County’s first conservation easement with the FWP to maintain 1,680 acres for agricultural purposes in perpetuity. The land sits next to the nationally unique Elkhorn Wildlife Management Unit and now provides a critical link between blocks of federal land to prevent further urban development.
“If we’re not able to have a viable land base for livestock grazing, we’re going to be seeing a lot more of these arid landscapes being put into development,” Chuck said. “So the easement keeps those areas open, and it gives us a chance to have our grazing.”
The easement allowed the ranch to expand a more efficient rest-rotational grazing system between their private and publicly leased ground, while also providing financial flexibility for expansion, allowing more family members to have a place on the ranch.
GRAZING FOR DIVERSITY ABOVE AND BELOW GROUND
“When we’re up there gathering the cattle, we find elk in the same area as the cattle,” Dusty says. “They tend to follow them around and graze the regrowth that the cattle had grazed down, so it’s definitely a mutually beneficial relationship.”
They’ve been enrolled in the Block Management Program for nearly 25 years, where each year, the FWP estimates 900 hunter days are recorded on the Hahn Ranch to pursue elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, white-tailed deer, black bear, mountain lion and upland bird.
“This wide diversity of wildlife indicates how well the land and vegetative communities occurring on the Hahn Ranch are being managed as a whole,” FWP Conservation Technician Fred Jakubowski said.
The family has further diversified by raising pheasants and offering a shooting preserve.
“It’s nice to be able to share a little of this open space with people who aren’t so lucky to have that every day. By allowing hunters to come out and see our operation, we hope it helps educate people as to what we’re doing and how things work,” Chuck said. “Hopefully, that interaction between us and them gives them a much brighter picture of the agriculture operations around the state.”
They’ve adapted their farming practices to take care of the biodiversity underground, too. They grow both cash crops and forage crops to extend their grazing season, allow for longer rest periods on the rangeland and enhance the health of their farmed soil. After hay barley is baled, a combination of radishes and turnips are planted to burrow into the ground and break up soil compaction. In other rotations or fields, legumes like peas are planted to naturally add nitrogen back into the soil. In both scenarios, incorporating cattle grazing into the cropping system is essential to its success.
This goes beyond the borders of the ranch. Jim Beck, the association supervisor at the Broadwater Conservation District, works with Chuck on the management of public lands, where he’s eager to share ideas about improving soil health and wildlife habitat there, too.
“He’s helped us with soil health and transforming non-productive land into productive land, and then into agriculturally productive land as well,” Beck said.
“Longevity is what makes an impact,” Thompson said. “It’s folks who are willing to hunker in for the long haul and build relationships with agencies or partners or different land owners who get things done; short term work doesn’t get big picture things done.”
“It’s what I’ve relied on my whole life, to be patient, to be steady. You’re always trying to swing for that home run, but you rarely hit it,” Chuck said. “So instead, you hit singles and keep loading the bases, keep things coming in and getting a little better one step at a time. Patience is just knowing what we look around and see here took millions of years, and we’re just a snap of a finger in it all.” F
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