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A CHANGE

IN TENOR
Holistic ranchers aim for harmony with the land and its occupants,
and that means finding common ground, not common enemies
BY JEFF WELSCH
PHOTOGRAPHY BY THOMAS LEE

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O

n a sun-drenched early summer morning,

Bryan
Ulring and Hannibal Anderson are standing
shin-deep in Timothy grass, the mountains of
Yellowstone National Park less than 3 miles
away, while roughly 40 black Angus cattle
huddle curiously around a rotted carcass. The men start to
discuss the most recent “big event.”
A few days earlier, a neighbor just down the gravel road in
Tom Miner Basin—a classic Montana movie backdrop—shot
and killed the alpha male of the Steamboat wolf pack, which
had roamed the basin and denned there without incident for
several years. The wolf had wandered by the wrong person at
the wrong time.
Such news can still elicit accolades at watering holes in the
Northern Rockies, but not on this ranch. And not on a growing
number of spreads across Montana where ranchers are evolving
to more holistic thinking toward their land, water and wildlife—
and discovering, perhaps counter-intuitively, that ecological and

economic prosperity aren’t mutually exclusive after all.
In the process, they’re embracing a third and unexpected
reward: enhanced quality of life in a business where tunnel
vision toward the financial bottom line has long meant a dawnto-past-dark, week-to-week, season-to-season grind.
“When you’re holistic you’re always thinking about the
ecological benefits but simultaneously about making money and
quality of life,” says Ulring, a Rapid City, South Dakota, native
who co-owns Yellowstone Grassfed Beef, which is counting on
consumers who value wild places and wildlife to pay a little
more for healthy beef raised in healthy environs. “If you’re working 18 hours a day and you’re always on a treadmill of reaction,
that’s not very fulfilling, it’s not very sustainable and it’s really
not financially sustainable.”
Yellowstone Grassfed Beef, co-founded with Ulring by
Rockefeller heir Peggy Dulany and fifth-generation Montana
rancher Zachary Jones, is on the leading edge of what Ulring
calls “an experiment,” but YGB isn’t alone.

Kathleen McConkey herds cattle to a new patch of grazing on the
Twodot Land and Livestock Company south of Harlowton. McConkey
says they use horses on the ranch because they are more precise,
slower, quieter and more selective than four-wheelers.

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Stuart Phelps, left, and his partner, Kathleen McConkey, look over the ranch grazing plan before heading out for their day’s work. They keep track of grass
growth, weather, water quantity and other data.

Some 300 miles to the northeast, where grasslands and tilled
fields extend to distant horizons, the American Prairie Reserve’s
ambitious effort to preserve and restore a vast “American
Serengeti” of native prairie includes its fledgling Wild Sky Beef
program. Participating ranchers are setting aside entrenched
suspicions about conservationists and accepting monetary incentives to conduct wildlife-friendly, premium beef operations.
At Yellowstone Grassfed Beef and Wild Sky Beef, holistic means not only coexisting with wildlife but also monitoring
soil, water, vegetation and, in Ulring’s case, even cow patties.
When he walks through a pasture at one of the four Montana
ranches where YGB’s cattle are raised, he routinely bends down
and flips over a crusty chip in hopes that it’ll be crawling with
dung beetles, a prime food source for the struggling sage grouse,
among other species.
“It’s a different lens,” explains Anderson, a longtime educator who in retirement has returned to the property his father
bought in 1955. “Humans are pretty linear. We’ve simplified
systems to get the results we want and know. Now we’re shifting

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from linear to results-oriented. It’s a set of relationships more
than just a fiscal bottom line.”
Cattle ranching is fraught with peril. Disease, drought, lightning, stray dogs, coyotes, eagles and even modern-day twolegged rustlers stealing $1,200-a-head calves. And then there
are the costs of nurturing cattle from birth to the slaughterhouse:
planting, irrigating and harvesting hay and other forage; antibiotics for disease in crowded feedlots; hormones to promote rapid
growth; and herbicides to kill invasive weeds.
Eradicating nuisance wildlife, especially predators, has been
as much a part of the ranching regimen as barbed-wire fences,
lonely windmills and American-made pickup trucks.
Yet the thinking has shifted dramatically at the American
Prairie Reserve and at Yellowstone Grassfed Beef, where two of
the ranches, the Anderson place in Tom Miner Basin and the
20,000-acre J Bar L Ranch in the remote Centennial Valley
along the Montana-Idaho border, accept wolves and grizzly
bears as part of the complex landscape.
In fact, news of the alpha male’s death is unsettling.

