BOZEMAN, Mont. - In a state where cattle outnumber people, Wild Sky beef is a new company promoting wildlife-friendly ranching in the Northern Plains region.
An endeavor of the American Prairie Reserve, Wild Sky Beef hopes to inspire ranchers in eastern Montana to encourage wildlife and big game crossings on privately owned ranches through financial incentives. The goal is to create an environment where neighboring ranchers view wildlife as an asset rather than liability through the use of "soft boundaries" between the reserve and surrounding agricultural lands.
"When we talk about physical borders, it is really easy to think of that as a fence," says Hilary Parker, communications and outreach manager for the American Prairie Reserve. "The way we envision it is more of a sociological and geographical border. We see wildlife being able to move through permeable borders and encourage letting wildlife through so it can get into the core area of the reserve where they're more likely to stay."
The for-profit company sets aside a portion of beef sales to pay ranchers who modify operations in accordance with its biodiversity goals to promote wildlife-friendly ranching to preserve and conserve the Northern Plains. These goals are met with a health assessment tool called the Freese Scale, which evaluates how land management decisions impact ecological conditions both on and off the reserve. Each year, ranchers involved in the program are rated by reserve staff and a third-party evaluator on seven categories: no tilling, herbivore abundance, natural hydrology, landscape connection, carnivore compatibility, species of concern and ranch size.
The company also encourages wildlife friendly fences, which have a smooth barrier bottom raised 18 to 20 inches off the ground to allow pronghorn to pass. The top wire is similarly not as high, which prevents elk and mule deer from catching their heads and potentially starving.
"Instead of looking at an animal as a threat, a rancher can see it as a bonus," Parker says. "This program is using financial incentive to soften borers and make everyone winners."
Cattle makes up Montana's largest livestock industry, taking up 44 percent of the market in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Montana holds 5 percent of the nation's beef cows, with more than 1.5 million head. And with more than 28,000 farms and ranches across the state, the agricultural industry generated over $4.2 billion for all services in products in 2012.
"Montana has a proud ranching community," Parker says. "If we can pay a rancher in advance to accept a certain amount of loss and have them make their land act in a more wildlife friendly way so that wildlife can move in and out, we can then enact more natural migration patterns that are important to the ecosystem."
The American Prairie Reserve was founded in 2001 with an aim to preserve an ecosystem-size portion of grassland prairie. With an anticipated 3.5 million acres, the reserve will be the largest park in the Lower 48 - bigger than Glacier and Yellowstone combined.
"We realized that if we were going to put up this park in the middle of what is roughly 500,000 head of cattle, we needed to do it in a way that was sensitive to those cattle producers, and in a way that encouraged the breathability of the eventual border of the park," Parker says.