Conservation in Montana: The Chance of a Lifetime

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (MDNRC) has recently published three stories on Montana farmers and ranchers who have devoted a great deal of time and energy to conservation work. NACD would like to thank Linda Brander, a resource specialist for the Conservation Districts Bureau within MDNRC, for the opportunity to republish this story on our blog.

Story by John Grassy | Photography by Larry Mayer

Connie and Dick Iversen could only stand on the high bluff, watching and wondering when it might end. It was June of 2011, and down below them the Missouri River had reached a level of flooding no one had ever seen. For just the fifth time since its construction in the 1930s, the massive spillway on the Fort Peck Dam was open and releasing water. In the flood of 1975, a record 35,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) of water was released from the dam; in June of 2011, the flow would exceed 100,000 CFS at the Culbertson gauging station.

Dick and Connie Iversen look over farmland near Culberston that was flooded in 2011. Photo taken May 20, 2017.

Down from the bluff, 1,500 acres of the Iversen’s farm near Culbertson was under water. Their crops for that year were gone, 400 acres of sugar beets and 600 acres of malt barley, along with 400 acres of grazing land. The ranch road, the fencing, a center pivot and irrigation system – even an old homestead – all of it was submerged beneath the roiling, mud-colored water.

When they could finally get in to look around, Dick says, “It wasn’t the place we had before.”

“It was heart-wrenching,” Connie says.

Floodwaters had scoured out craters in the fields, some 20 feet deep and a quarter-mile long; in other areas were dune-like piles of sand 20 feet high. The sandy ground hampered recovery. “Once we could get in, we spent a month pushing dirt,” says Dick. “We got every kind of heavy equipment you can imagine stuck out there.”

As the initial phase of recovery got started, the couple faced difficult questions. “What do we do with this?” Connie says. “We didn’t know at first. How do we fix things? How do we pay for it?”

In early fall, they found the first important answer under their feet, spread over hundreds of acres. The flood had taken away plenty, but it had also given something: thousands of seedling cottonwood trees. The Iversens knew that native cottonwoods depended on flooding to recruit a new generation of forest. And on the Missouri River with its network of dams and reservoirs, a real flood was almost unheard of. Along their section of the river, “We had noticed cottonwoods were dying of old age and there wasn’t any new growth,” says Dick. “We thought, ‘this is our chance.’ We decided we better maintain what we had because we weren’t going to see it again in our lifetime. Whether we liked it or not, whether we could make money or not, it was important to leave some of those trees.”

Rachel Frost is a coordinator for the Missouri River Conservation Districts Council (MRCDC). In recent years, she says, the council has invested in programs that emphasize riparian areas – their importance to water quality, fish and wildlife, aesthetics, as well as their working functions for ranchers and farmers.

“Riparian areas belong to all of us,” says Rachel. “They’re important to people using rivers for recreation. They have a vital role in protecting water quality. In a broad sense, managing riparian grazing affects everyone in Montana. The council works with landowners to encourage best practices through providing the infrastructure, tools and technical assistance to do it right.”

One of those MRCDC programs, called Ranching for Rivers, offers 50 percent cost-share assistance for ranchers to develop their riparian pastures with improved fencing and other related infrastructure, such as water gaps and off-site water tanks. The program debuted in 2016 and the Iversens would be among the first ranchers to utilize it.

They knew they wanted to conserve a large portion of the young cottonwoods, but first they had to assess and reconfigure the whole property. The blueprint for their new operation took shape through 2012 and 2013 as they filled in the craters, hauled off the sand dunes, razed the old homestead and rebuilt their road and irrigation system. Much of their former cropland couldn’t be farmed; those areas were dedicated as new grazing land, or, in places where the young trees were abundant, set aside.

As lifelong conservationists, farmers and ranchers, Connie and Dick had a solid foundation of knowledge for the restoration plan, but they didn’t have everything they needed. “I did ask for help from people who knew about managing riparian areas, and also forestry,” Dick says. “We read as much as we could.”

By 2016, they were ready to install the new fencing. To best manage their cows’ grazing activities in the riparian areas, Connie and Dick established a series of smaller pastures, some of which included dense thickets of young trees. “With the smaller pastures, they can easily move cows in and out of riparian areas,” Rachel says. “In some areas with new trees the cows are completely excluded. In other pastures, grazing will be used to thin out some of the trees and promote development of forage – grasses, forbs, shrubs.” To compensate for the riverside areas that would be off-limits to cows, the Iversens installed a water tank.

The cost of the fencing and water improvements totaled nearly $30,000. The fencing was installed in May, and by August the Iversens had their 50 percent cost-share check from MRCDC. “It’s not a long application process and it’s not overly burdened with regulations,” Connie says. “It’s really tailored to producers. With the cost-share arrangement we got up and running in five years. Otherwise it could have been 10 or 15 years – or not at all.”

Frost says one advantage of a locally-driven program like Ranching for Rivers is flexibility.

“A lot of the federal programs are heavy on rules. Ranching for Rivers is a smaller, more adaptable program without those same types of stipulations. We allow the landowners to determine the best approach to managing their grazing.”

During the flood, Connie and Dick noticed how floodwaters impacted areas with healthy populations of willows, cottonwoods and native shrubs compared to areas where vegetative cover was absent. “Where there were trees, the riverbanks did much better – there was a lot less erosion,” says Dick. “As the new trees mature those areas are going to be more resilient.”

Since its inception, Ranching for Rivers has worked with nine landowners, eight of them on the Missouri River. The resulting changes in management activities will benefit more than eight miles of river corridor, reducing soil erosion, improving wildlife and fisheries habitats, and combating invasive weeds. Recreation and scenic values improve, as does the ability of landowners to manage their livestock and grazing.

Today on the Iversen’s place, those cottonwood trees delivered by the flood are twenty feet tall. Native grasses like cordgrass and Canadian wild rye, as well as native shrubs and forbs – which Dick says were never present before the flood – have come in. “I’ve always wondered what grasses and other plants Lewis and Clark saw when they came through,” Dick says. “We want to keep all of those native species in the understory.”

“In another 50 years this is going to be a pretty impressive sight,” Connie says. “It’s a miracle we were able to put this place back together.”

The author of this story, John Grassy, is a public information officer for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The photographer, Larry Mayer, works for the Billings Gazette Newspaper.

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