The Steamboat wolves have survived for years on the region’s
healthy elk population and, as Anderson put it, “have been wellbehaved.” From his 1879 Victorian stone home, he even occasionally sees them wander past the cattle without causing undue
stress and the weight loss associated with it.
Removing a leader creates pack dysfunction that could
cause younger wolves to go rogue and seek other prey. Anderson
and the other hands, including the range riders who provide a
human barrier between predators and cattle, will need greater
vigilance.
“People see a wolf and their automatic reaction is they want
to get rid of it,” Anderson said, shaking his head. “They never
see the bigger picture.”

F

Yellowstone Grassfed Beef, that picture is crystallized by Hilary Zaranek, Hannibal’s daughter-inlaw and the resident predator expert. After earning
a degree in wildlife biology from the University of
Montana and volunteering with the Yellowstone Wolf
Project, Zaranek spent a summer in Tom Miner, where she met
Hannibal’s son and her future husband, Andrew Anderson.
“I’m not sure the alpha male being killed changes their
or

vulnerability,” she said of the cattle. As long as the alpha female
remains alive, she explains, “[She] will determine pack structure. When the alpha female is killed, 97 percent of the time
the pack will dissolve and the younger wolves won’t have food
sources [so they might prey on cattle].”
Andrew and Hilary split their time between Tom Miner
and the J Bar L about 100 miles to the southwest, in the heart
of the remote Centennial Valley, where full-time residents can
be counted on two hands. The Centennial is about 50 miles
long and not half that wide, bounded on the north and south by
mountains and, at 6,700 feet on the valley floor, inaccessible by
wheeled vehicles much of the year. Thousands of cattle graze on
its forbs and grasses, yet the Centennial also serves as a critical
wildlife thoroughfare between Greater Yellowstone and the wilds
of central Idaho and northwest Montana.
As Ulring gently herds summering cattle that have managed
to escape a Centennial Valley pasture enclosed with a white,
single-wire portable “hot” fence, he spies a cow patty. He kicks
it upside-down to reveal a pungent, moist underside where
hundreds of dung beetles are scurrying about, startled by the
sudden exposure. From under his cowboy hat, Ulring looks up
and nods in approval.
He points to an area of knee-high grass nearby, a breeding

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lek where sage grouse perform their flamboyant mating rituals.
Grouse are candidates for listing under the Endangered Species
Act because of shrinking populations due to habitat loss.
“We’re thinking about sage grouse, we’re thinking about
trumpeter swans,” Ulring said. “We’re thinking even more
about dung beetles. If you go into a pasture and two weeks after
the cows are removed the pies are gone, it means you’re feeding wildlife. If people can make a living with nature rather than
against it …”
When Peggy Dulany came upon the Centennial in 2000, after
a dusty 56-mile ride on dirt roads, she was on a lengthy search
for open spaces and a place to raise a small cattle herd. She saw
range and stream banks so denuded and eroded that the federal
Bureau of Land Management had placed rigid restrictions on
public grazing allotments. But Dulany was nevertheless smitten
by the solitude at altitude.
“The Centennial was one of the remaining valleys with wideopen spaces that animals could cross,” she said. “It’s also still
almost totally an agricultural valley of high mountain grass, which
is the most nutritious. And then, of course, there’s the beauty.”
Dulany, a philanthropist who took her surname from her
mother’s side of the family to minimize the perceptions of privilege attached to the Rockefeller label, spent a year acquainting
herself with the landscape before purchasing cattle. A visiting
friend told her about an innovative program called conservation beef: paying ranchers a premium of 10 cents more a pound
(it’s much higher now as conservation-minded beefeaters learn
about the program) to raise cattle in a wildlife-friendly way
while improving the range. For economic diversity, Dulany also
restored three crumbling homesteads on the ranch and turned
them into vacation rentals.
“So the idea gradually took shape,” she said. “It was in part
because I believe in doing it that way, in part because I came
to believe in the economic viability, and maybe in part because
I came to believe if I could do it and was willing to risk new
things to see if it could work, then maybe other people would see
what we’re doing and be interested in some of the same things.”
In 2007, Dulany hired Ulring, a Montana State University
business graduate who was running a fly-fishing program for a
travel company at the time. Ulring always had a passion for agriculture from visiting his grandparents’ farm in South Dakota.
They, along with Jones of the Twodot Land and Livestock Co.
near Harlowton, created Yellowstone Grassfed Beef, which
turned its first profit in 2013.
Ulring and Jones were—and remain—avowed disciples of
Allen Savory, a Zimbabwean ecologist who had once been vehemently anti-livestock. Savory evolved to believe that managing
domestic livestock to mimic historic patterns of native animals,
such as bison, was the only solution for reversing range damage
caused, ironically, by livestock. Jones cofounded the Savory

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Portable electric fencing is used to confine grazing animals to the
intended piece of pasture on the Twodot.

Institute in Boulder, Colorado, which is dedicated to promoting
“large-scale restoration of the world’s grasslands through holistic
management.”
Following Savory’s methods, Yellowstone Grassfed Beef
rotates more than 1,000 head of cattle between four ranches and
keeps them for at least two years before sending them to slaughter, compared to as little as 14 months for traditional operations.
Almost all mother cows are kept at the undulating 12,000acre Twodot Ranch, where calving takes place in May and June,
to emulate the patterns of native ungulates and avoid the misery
of cold-weather calving, and where the young animals are far
from Yellowstone’s large predators and its prevalence of brucellosis. Weaned calves spend their first winter in Twin Bridges.
As yearlings, they spend the summer in the Centennial before

Phelps leaps
a small creek
toward a herd
of heifers and
steers, grazing
in a riparian
area. Holistic
ranching
doesn’t
exclude
riparian areas
from grazing,
Phelps says.
Rather,
animals graze
and move
on quickly,
allowing
healthy grass
growth, but
not damaging
the stream
banks.

returning to Twin Bridges for one more winter. Steers and spayed
heifers are “finished” by gaining up to three pounds per day on
the nutritious grasses in Tom Miner, weighing as much as 1,200
pounds when they go to market.
Copious spreadsheets detail range conditions and other vital
signs. In the Tom Miner and the Centennial, cattle are rotated
frequently within those single-strand electric fences, which are
powered by small solar panels.
The results? Ulring points to a four- to five-fold increase in
grass density in the Centennial, notes a relaxing of the BLM’s
grazing restrictions, and directs a visitor toward Peet Creek,
where vegetation is returning to eroded banks.
Equally important, working within nature’s rhythms is
enabling the company to write its bottom line—and quality of
life—in black.
“We’re making money and the land is telling us what we’re
doing is good and we’re producing meat that’s good for people,”
Ulring said. “We’re moving cattle between four counties and it
sounds like a hell of a lot of work, but it’s not. It’s different work.
We spend more time herding and less time doctoring.”
Added Anderson: “It’s just a more satisfying
place to be. You feel better.”
That’s reassuring news to Mike Phillips, executive director of

media mogul Ted Turner’s Endangered Species Fund in
Bozeman. Most of the prime wildlife habitat in the West, he
points out, is in private hands. The future of wolves, grizzly
bears and other iconic species ultimately rests on landowner
attitudes.
“Private lands can do more for imperiled species conservation,” Phillips said. “Diversification on wild working landscapes
is also a great way to ensure increasing the health of rural
economies.”
Nonetheless, there are skeptics and critics among conservationists and ranchers alike.

“T

West
is about the worst place you could
choose for a livestock operation—if
you were to do a full accounting of
the real economic and environmental
costs,” says George Wuerthner, author of Welfare Ranching: The
Subsidized Destruction of the American West.
Wuerthner rattles off a litany of issues: Prolific use of scarce
water supplies to irrigate hay fields. Trampling of streamside
vegetation. Compacting of soil, which reduces water filtration.
he problem is that the arid

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Competition with wildlife for forage. Spread of weeds and
diseases in native wildlife.
Wuerthner adds that the J Bar L and ranches like it are
“a fluke, so to speak,” because they have the resources to
experiment.
Not everybody sees it that way. Michelle Fox, a fifth-generation rancher and a member of the Gros Ventre Indian tribe,
certainly doesn’t count herself among the resource-rich—at
least financially. Her family raises cattle on Peoples Creek near
Hays on the impoverished Fort Belknap Reservation in northcentral Montana.
The Foxes are among the four cattle-ranching operations that
have joined American Prairie Reserve’s Wild Sky Beef program
to date. They signed up in 2014, after spending a year discussing whether they could meet Wild Sky’s biodiversity-oriented
parameters, and became fully integrated into the program this
past summer.
Though the partnership meant her children could no longer
plink at prairie dogs with .22 rifles for sport, Fox opted in without the deep suspicions shared by some neighbors who believe
APR’s agenda is to banish them from lands they’ve ranched
for generations. She values APR’s mission to create a naturally functioning 3.5-million-acre prairie reserve, primarily by
purchasing private lands and working with managers of adjacent
public lands.
“First and foremost, it’s a business decision,” Fox said. “But
I think we’re natural conservationists by birth, and ranching on
the Indian reservation...we’re much more communal. We have to
take care of the land because it’s all we have left.”
The genesis of Wild Sky Beef was a visit by APR President
Sean Gerrity to southern Africa. He saw models for “predatorfriendly beef” in places where conservationists and ranchers
had long been at odds. Gerrity envisioned a similar concept
succeeding on the reserve.
“We had to find a way to work with our ranching neighbors,”
says Laura Huggins, Wild Sky’s director of business development and marketing.
After a year, and without a major marketing push, Wild Sky
is in about 70 outlets nationwide and averaging $85,000 per
week in sales touting its “wildlife-friendly beef” label, Huggins
said. APR Managing Director Pete Geddes said Wild Sky Beef
is typically priced about 5 percent higher than “other natural,
grass feed and finished beef products.” The early focus has been
on the east and west coasts, “just because they have a little bit
more discretionary income to buy higher-priced beef,” Huggins
adds. But Wild Sky recently signed an agreement with the
200-store Meijer grocery chain in Michigan.
Huggins said Wild Sky hopes to have as many as 50 ranchers on board within the next three years, but the program
will always have to acquire cattle from producers across the

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Peggy Dulany
owns the J Bar L
Ranch in Montana’s
Centennial Valley.

northern Great Plains—all from operations with similar holistic
philosophies.
“There just aren’t enough cattle in that part of Montana,”
Geddes said, adding that increasing the number of participating
ranches will at the same time require APR to raise the money to
support paying them.
At the Fox ranch, Michelle’s family has learned to appreciate
the prairie dog, an ecologically important species traditionally
shot or poisoned. As for finances, they recently purchased her
aunt’s ranch after living and working on it for three years. With
the help of Wild Sky money—payments for wildlife-friendly
improvements, plus the higher price they get for their cattle—
they have rebuilt three miles of fencing that allows pronghorn
antelope to pass beneath it, raised a metal barn and built a
greenhouse.
“One cool thing is we’re now seeing antelope cross between
the [tribal] buffalo pasture and our ranch,” Fox said.
Also cool?
“I don’t know any other way to say it, but Indian cattle are
getting the same prices as non-Indian cattle,” Fox said, citing

a historic disparity at auctions. “Our beef is raised on the Fort
Belknap Reservation and it is going places it’s never gone
before. It’s really cool.”
Given the success of the three-legged stool of ecology,
economics, and quality of life, the question arises: Why aren’t
more ranchers involved? Ulring and Fox say traditions die hard
in the culture. Many fear the financial risk. Others are simply
content with the status quo. Yet they see change coming.
“Ten years down the road,” Fox said, “It’s going to look very
different.”
Ulring recalls a predator presentation by Zaranek to ranchers
in Dillon. Zaranek’s approach, rooted in the belief that the West
is a better place with both ranchers and predators thriving on
the landscape, is simply to share the J Bar L’s success stories.
“Killing wolves hasn’t made any impact whatsoever,” she told
the crowd. “Even when you kill wolves more wolves come. It’s
better to know the wolves we have and make it work. We know
where they den and we know where we should put cattle. So far,
everything we’ve tried has worked.”
The reaction, Ulring said, was “unbelievably receptive.”
Whether holistic beef ranching succeeds, though, ultimately
will depend on the American consumer, Ulring and Fox agree.
“From an economic standpoint, I wish people would put their

money where their mouth is more often,” Ulring said. “If you
love wolves and wild places, pay what it costs to raise animals
here. Everybody gets to vote with what they eat.”
To make that easier, Yellowstone Grassfed Beef offers
free delivery in the Bozeman and Livingston areas and offers
its products in stores from Lewistown to Columbia Falls to
Yellowstone National Park, in restaurants and the University of
Montana’s dining halls (see www.yellowstonegrassfedbeef.com
for more information).

U

Tom Miner, Ulring and Hannibal Anderson
move closer to the cattle and what turns out to
be the hair and stripped bones of a deer, cause
of death unknown. High above, on a grassy
hillside, an elk herd emerges from a forest of
aspen and fir. Mountain bluebirds flit in the breezes. Ulring is
gratified to see the cattle so tightly compact and alert around the
carcass, all part of Zaranek’s training.
“Like bison mob grazing,” he said.
They move through the cattle, ruminate about “big events,”
and pause every so often to absorb surroundings they’re now
filtering with hope, landscape seen through a new lens.
p in

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